When Football Became Beautiful

By Noah Graff

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?

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12 thoughts on “When Football Became Beautiful

  1. Jack

    First ones that come to mind are:
    1997 Packers road to the Super Bowl. Attended both playoff wins at Lambeau, that was fun.
    Bowled half a dozen 300’s.

  2. Erik

    As a spectator, it’s a toss-up for me. In the Bulls 72 win season, I was fortunate enough to be in Milwaukee when the broke the old mark. Not super spectacular I guess, but my rabid-Bulls-fan son was with me as a 9 year old, and I’ll never forget the emotions he went through as the Bulls looked like they were going to lose to Milwaukee, then stepped on the gas and pulled it out. It was the joy he experienced that made that event stick for me.

    Probably more fitting, I was also with my son when the Blackhawks won game 3 in OT against the Sharks on the second cup run. We were right behind the goal where the winner was scored. I’ve never heard a human noise that loud in my life. The crowd drowned out old Bill Wirtz’s shipping horn.

    As a player? I hit a deep jump shot as time expired to get my high school basketball team past a bitter local rival and into a championship divisional game. I had a decent year, averaging 12 points and 7 rebounds, but that capped it, because we got blown out in the final, and I didn’t drop one shot. I’ll never forget the rush of hitting a buzzer beater in a big game. I hadn’t thought of that in years, thanks for stirring it up!

  3. Jeff Poole

    The sports moment that really stands out in my mind didn’t, at the time, have anything to do with football, although it would a few years later.
    I had the privilege to see one of the fastest men alive at the time when he was just a boy, coming into his talent. I went to school with a young Johny “Lam” Jones when he was only in the eighth grade, and was in high school a a junior. He was running in an intra-mural track meet at our little junior high, and since I had some time off that day during final exams at high school, I went over to watch the kid run. I’d heard a little bit about him, but never laid eyes on him, and never sen his athletic prowess displayed at all.
    He was running the anchor for a relay team. All the boys were from his own age and group, some were actually pretty fast for locals. But it was likely the fastest kids in those grades, so it was a pretty good place to see how performed against his contemporaries.
    He took the baton well behind the other teams, and I figured, well, maybe he can make up some ground, but I certainly did not expect to witness what I did that day. He was at least20 yards behind when he got the baton, and he took off. I have never in my life seen a human being run with that effortless power and ease . It looked like he was just floating, but with each step, the gain was evident. He seemed to get faster with each step. Then when he caught the pack, it was like he hit another gear and was gone! Winning was never in question, as he had everyone by several paces in just a few steps.
    Later on, in his high school career, he went on to win the state finals with his team on the relays, and that summer, qualified for the Olympics. I watched him run that day as well, and running against the cream of the world in his signature race, he looked just as impressive. Not as big a gap, but considering the competition, any win was history.
    He went on to play receiver at the University of Texas, and eventually played some pro ball with the NY Jets. But I’ll always remember him best for that run in May in that little town in Texas.

  4. David

    favorite moments as a spectator…

    Baltimore Colts vs Green Bay Packers 1965. Special playoff game ended in sudden death
    overtime with a Packers field goal. Colts fans still think Chandler missed. Packers starting quarterback Bart Starr, Colts starter Johnny Unitas and backup were all injured. Tom Matte, Colts running back played quarterback and Zeke Bratkowski led the Pack to their only touchdown. Game temperature 32F and raining/sleeting. My ticket was in the nosebleed section but the weather was so miserable that someone gave me a ticket and I ended up in row twentysomething in the end zone. No one ever gives you a ticket at Lambeau. I saw the winning field goal. All the fans I was sitting with are sure it was good.

    Ice Bowl, Green Bay 1967. Only because i can say i was there.

    1999 World Series, game 1 at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees are trailing 5-2 going into the bottom of the seventh and looking lethargic. They tie the game on a three run homer and load the bases. Two outs and Tino Martinez hits a grand slam. The upper deck is swaying as the stadium goes ballistic with chants of “Tino, Tino, Tino”. I am sitting with two friends who are Bronx born hard core Yankees fans. Yanks lead 9-5. Next half inning, Martinez misses a ground ball at first. My friends both start booing, “Martinez your a bum!” Tough crowd.

    2001 World Series, game seven. My son who is ten years old, cries when Marino Rivera gives up the game winning hit in the bottom of the ninth. He never imagined the Yankees could lose. He is about the same age as I was when Vince Lombardi left the Packers at the end of their 1960’s championship run.

    Sports can be magic.

  5. Lloyd Graff

    It was the 1965, NCAA Basketball Championship in Portland, Oregon. I was covering the Tournement for the Michigan Daily paper because the U of M was in the Final Four. It was the Cazzie Russell, Bill Buntin team
    But my memory was of the runner up game between Princeton and Wichita State. Bill Bradley was the star for Princeton. I was sitting right behind Bill Van Breda Kopf, the Princeton coach.
    Bradley was on fire from the start. He had 25 points after 14 minutes. I tapped Van Breda Kopf on the shoulder and said “Bill has 25 already, the record is 52, get the ball to Bill”. The coach immediately yelled “get he ball to Bill.” And they did, and he continued to play in the zone.
    Midway into the second half I tapped him again to announce that Bradley had 40 and he had to “get the ball to Bill” and again he yelled to the team to “get the ball to Bill.” When Bradley had 50 late in the game I tapped him again. Same result.
    Bill Bradley scored 56 that night and Princeton won to finish 3rd in the NCAA. I felt like I helped him set the record that still stands today.

    1. David

      Lets hope next year you can add the Cubs winning the Series to your memories. As long as they don’t beat the Yanks.

  6. Donald Green

    My first trip ever to a World Series Game and to Yankee Stadium happened for the same game. It was game 6 of the 1981 Series. It was simply a thrill to do both at the same time [even if my team lost]. I first drove to the Stadium when the tickets became available, and stood in line for hours. Then, we got to do it twice, sort of. The night it was originally scheduled for was foggy and drizzly. They finally postponed it when we were about ten miles from the Stadium [after driving about 80 miles]. We went back the next night.

    The next big one [and arguably the biggest] was taking my nine year old daughter to her first ball game 2 seasons ago. It was the Father’s Day Special at Fenway Park. She got to go on the field, and run the bases for that one.

    Then to top it off she and I went to Jeter’s last game and tribute at Fenway that same season.

    There’s something magical about hitting a baseball. When you get a “solid” hit the bat feels like it bends, and gives the ball an extra snap. Football is a great game. I played football, in pee-wee’s, high school, and college. But only because I wasn’t good enough at baseball.

  7. Noah Graff

    Kerry Wood gets 20K in one game in 1998. Grateful to have turned on the game by chance after school. Talking on the phone with my dad while the game was in progress.

    “THE SHOT” When Michael Jordan hit the winning shot against Cleveland, 1989, game 5 of the Eastern Conference 1st round of the playoffs.

    There were so many Michael Jordan moments though. The shot against the Lakers in the 1991 Finals when he changed hands in the air (it’s on all the “be like Mike” Gatoraid commercials.)

    The time he hit 6 three-pointers in the first half against Portland in the 1992 Finals and then did his famous shrug.

    And who can forget the the “Flu Game” when Jordan was diagnosed with a stomach virus. He played 44 minutes, scored 38 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals and 1 block.

    It’s sad that I am having trouble thinking of more Cubs moments.

  8. Rick

    I recall being at a Kings hockey game in October of 1988 when Kirk Gibson hit his legendary home run against the Oakland A’s. The old Forum where the Kings used to play erupted in cheers during the hockey game; the game suddenly paused as the players and refs looked around quizzically wondering what just happened. The previous summer of that season, Steve Sax lead off the first game at Dodger Stadium with a home run on the first pitch of the game. Later that fall, I was married…a life/sports “sandwich” to remember! Sports do have a way of marking our milestones as we go through life, I’ve noticed…thank goodness for them, as they’ve helped to bond families and communities together at just about every level, and will for generations to come.


  9. Rick

    PS – Forgot to mention I was at the Dodger game when Sax hit the home run “right off the bat”! That was an amazing moment, until Gibson’s homer fused with live hockey occurred…rick

  10. Seth Emerson

    Art Donavan, the Baltimore Colts Lineman, had been tutored, for several years, by my Grandmother in New York City, helping him to get into and stay in school – to play football. In 1958, when the Colts came to the SF Bay area to play the 49ers, they practiced at Stanford stadium in Palo Alto. Art came by my parents house to see my Grandmother, then retired in her late 70s. At my young age (11) I had never see such a huge person (almost 300 lbs) in my life. After an afternoon watching the Colts scrimmage/practice at Stanford, Art took my father and I with him to the Rickey’s hotel where the Colts were staying, I got to meet and get the autographs of most of the Colts players, including Unitas, Ray Berry, Alan Ameche, Gene Lipscomb and more. (I wish I still had those!) On Sunday, we went to Kezar Stadium in SF where the Colts lost to my 49ers. I didn’t know who to root for! The Colts had already won the NFL West title and were resting players for the final two games. They went on to beat the Giants in the classic overtime championship game in New York!

  11. Lloyd Graff

    Another sports memory. I wascoaching my daughter’s 11 year old softball team. She was the tallest kid on the team and pitched. I tended to really get into the games, aggressively yelling encouragement to my girls. Sarah threw pretty hard. At a tense moment in the game I yelled to her “mow those little girls down” in a loud shout. All the parents looked at me like I was a total nut. But I didn’t care. She struck out the side and it has become a frequently used phrase for us at family gatherings. I may use it again for my grand daughters.


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