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Author Topic: Wishing gridiron's forward pass a very happy birthday
Exploding Vole, The
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It's 100 years since American football first legalised the forward pass, the weapon which made such a telling contribution in turning the game away from a mechanised, brutal form of rugby and into a sport more of its own design.

I think we should wish the forward pass a happy birthday.

Last night I was perusing Allison Danzig's books on the early days of college football, including Oh, How They Played the Game which contains a chapter called "The First Use of the Forward Pass" and The History of American Football, published in 1956. Danzig muses at some length on the various pioneers of this strategy, but understandably fails to reach a conclusion on the subject of which team threw the first "official" forward pass.

As for pioneers, Eddie Cochems took his St Louis University team to Lake Beulah, Wisconsin in July 1906 "for the sole purpose of studying and developing the pass". Oddly enough, Lake Beulah is not all that far from where I grew up; Cochems had played halfback for the University of Wisconsin a few years earlier, and died in Madison in 1953. If there isn't a plaque in Lake Beulah commemorating this event, the descendants of Mr Cochems ought to start lobbying for one.

In Oh, How They Played the Game, Cochems is quoted thus:
quote:
Just before our first practice, I told the players to put their fingers between the two lacings nearest the end of the ball where the diameter was shortest and throw it with a twist of the wrist, on its long axis ... In about half an hour Bradbury Robinson, all excited, came back and said, 'Coach, I can throw the danged thing forty yards!'
This of course was no mean feat with the watermelon-shaped ball of the era, but apparently the technique was already familiar to the legendary Amos Alonzo Stagg (oh, where have such wonderful names gone?). He told the Associated Press in 1954 that "As far back as 1894 ... Frank E. Hering at the University of Chicago used to throw the football like a baseball pitcher. I used him to make a long lateral pass to an end on certain plays when he received a kick ... Hering was the first man I ever saw throw a football that way. The regular method was to curl the ball against the forearm and throw it out with a sidearm pass." I imagine this to be a little like the way some football goalkeepers "fling" the ball out of their area.

St Louis's Robinson apparently connected with Jack Schneider on a 48-yard pass against Kansas in November 1906. Whether this represents the game's first "bomb" is a matter of debate; St Louis had thrown at least one forward pass against Carroll College of Wisconsin two months earlier, although that game seems to be considered more of a scrimmage than an intercollegiate contest. According to Danzig's The History of American Football: "the story is, the first overhand forward pass was completed, against Yale, by Wesleyan University of Connecticut. The date is given as October 3. The pass is said to have been thrown by Sammy Moore to Irvin Van Tassell."

In his book College Football: History, Spectacle, Controversy John Sayle Watterson notes that "the first passes may have been thrown in a game between Washburn and Fairmont in Kansas in December 1905, but forward passing was merely experimental, and the rules committee had not yet legalized it ... On September 29 [1906] Princeton completed a pass from a halfback to an end in a game against Villanova in a regular season game; it went for a substantial gain."

Initially, there were so many limitations on the pass that one wonders why anyone would have chosen to throw it at all. Watterson again:
quote:
... the [rules] committee awarded all incomplete passes to the other team; in this way the forward pass would not dominate play, or so they imagined. If any of the nine ineligible receivers happened to touch the ball [only the ends were eligible], the opponents would get possession. If the ball did not cross the line five yards on either side of the center, the opponents got the ball. Most risky were passes missing the pass receiver altogether; passes that hit the ground without being touched would go over to the opponents where the ball touched the ground. If the ball went out of bounds, any player could pursue and recover it, leading to, as former rules maker and coach David Nelson has written, 'many a cinder burn when players scrambled for the ball on the running tracks surrounding the fields.'
Interestingly, Danzig doesn't seem to have done his homework on this topic; in Oh, How They Played the Game he asserts that under the initial rules "Failure to complete a pass drew a penalty of 15 yards and loss of down."

As might be expected, it took a while before this new weapon won over many of its critics - including Walter Camp, whose all-conquering Yale teams stood much to lose from any change to the status quo. Watterson writes that "a number of football authorities disliked the forward pass. Soon after the season ended, a writer in the [New York] Times acknowledged that the passing game often proved spectacular and thrilled the onlookers, but he insisted that the forward pass ... made it difficult for teams to sustain their offenses. Weaker teams played better than they might otherwise have, he declared, and mistakes often decided the game." Rather prescient, if you ask me.

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ursus arctos
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Very interesting.

In the Notre Dame-obsessed environment in which I raised (otherwise know as the New York metropolitan area), I was always led to believe that Knute Rockne had invented the forward pass.

A cavil, however. You simply cannot throw a football "like a baseball pitcher". Were you to do so, the ball would go point first into the ground almost instantly. The two motions are quite different, though both are obviously overarm, and obviously "throwing" (as opposed to bowling) in cricket terms.

In fact, I throw a baseball with my left hand and a football with my right, but that is just another way in which I am not your average bear.

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Exploding Vole, The
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Rockne - assisted by the media, of course - popularised it, in the famous game with Army in 1913 which inaugurated their long-running series.
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ursus arctos
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Indeed, though in the NY kid version, it wasn't just "popularized" it was "invented", in a secret camp that sounds suspiciously like the one at Lake Beulah.

Of course these were the same stories that put Rockne just a small step below the Virgin Mary in the order of all that is right and good. . .

The restrictions do seem to be ridiculous, though I wonder if there were occasions in which it made sense as an alternative to a punt or drop kick (which were still common then). I can see a crafty coach using an incomplete pass as a way to pin his opponents deep in their own territory when out of field goal range, but too close for a punt to be a better option.

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Inca
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Thanks for this, EV.
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Exploding Vole, The
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From what I've read, it doen't look like the forward pass caught on in a big way for quite a few years after it was introduced. Apparently a few critics claimed it made the game too much like basketball.
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