American football has had a fascinating evolution over its century-plus existence.
The Real All Americans, by Sally Jenkins, illuminates the story of the game through the lens of Carlisle College, the school founded by Richard Henry Pratt in 1879 to assimilate American Indians into modern American society. Carlisle will always be associated with football for its legendary star player Jim Thorpe, considered one of the greatest all-around athletes ever, but there is much more to the school’s place in football history than Thorpe.
American football was born in the late 1800s. The sport was mainly comprised of competitions between Ivy League schools, and often dominated by Yale. The game was simplistic and brutal. The forward pass was illegal and teams were given three downs to move a necessary five yards to reach a first down. It was a game for privileged blue bloods to knock the the snot out of each other with little creativity and grace.
In 1893, the Carlisle College Indian Industrial School played its first football season recognized by the NCAA. The Indian students, whose culture had been forcibly stripped away when they enrolled at Carlisle, discovered football to be an outlet in which they could embrace their natural warrior spirit which still burned within them.
The Carlisle College players were small and scrawny compared to the brawny Ivy league players, who used their strength to pound the ball forward on every down. But Carlisle players had guile, speed, and heart, and in the early years of their program they nearly beat powerhouse Yale a few times, sometimes losing because of corrupt racist referees.
In 1899, in order to compete with the more experienced schools with bigger players, Pratt hired the now famous Cornell alum, Glen S. Pop Warner to be the team’s head coach. It was a radical move at the time, as few college programs before had paid money to bring in an expert coach from the outside. In football’s early days, college teams usually were coached by alumni, college faculty or the student athletes themselves.
Warner knew that for the Carlisle players to have a chance to beat the Ivy League schools comprised of bigger, stronger players, they would have to play to their unique strengths and outsmart the competition. Warner’s strategies and creativity were so innovative that he practically reinvented the game. He employed the game’s first trick plays, such as his infamous “Hidden-ball Play,” which Carlisle used against Harvard in 1903. On the kickoff for the second half, the Carlisle players formed a circle around the returner. Dillon, the returner, was outfitted with a special jersey with a pocket inside which held the ball. The other Carlisle players then spread out on the field, each pretending to be carrying a ball. Harvard’s players went after all of the players who appeared to have the ball, while Dillon, the one Carlisle player whose hands were free of any ball walked into the end zone untouched. Warner was instrumental in the expansion of football’s rulebook because after he employed many of his creative plays and strategies new rules had to be created to outlaw them.
In 1905 football’s violent nature resulted in the deaths of 19 college players on the field. Columbia University stopped its football program and other schools were on the verge of doing so as well. President Theodore Roosevelt decided he needed to step in to deal with the situation. He was a football fan himself and his son had recently been badly injured while playing. He threatened to ban the game unless action was taken to limit its brutality
Roosevelt called the presidents of various colleges to Washington and insisted that the rules of football be modified. In the new rules, instead of three downs to advance the ball five yards for a first down, a team had three downs to advance the ball 10 yards (four downs came a little later). More importantly, the forward pass was legalized to try to loosen up the brutal pile which ensued on almost every play while teams tried to run through one another. However, passing was still discouraged by the early rules. If a team attempted a pass and it was incomplete, the offensive team received a 15 yard penalty, which was a horrible blow when coupled with the other rules of those days. But Warner, the renaissance football coach, still embraced the passing game. Legend has it that he invented the spiral throwing technique in his garage in 1906, which perhaps was even more important in that time period then today because early footballs were far less aerodynamic than today’s balls. They resembled rugby balls, fatter and harder to get one’s hands around.
According to the book, Carlisle was the school that truly introduced to the world the beautiful wonders of the forward pass. In 1907, Carlisle defied the conventional football wisdom of the time and embraced a throwing offense. On the last game of the season Carlisle played the University of Chicago, considered the best team in the country that year. The game was a premier sporting event for the time, attended by 27,000 people.
To stifle Carlisle’s throwing game, the University of Chicago’s players employed a strategy of hitting the crap out of the Carlisle receivers every time they came off the line of scrimmage. To counter this tactic, Warner designed a special play for Carlisle’s star receiver, Albert Exendine. When the University of Chicago blockers forced Exendine out of bounds, he remained behind the sideline as he ran down field. He ran around the players’ bench, spectators, and probably the band. Then he reappeared on the field to catch a beautiful spiral in front of the end zone. The beauty of the perfect long pass had debuted on the world stage. Not to mention, a new regulation outlawing running downfield out of bounds had to be added to the rule book.
It’s spontaneous magical moments like these that make me love sports. They are the moments when I know I have been blessed to experience extraordinary feats that will never be duplicated.
Question: What are your favorite sports moments that you feel blessed to have experienced, as a spectator or player?