Wednesday, January 10, 2007

A Forgotten Milestone: 100 Years of the Forward Pass

Now that the farce that is the B.C.S. has come to a merciful end, I'd like to take the time to celebrate a forgotten anniversary which went unrecorded by sports commentators: 2006 was the centennial of college football legalizing the use of the forward pass in football.

Let's think about that for a moment. Imagine from 1869 to 1906, there was no such thing as passing in college or pro football (yes, there was professional football in the late 19th and early 20th centuries but the NFL wouldn't be born until 1921). Football in its salad days was strictly a running and kicking game more like Rugby than the football we know and love today.

College football grew out of the Northeast (the Ivy League was the cynosure of power when it came to football and would remain so until the 1920's) and filtered slowly throughout the Midwest, South, and the West. The Big Ten conference didn't start making a name for itself until the turn of the 20th century. The South started its own football programs in earnest during the 1910's and it was during the 1920's that colleges in Texas and other Southwestern states began to take up football and it was until after World War Two that Texas and Oklahoma would field squads that would dominate college football. There were no Bowl games. (The first Rose Bowl game was played in 1902. The other Bowl games weren't established until much later).

Even the players' names were unique for that era, imagine rhapsodizing over the gridiron skills of such pigskin luminaries like Pudge Heffelfinger, Willie Heston, or Walter Eckersall? These are not made up names but real players, all of whom were legends of the pre-forward pass era of college football.

Football during the pre-forward pass era was a strange game. Players didn't wear helmets but grew thick shocks of long hair to protect their heads. (If you look at photos of football players during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were quite a shaggy lot). Padding was rather skimpy and some players did without pads altogether. Some colleges utilized weird formations not seen today like the V-formation or the Flying Wedge (either because they were later banned or else they became impractical to today's game). A football team could earn a first down merely by going five yards in three downs. Even the kicking game would be seen as odd by today's standards. Field goals could be scored by drop-kicking as well as place-kicking. (Indeed the football of 1906 was more conducive to running and kicking than it was for passing. The football was larger and plumper which made holding it to pass more difficult but made it easier to drop-kick). This writer has read several anecdotal tales of extraordinary drop-kicking feats. In fact if a player drop-kicked a field goal past a certain distance, his team could receive four points instead of the customary three.

One would think that having no forward passing would have made college football a rather low-scoring game. Interestingly that was not the case. Some college teams could wrack up point totals unheard of in today's game. The Michigan Wolverines once beat Buffalo University 128-0 in a game played in 1901. (The record for most points scored by a team in a college football game is 222 scored by Georgia Tech against Cumberland University in 1916). And yet defenses were more devastating than they are today. It was not uncommon for college football teams to hold their opponents scoreless for an entire season. (The last NCAA Division I team to do so was Duke University in 1939??? I believe if I'm not mistaken?) Indeed, in 1905, Michigan once had a five year unbeaten streak snapped by the University of Chicago who won by the score of 2-0.

Still, by 1906, college football was becoming more and more violent on the field and more players were suffering severe injuries or, even worse, were being killed on the field. In 1905 there were eighteen recorded fatalities of football players while playing the game.

The violence was causing a public outcry and it took the intervention of President Theodore Roosevelt to make college more palatable to the public. Roosevelt gathered the heads of the leading college football powers together at the White House and told them, in his inimitable, maginificent way, that they either made the game safer for the youth of America or else he would ban the game of football altogether.

That's right, sports fans, imagine the President of the United States banning the game of football from being played by America's youth.

Roosevelt, being the athlete manque that he was, had no desire to ban a game he loved watching himself but he wanted the college powers that be to make the game safer and they did. It was in 1906 that they legalized the forward pass, changed the first down rule from five yards in three downs to ten yards in four downs. By 1910 the NCAA was formed to regulate college football.

But it was the legalization of the forward pass that revolutioned the game. It altered how offensive and defensive lines were formed on the playing field. It broadened the game's tactical horizons. Still, it would take decades before colleges would fully utilize passing in their repetoires. (The present day configuration of the football wasn't established until 1925).

And consider the heroes that were made possible by the legalization of the forward pass? Players like Benny Friedman, Joe Namath, Johnny Lujack, Harry Gilmer, Sammy Baugh, Dan Marino, Troy Aikman, and John Elway were all college football legends noted for their passing ability.

And now with the end of the 2006 college football season, isn't it a pity that the pundits of college football didn't have the historical foresight to pay homage to the fact that the forward pass is now a hundred years old?

(My favorite college football pass of all time has to be Doug Flutie's Hail Mary pass of 1984. I saw it on television and will never forget it ever).

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