A touchdown is a scoring play in both American and Canadian football. Whether running, passing, returning a kickoff or punt, or recovering a turnover, a team scores a touchdown by advancing the ball into the opponent's end zone.
To score a touchdown, one team must take the football into the opposite end zone. In all gridiron codes, the touchdown is scored the instant the ball touches or "breaks" the plane of the goal line (that is, if any part of the ball is in the space on, above, or across the goal line) while in possession of a player whose team is trying to score in that end zone. This particular requirement of the touchdown is the exact opposite of the prerequisite to score most sports in which points are scored by moving a ball or equivalent object into a goal where the whole of the relevant object must cross the whole of the goal line for a score to be awarded. The play is dead and the touchdown scores the moment the ball touches plane in possession of a player, or the moment the ball comes into possession of an offensive player in the end zone (having established possession by controlling the ball and having one or both feet depending on the rules of the league or another part of the body, excluding the hands, touch the ground). The slightest part of the ball touching or being directly over the goal line is sufficient for a touchdown to score. However, only the ball counts, not a player's helmet, foot, or any other part of the body. Touching one of the pylons at either end of the goal line with the ball constitutes "breaking the plane" as well.
Touchdowns are usually scored by the offense by running or passing the ball. The former is called a rushing touchdown, and in the latter, the quarterback throws a touchdown pass or passing touchdown to the receiver, who makes a touchdown reception. However, the defense can also score a touchdown if they have recovered a fumble or made an interception and return it to the opposing end zone. Special teams can score a touchdown on a kickoff or punt return, or on a return after a missed or blocked field goal attempt or blocked punt. In short, any play in which a player legally carries the ball across the goal line scores a touchdown, and the manner in which he gained possession is inconsequential. In the NFL, a touchdown may be awarded by the referee as a penalty for a "palpably unfair act," such as a player coming off the bench during a play and tackling the runner, who would otherwise have scored.
A touchdown is worth six points. The scoring team is also awarded the opportunity for an extra point or a two-point conversion. Afterwards, the team that scored the touchdown kicks off to the opposing team, if there is any time left.
Unlike a try scored in rugby, and contrary to the event's name, the ball does not need to touch the ground when the player and the ball are inside the end zone. The term touchdown is a holdover from gridiron's early days when the ball was required to be touched to the ground as in rugby, as rugby and gridiron were still extremely similar sports at this point. This rule was changed to the modern-day iteration in 1889.
When the first uniform rules for American football were enacted by the newly formed Intercollegiate Football Association following the 1876 Rugby season, a touchdown counted for of a kicked goal (except in the case of a tie) and allowed the offense the chance to kick for goal by placekick or dropkick from a spot along a line perpendicular to the goal line and passing through the point where the ball was touched down, or through a process known as a "punt-out", where the attacking team would kick the ball from the point where it was touched down to a teammate. If the teammate could fair catch the ball, he could follow with a try for goal from the spot of the catch, or resume play as normal (in an attempt to touch down the ball in a spot more advantageous for kicking). The governing rule at the time read: "A match shall be decided by a majority of touchdowns. A goal shall be equal to four touchdowns; but in case of a tie a goal kicked from a touchdown shall take precedence over four touchdowns."
The ability to score a touchdown on the point-after attempt (two-point conversion) was added to NCAA football in 1958, high school football in 1969, the CFL in 1975 and the NFL in 1994. The short-lived World Football League, a professional American football league that operated in 1974 and 1975, gave touchdowns a 7-point value.