open-air game involving kicking a ball, c. 1400; in reference to the inflated ball used in the game, mid-14c. ("Þe heued fro þe body went, Als it were a foteballe," Octavian I manuscript, c. 1350), from foot (n.) + ball (n.1). Forbidden in a Scottish statute of 1424. One of Shakespeare's insults is "you base foot-ball player" [Lear I.iv]. Ball-kicking games date back to the Roman legions, at least, but the sport seems first to have risen to a national obsession in England, c. 1630. Figurative sense of "something idly kicked around, something subject to hard use and many vicissitudes" is by 1530s.
Rules of the game first regularized at Cambridge, 1848; soccer (q.v.) split off in 1863. The U.S. style (known to some in England as "stop-start rugby with padding") evolved gradually 19c.; the first true collegiate game is considered to have been played Nov. 6, 1869, between Princeton and Rutgers, at Rutgers, but the rules there were more like soccer. A rematch at Princeton Nov. 13, with the home team's rules, was true U.S. football. Both were described as foot-ball at Princeton.
Then twenty-five of the best players in college were sent up to Brunswick to combat with the Rutgers boys. Their peculiar way of playing this game proved to Princeton an insurmountable difficulty; .... Two weeks later Rutgers sent down the same twenty-five, and on the Princeton grounds, November 13th, Nassau played her game; the result was joyous, and entirely obliterated the stigma of the previous defeat. ["Typical Forms of '71" by the Princeton University Class of '72, 1869]
1710, "a downward movement," from down (adv.). Football sense of "an attempt to advance the ball" is by 1882.