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New Book Looks at the History of the Forward Pass

by Randy Snow

Originally posted on AmericanChronicle.com, Saturday, December 15, 2007

In the new book Forward Pass: The Play That Saved Football, author Philip Brooks explores the origins of an aspect of football that, today, we all take for granted. After all, what would the game of football be without the passing game? But there was a time when the forward pass was not an officially sanctioned part of the sport.

The book covers the years 1905-1913, a time of great change in football history. Brooks went to great lengths to research many of the important events during this time and tells a compelling tale of how these events shaped the game into what it is today.

In 1905, college football games were drawing huge crowds. Fans couldn’t get enough of the game. A football game consisted of running, tackling, punting and field goal kicking, but no passing. Teams had three downs to go five yards for a first down. It was a brutal game with ill-defined rules that led to many injuries for the players. In fact, it was so brutal at times that 19 players died as a result of football related injuries in 1905. Keep in mind that many players did not wear helmets in those days.

On December 4, 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt, who was a big fan of the game, threatened to pass an executive order banning the game of football if changes were not instituted. Soon after the president’s decree, 22 schools dropped the sport including Northwestern, Wake Forest, Baylor, Stanford, Boston College, Arizona and Arizona State.

Four days later, representatives from 13 colleges got together at a hotel in New York to try and figure out what to do. They formed an organizational called the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (IAAUS). By a vote of 8-5 they decided not to abolish the game, but to change the way the game was played. In 1910, the IAAUS became known as the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

In late December 1905, an experimental game was played under a new set of rules between Washburn College and Fairmount College in Wichita, Kansas. Among the new rules, teams now had three downs to go 10 yards, but the game was considered a disappointment by the fans, coaches and media who were in attendance. There was still something missing from the game.

Following much heated debate over the next few months, the American Football Rules Committee finally approved the forward pass, as well as 25 other rule changes, on April 14, 1906. The new rules were designed to save the game of football and to make it safer for the players. However, many coaches were against implementation of the pass, mainly because no one had ever done it before. There were laterals and pitches, but those were mostly underhand tosses. Players had to learn how to throw the ball with control and accuracy and coaches lacked the skills to teach their players how to do that. Receivers also had to learn how to properly catch the ball.

Keep in mind that in those days, footballs were not the aerodynamic version that we see today. They were more rounded or “watermelon” shaped, making them difficult to throw and control. The football was eventually made smaller and more aerodynamic in 1912. That same year, the rules were also changed giving teams four downs to go 10 yards.

But even with the adoption of the forward pass, the rules were so restrictive on how and where a pass could be used that many teams were afraid to use it. For example, in 1906 the rules stated that, if a team failed to complete a pass without the ball being touched by a member of either team, the ball changed possession at the spot of the pass! In 1907, the rule was modified so that now, an incomplete pass only resulted in a 15-yard penalty.

The first official forward pass occurred on September 5, 1906 in a game between the St. Louis University Billikens and the Carroll College Pioneers. St. Louis halfback Bradbury Robinson completed a 20-yard pass to receiver Jack Schneider that he ran in for a touchdown. St. Louis won the game 22-0 and went on to post an 11-0 record that season using the new “open-style” game. They went on to outscore their opponents that season 407-11.

A good portion of the book follows the career of one of the early coaches in college football that believed in the forward pass, Jesse Harper. Harper played for legendary football coach Amos Alonzo Stagg at the University of Chicago. Upon graduation, Stagg recommended Harper for the head coaching position at Alma College in Alma, Michigan. He was only 22-years-old at the time. Harper coached at Alma in 1906 and 1907. After taking a year off from coaching, Harper became the head coach at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana from 1909-1912. After four successful years at Wabash, he was hired as the head coach at Notre Dame in 1913.

During his first season in South Bend, Harper coached a team that included a senior co-captain by the name of Knute Rockne. Harper’s emphasis on the passing game set the stage for the football dynasty at Notre Dame in the years to come. In his five seasons at Notre Dame, Harper posted a 34-5-1 record.

At each school, Harper taught his players the importance of perfecting the forward pass. He knew that it was the future of the game and made it an integral part of his offense. As well as Stagg, some of Harper’s coaching contemporaries at the time included legendary football icons such as John Heisman (Auburn), Glen “Pop” Warner (Georgia), Fielding Yost (Michigan) and Walter Camp (Yale). Each coach played a part in bringing the forward pass into the game at the turn of the last century.

Rockne would go on to succeed Harper as head coach at Notre Dame in 1918 and remained the head coach until his death in 1930, amassing a record of 105-12-5. Harper was one of the pall bearers at Rockne’s funeral. Harper was also inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951.

This is Brooks’ first book after spending 45 years coaching football at the high school and college levels in the state of Michigan. Brooks also has something in common with coach Jesse Harper. Both were head coaches at Alma College. Brooks coached at the school from 1971-1990 and posted a 94-86-0 record. Until this past season, Brooks was the winningest coach in school history. He was also inducted into the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2005.

Brooks' passion for the game and his respect for its rich history are evident throughout the book. Forward Pass contains many wonderful old photographs and play diagrams from the early 1900’s that Brooks discovered during his extensive research.

A large bibliography and notes sections are included in the back of the book identifying the many resources Brooks used in researching the book. If you love football, and are interested in it’s seldom talked about early history, then this book is a must-read.


www.collegefootball.org - College Football Hall of Fame

www.alma.edu - Alma College

www.wabash.edu - Wabash College

www.nd.edu - Notre Dame University


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