Football fans seldom think about hash marks. Some don’t realize hash marks are positioned at different distances from the sideline at the high school, college, and professional levels, yet the introduction of hash mark ranks among the most important innovations in the history of football. If that statement seems far-fetched, imagine watching a football game played on a field without hash marks. Where would the referee spot the ball when the ball carrier is tackled near the sideline or runs out of bounds? If either of those events occurred in the red zone, from what spot would a team attempt a field goal?

Fans watching football in the old days did not need to imagine football without hash marks because sixty-four years of football passed before the lowly hash mark was first chalked on a gridiron in 1933. Initially, each play began wherever the previous play ended. As shown in the image below of a Yale game during the 1904-1909 checkerboard field era, the teams aligned near the sideline when the previous play ended there. If the ball was placed far enough from the sideline to allow the offensive team to align in their regular or balanced formation, they did so and ran their normal plays. Having the sideline nearby constrained their play calling to that side so their primary option to gain significant ground was to run away from the sideline. Of course, the defenders understood the situation and overplayed to the wide side of the field.

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Lockney Lines are the short lines running parallel to the yard lines that supplement the original hash marks intersecting the yard lines.

Lockney then convinced the University of Wisconsin to add his lines for a nationally televised game against Rice in 1954. There was only one college game televised each week at the time, so the game between the #3 Badgers and the #11 Owls drew a large TV audience and the Lockney Lines were a hit once again. Television viewers, announcers and others praised the innovation and the word spread. Lockney Lines began appearing here and there with the Green Bay Packers adopting Lockney Lines in 1955. The college rules committee made them mandatory for the 1956 season.

The striping on football fields has seen little change since 1955, though painted logos now adorn midfield and the 20-yard lines, decorated end zones abound, and virtual first down lines and logos now appear for the television audience, but the lowly hash mark has stood the test of time. And it changed the game of football along the way.

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Sources

Klein, Christopher. ‘The Bizarre History of the NFL’s First Title Game,’ History.com, January 29, 2015. Accessed February 9, 2018: http://www.history.com/news/the-bizarre-history-of-the-nfls-first-title-game

‘Bernie Bierman to Ask Big Ten Sideline Rule,’ Star Tribune (Minneapolis), January 21, 1933.

‘Football Sideline Rule Adopted, and Clipping Penalty Reduced,’ Star Tribune (Minneapolis), February 13, 1933.

‘To Experiment with Novel Football Field Layout Plan Tonight,’ Waukesha Daily Freeman, September 17, 1954.

‘Unique Grid Layout at Waukesha Praised,’ Waukesha Freeman, September 19, 1954.

‘Lockney’s ‘Lines’ Get More Favorable Comments; Big Ten May Adopt Unique Marking System,’ Waukesha Freeman, October 30, 1954.

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‘Memorial Has Largest Football Turnout Ever,’ Waukesha Freeman, August 31, 1955.