Strange But True: The Birth of the Forward Pass

In the beginning football was a brutal game. From the middle 1880s and through much of the early 1900s, one of the most popular plays was the wedge. The team with the ball would form a kind of V (wedge). The ball carrier would be in the middle of the V. The formation would then slash through the defense. Players suffered bruises and broken bones in this kind of plan. Some were even killed.

In those days there was no such play as a forward pass. It was illegal. John Heisman, the coach at Auburn, saw a game that offered a possible solution to the roughness of football as it was then played.

In 1895, during a game between North Carolina and Georgia, the North Carolina fullback was trying to punt. Georgia came in fast and the kicker had to scramble. Just as he was about to be brought down, the harassed player threw the ball downfield. A North Carolina teammate saw the ball in the air and caught it. He ran for a touchdown.

The Georgia coach screamed to the referee about the touchdown. The referee said he didn’t see the throw, all he saw was a North Carolina player running for a touchdown, although he didn’t know how that player had gotten the ball.

John Heisman thought about that play for a long time. He came to the conclusion that if more passes were thrown, fewer wedge plays would be run. But although he tried to influence various officials, at first nobody would listen to him. He made such a pest of himself that after a time the whole idea became known as “Heisman’s forward pass.”

Football became such a rough game that President Theodore Roosevelt threatened to abolish the sport if new rules were not made immediately. So in 1906 a form of forward passing was permitted.

In the beginning it didn’t work well for several reasons. First, a pass had to cross the line of scrimmage not more than five yards on either side of the center. In other words, it could be thrown only into the middle of the field. Second, an incomplete pass could be recovered by the defensive team, just as if it had been a fumble. Also, a pass caught over the goal line was not a touchdown but a touchback. And the defense was free to interfere with a receiver before he caught the ball.

Most important of all, nobody really knew how to throw a forward pass. The passer would grip the ball any old way and just heave it over the line in a wobbly arc. But one smart coach figured out the correct way to throw a ball. His name was Eddie Cochems, the head man at St. Louis University. He discovered that the ball would spiral accurately when gripped with the fingers across the laces. He taught his passer, Brad Robinson, how to throw the ball. Robinson and teammate Jack Schneider formed the first great passer-receiver combination in football.

Still, very few colleges used the forward pass as a regular play. Not until 1913 did it become popular, as a result of a game between mighty Army and little known Notre Dame. Army expected no difficulty in beating the small college located in South Bend, Indiana. But the forward pass helped Notre Dame whip Army, 35-13.

The passer was Gus Dorais. The receiver went on to immortality as Notre Dame’s coach. His name was Knute Rockne. After Dorais and Rockne showed what could be done with the forward pass, every team began to use it effectively.

So, because of an illegal play in 1895, the forward pass became the most important weapon in offensive football.

From The Giant Book of More Strange But True Sports Stories by Howard Liss. Illustrations by Joe Mathieu.

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  1. Seems Teddy Roosevelt’s threat to shut down the sport if it wasn’t made safer came at the same time his son was a Freshman on the Harvard football team.  A total coincidence, I’m sure.
    Also, it seems that Carlisle, not Notre Dame, was actually the first team to employ the forward pass to great effect.  Even Knute Rockne tried to correct the record to no avail.

  2. John Heisman used to coach at Oberlin, and while I don’t follow their football team, I am guessing they don’t have any good candidates for the Heisman Trophy. 
    Better luck next year, Fighting, uh, Liberal Arts Majors? Fighting Music Theorists?
    (Looks it up…)  Yeomen. Looks like his Yeomen beat Ohio State twice in one season, and possibly Michigan. Probably also not happening again soon.

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