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A brief history of the forward pass
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Next time you’re in a bar and want to win a few bucks, do this: Bet someone he (or she) can’t name the date on which the forward pass was first legally used in a football game.

When the patsy steps forward, odds are strong he’ll wager that this major event occurred on Nov. 1 in 1913, when Knute Rockne and Gus Dorais of Notre Dame employed the forward pass to whip Army 35-13.

To bolster his case, your mark may say, “Didn’t you see the Knute Rockne movie starring Pat O’Brien? It told all about the first forward pass.”

Wrong. The 1913/Rockne/Notre Dame/forward pass myth apparently got started only because that was the first time two major colleges had played in a game where the forward pass determined the outcome. Even Rockne openly conceded that he was a latecomer to the forward pass.

The truth goes this way: The first legal forward pass in football history was chucked seven years earlier – on Sept. 5, 1906. It was thrown by Bradbury Robinson of St. Louis University, in a 22-0 victory over Carroll College in Waukesha, Wis. Credit for his team’s success goes to its rookie coach, Eddie Cochems, who had a hunch the forward pass would be a spectacular addition to football. To back up his belief, he took his team to a two-month forward-pass training camp in the summer of 1906. The result was an 11-0 season in which St. Louis University outscored its opponents 407-11. Today, however, Cochems’ name is mostly a footnote in football history, despite his achievements as the forward-pass pioneer.

The forward pass and other new elements in football were a direct result of the broken bones, fractured skulls and wholesale bloodletting that characterized football at the start of the 20th century. During the 1905 football season, for example, the Chicago Tribune said that 18 college football players died and 159 others were seriously injured.

The gridiron mayhem had reached the point where several major colleges simply dropped football altogether. Late in 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt ordered Harvard, Princeton and Yale to send representatives to Washington for a sitdown. There he issued an ultimatum to all American colleges: Clean up football; stop the brutality and foul play, or abolish the sport altogether.

The colleges responded. About 60 of them met in December 1905, overhauled football and formed what would become the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

In addition to legalizing the forward pass, the rules committee changed the yardage for a first down from five to 10, and established a neutral zone at the line of scrimmage.

The new forward-pass rule wasn’t universally popular, and for good reason. If a team failed to complete a forward pass, the ball went over to the opponents at the spot where the pass attempt ended. Furthermore, pass interference didn’t exist. If you saw a potential receiver, you simply tackled him, with no penalty to fear. A pass had to be thrown from at least five yards behind the line of scrimmage, and toward a point at least five yards to the left or right of the center. Eventually these rules were changed, making the forward pass an even more formidable weapon.

In 1906 when the forward pass became legal, a football was shaped more like a watermelon than the sharp-ended spheroid it resembles today. A football – as its name suggested – was meant for kicking, not for passing. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the ball was reshaped to give a better grip that led to the pinpoint spirals that enliven today’s games.

So there you have it, sports fans – a quickie history of the forward pass. Feel free to clip this column and keep it with you. It could help you win a bet, next time you encounter a sports know-it-all who believes the Knute Rockne movie version.

Send Bob Driver an e-mail at
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