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posted on AmericanChronicle.com, Friday, January 23, 2009
In the history of college
football, the University of Michigan is one of the most storied.
From Fielding Yost to the winged helmet to The Big House in Ann Arbor, the
school's legacy on the football field is the stuff of legends.
But in the new book, Passing Game, author Murray Greenberg tells the
story of a player who may not be a household name when it comes to Michigan
football, but he should be. Quarterback Benny Friedman was an undersized kid
from Cleveland, Ohio (five feet-ten inches tall, 180 pounds) when he came to the
University of Michigan in 1923. What he lacked in size he more than made up for
in talent, especially one talent that was not common at the time, passing the
football. While the forward pass had been legalized in 1906, many teams only
used it as a last resort and not a major part of their game plan as it is today.
in the 1920īs, the football was not as aerodynamic as it is today, so accurate
passing was hard to come by. But Friedman had a knack for passing the ball with
He spent the 1923 season on the freshman team and was elevated to the varsity
squad in 1924. Head coach Fielding Yost, who had been at Michigan since 1901,
"retired" following the 1924 season and became the school's athletic director.
The new head coach was George Little and Little didn't think much of the kid
from Cleveland. (Many believe that Little didn't like Friedman because he was
Jewish) Friedman was riding the bench for the first two games of his sophomore
year and didn't see any game action until game three against Illinois.
Unfortunately, that was the game when Red Grange set the college football world
on fire, running for four first quarter touchdowns as Illinois embarrassed
Michigan 39-14. Friedman got a few minutes of playing time late in the fourth
quarter playing defense and actually tackled Grange on his very first play.
After the loss to Illinois, Yost decided it was time to shake things up on the
team and he appointed Friedman the starting quarterback. Even though Yost was
not the head coach, he was still making many of the decisions concerning the
team. Bennyīs record as the Wolverines starter in 1924 was 4-1, losing only in
the final game of the season to Iowa by the score of 9-3.
In 1925, Yost "un-retired" and returned to coach the team after Little, who
likely wanted out from Yost's shadow, took the head coaching job at Wisconsin.
Friedman led the team to a 7-1 record that season and a Big Ten championship. He
led the team to a couple of "revenge" wins that year also, including a 21-0 win
over Little's Wisconsin team and a 3-0 win over Grange and Illinois. Friedman
kicked the winning field goal himself in the game against Illinois.
After the 1925 season, Friedman was selected as an All-Big Ten and All-American
at quarterback. He was also unanimously elected the captain for the 1926
Michigan team by his teammates.
In 1926, his senior year at Michigan, Friedman again led the Wolverines to a 7-1
record and they shared the Big Ten title with Northwestern. Benny was named an
All-American for the second year in a row. 1926 was also the last year that
Fielding Yost coached the Michigan Wolverines. He remained the school's athletic
director and concentrated his efforts on overseeing the construction of the new
Michigan football stadium, the one that today is simply known as The Big House.
The new stadium opened in the fall of 1927.
Friedman was a great passer, but every quarterback also needs a great receiver.
For Benny, that receiver was Bennie Oosterbaan. The passing combo was known as
Benny-to-Bennie. Oosterbaan went on to become the head coach of the Wolverines
from 1948-1958 after coach Fritz Crisler retired. He led Michigan to a national
championship in 1948. Friedman and Oosterbaan also played baseball at Michigan.
After graduating from Michigan in the spring of 1927, Friedman signed to play
for the NFL's Cleveland Bulldogs. The Bulldogs had won the 1924 NFL
championship, but folded after the season. Team owner Sammy Deutsch brought the
team back in 1927 hoping that fans would come out to see Friedman, a Cleveland
native, quarterback the team.
After a rough 0-2-1 start to his pro career, Friedman led the Bulldogs to a
respectable 8-4-1 record in 1927 including two wins each over the New York
Yankees, which featured Red Grange, as well as the Duluth Eskimos, featuring
Ernie Nevers. Friedman led the NFL in passing yards and touchdown passes in his
rookie season. He was also named a first team All-Pro quarterback. After the
1927 NFL season was over, Friedman and the Bulldogs headed to California for a
five-game barnstorming tour in January 1928.
In the fall of 1928, the Bulldogs moved to the Motor City and became the Detroit
Wolverines. Friedman led the league again that year in passing yards as well as
in rushing yards. The team finished with a 7-2-1 record.
NOTE: The NFL tells us that it was the Detroit Lions who started the
Thanksgiving Day tradition in 1934, which was the Lionsī first year in Detroit
after moving from Portsmouth, Ohio. But many college and pro teams played on
Thanksgiving Day in the years prior to 1934. In fact, the Detroit Wolverines
played a game on Thanksgiving Day in 1928 at the University of Detroit Stadium
against the Dayton Triangles. Detroit won the game 33-0.
The New York Giants had won the NFL title in 1927, but the team struggled in
1928 and finished with a disappointing 4-7-2 record. The crowds attending their
games at the Polo Grounds had grown small and the team finished the season
$40,000 in debt. Giantsī owner Tim Mara noted that the biggest crowds over the
past two seasons had been when Benny Friedman came to town. New York had a large
Jewish community and they turned out in droves to see Friedman play against the
hometown Giants. Mara tried desperately to make a trade for Friedman, but with
no luck, so he did the next best thing. He bought the Wolverines for $3,500 and
merged the team with the Giants. Only six Giants players were retained, eight
from the Detroit team and eight new players were added.
1929 would be Friedman's third NFL season and the third city that he had played
for as a pro quarterback as well. Large crowds came out to see the Giants play
during each home game that year and the team actually turned a profit, in spite
of the fact that 1929 was the year of the Stock Market crash and the beginning
of the Great Depression.
During the 1930 season, Friedman not only played for the Giants, but he was also
a part time college football assistant coach at Yale University.
On December 14, 1930, the New York Giants played a charity exhibition game
against a team of Notre Dame All-Stars. The Notre Dame team featured The Four
Horsemen backfield from the 1924 national championship team as well as five of
the Seven Mules, their offensive linemen. Several other players from Notre
Dame's 1929 and 1930 national championship teams were also on the team. Over
50,000 fans attended the game at the Polo Grounds in New York and the game
raised over $115,000. The money went to the New York City Unemployment Relief
Fund to help those who were out of work following the Stock Market crash.
Friedman and the Giants won the game 22-0. Knute Rockne was the coach of the
All-Star team and, as it turned out, it was the last game he ever coached.
Rockne was killed in a plane crash on March 31, 1931.
Friedman retired from playing football after
the 1930 season and became the full time backfield coach at Yale University in
1931. But halfway through the season, he missed the money that the pro game
provided so he returned to quarterback the Giants. He remained the backfield
coach at Yale and traveled back and forth the remainder of the season. When the
1931 season was over, Friedman felt that he had helped to turn the Giants around
so much over the last few years that he approached owner Tim Mara about
obtaining a part ownership in the team. Mara refused.
So, in 1932, Friedman signed with the Giantsī cross-town NFL rival, the Brooklyn
Dodgers, as a player and head coach. He played for the Dodgers for two seasons
and then retired once again.
At the urging of New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, Friedman took a job as the
head football coach at City College of New York in 1933. He coached at the
predominantly Jewish college through the 1941 season. He un-retired yet again to
play in one final NFL game with the Dodgers in 1934. It was the Thanksgiving Day
game against his old team, the New York Giants. The Dodgers lost the game 27-0.
In 1939, while coaching at City College, Friedman also coached a semi-pro
football team called the Cedarhurst Wolverines. Halfway through the season, he
decided that he could do a better job of quarterbacking the team himself, so he
suited up. He was 34 years old and had not played in a game for over five years,
but he led Cedarhurst to five straight wins. He also quarterbacked the team
again in 1940 and finished the season with a 7-1-1 record.
With the United States gearing up for World War II in the wake of the attack on
Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Friedman joined the Navy in 1942 at the age of
37. While at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station north of Chicago, Friedman
spent two seasons (1942-1943) as an assistant football coach at the school.
Ironically, his first game with the team was at the University of Michigan. The
Wolverines won the game, 9-0.
In 1944, Friedman was assigned to a newly commissioned aircraft carrier, the
USS Shangri-La. He quickly rose to the position of a deck officer. His ship
saw action in the Battle of Okinawa and Friedman received two combat medals for
his service. He was discharged from the Navy in December 1945 at the rank of
After he left the Navy, Friedman and his wife, Shirley, moved to Detroit where
he operated a Jeep dealership for a few years. Then, in 1949, he was offered the
head football coaching position at Brandeis University. The Jewish university
had been founded just the year before in Waltham, Massachusetts just outside of
Boston. It had no playing fields or sports equipment or even student athletes,
but Friedman went about the task of building the program from the ground up.
Brandeis fielded its first football team in 1950, playing mostly freshman
squads. The team's first ever game was against a freshman team from Harvard.
Harvard won that first game, but Brandeis went on to have a respectable 4-2
season. In 1951, the school began playing at the varsity level, even though its
team was made up mostly of freshmen and sophomores. Friedman eventually became
the school's athletic director as well as the golf coach. The school
discontinued its football program after the 1959 season in an effort to save
After leaving Brandeis University, Friedman ran a number of football camps for
high school kids, teaching them the things that he had learned from Fielding
Yost in the 1920īs. He also worked as an insurance executive and sometimes did
color commentary for NFL games, including the New York Jets.
Benny Friedman is considered by many to be the greatest passer of the early days
of college AND pro football. But he was more than just a great passing
quarterback. He could run with the ball, he played on defense and kicked extra
points and field goals. At the time, college players who went on to play pro
football never achieved the same level of success that they enjoyed in college.
Friedman was the exception. Many sports writers said that he was even better in
the pros than he was in college.
Because of his passing ability, the NFL changed the shape and size of the
football prior to the 1934 season and made other rule changes to make passing
easier for quarterbacks who were not as gifted as Friedman was. Unfortunately,
the changes occurred after Freidman had retired as a player.
During the 1930īs, 40īs and 50īs, Friedman either interviewed or was considered
for many college head coaching jobs at a number of major universities, including
Michigan, but for whatever reason, he was never offered a job by any of them. In
1937, Friedman was one of the first athletes ever to have his picture appear on
a box of Wheaties. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in
1951, the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1979 and the Brandeis
University Athletic Hall of Fame in 1998.
By 1979, Friedman was in failing health. A blood clot in his left leg led to it
having to be amputated. Sadly, on November 23, 1982, Friedman took his own life,
shooting himself while sitting in the library of his home, surrounded by the
many trophies and awards that he had earned during his lifetime. He was 77 years
Many of Friedman's contemporaries from the early days of the NFL, such as George
Halas, Red Grange, Johnny Blood McNally and Ernie Nevers, were all inducted in
the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio within the first few years of it
being established in 1963. Friedman, however, was passed over year after year.
It was not until 2005 that Friedman was finally inducted into the Hall of Fame
in Canton, Ohio. The Class of 2005 also included Dan Marino, Steve Young and
Passing Game is a great book that brings the life and career of a true
football pioneer to life. I highly recommend it.
International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame Profile
Pro Football Hall of Fame Profile
College Football Hall of Fame Profile
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