American Football 101

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Are you still trying to understand American football? With the Super Bowl coming up on February 3 we’re here to explain everything you need to know to understand the game.

This article was written by guest writer Janice Levi, International Services Coordinator at the University of Oklahoma, College of International Studies. 

“Why do Americans call it football? They don’t even use their foot?” is a common reaction to American Football by internationals, not fútbol the sport Americans call “soccer.”  However, American Football is one of the most popular sports in the United States and garners the support of millions of fans.  In fact, in some parts of the country football is considered the number one religion, referring to the fact that more people watch football on Sundays than attend church, or another faith-based venue.  With the Super Bowl just days away, below are a few basic things you should know about American Football.

Player punting the footballImage provided by
Player punting the football
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1. The foot

To get the question of the “foot” out of the way, and if Americans use it for the sport they call football, the answer is: Yes.  However, the foot is only used for two purposes in the game: for the punt/kickoff and for field goals.  The punt or kickoff, is at the beginning of each half, after a touchdown, or when required to turn the ball over to the other team.  A field goal kick is when the team is trying to score additional points, whether after a touchdown has been made or if they are within reach of making a field goal on a fourth down.


2. The very basics

Two teams play football.  Each team is allowed 11 players to be on the field at a single time.  The mission of the game is to carry the football into their opponent’s end zone in order to get a touchdown, which requires pushing past the opposing team.  The offense is the team that has the ball and the defense is the team that is trying to block the ball from getting into their end zone (which is behind them).  The defense is also hoping for a chance to take the ball away.  The game is a back and forth of switching between offense and defense and attempting to make touchdowns and ultimately win the game.


Football being kicked for a field goal. Image provided by
Football being kicked for a field goal.
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3. Calculating the points

A touchdown is the goal of each play and the quickest way to rack up the points in order to win the game.  A touchdown is worth 6 points.  However, there are a few other ways to make points.

Touchdown=6 points (when a team completes a pass or runs the football into the end zone)

Extra point=1 point (Kicking a field goal through the goal posts after a touchdown)

Two point conversion= 2 points (essentially making another touchdown by getting the football in the end zone by either running it in, or throwing a successful pass)

Field goal= 3 points (If the offense successfully kicks the football through the goal posts.  This is usually attempted on a fourth down).

Safety=2 points (when the an offensive player is tackled in their own end zone)


4. Moving the ball…

When watching football, you will hear a lot of new vocabulary.  But, something you will keep hearing is the word “down.”  The commentator of the game, and the scoreboard, will let you know what “down” it is.  In other words, is it “first down,” “second down,” “third down,” or “fourth down?”  Plays are made but they have four chances to move the ball at least 10 yards (each “down” representing a “play”).  The “downs” determine how many chances the team has had within a 10-yard length.  If a touchdown isn’t made, then you want a “first down,” because that means that the ball has been moved far enough to keep attempting to make a touchdown.  If the team reaches a “fourth down” then they will either have to try for a field goal (if close enough to the end zone) or will have to turn the ball over to the opposing team.

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Beyonce will perform at Super Bowl 47
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5. Duration

The game of football is separated into 4 quarters and 2 halves (2 quarters in each half).  A coin is flipped at the beginning of the game to determine who has the ball at the start of the first half.  Then at the start of the second half the other team will start with the football.  Half time is the same length as a quarter, but filled with entertainment whether it is a marching band, cheerleader performance, or in the case of the Super Bowl, famous singers (this year Beyonce will be performing).


6. Touchdown!

When the team you are supporting makes a touchdown, it’s time to celebrate!  And most football players also are excited and have their own football victory dance!  So, be sure to high five your friends and cross your fingers that your team gets those extra points (extra point or two-point conversion). Watch the video below to see some victory dances.


7. The Super Bowl

The football showdown of all showdowns, the Super Bowl is the national title for the National Football League (NFL).  You can watch the Super Bowl this Sunday, February 3, 2013 on CBS.  The college equivalent of the Super Bowl is the BCS National Championship.

San Francisco and Baltimore will play in Super Bowl 47 Image provided by
San Francisco and Baltimore will play in Super Bowl 47
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2 thoughts on “American Football 101

  1. thanks so much for writing this article! I’m sure that most international students now have a better understanding of the game of football!

  2. Thank you very much for this article, really I like soccer since I was 5 years old,but when I came to US (Alabama) I like football more than soccer right now. We are BCS National Championship ROLLLLLL Tideeeeeeeeeeeeee

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