For a long time Walter Camp opposed adding the forward pass to the game. But according to Danzig:
“The earliest mention of the use of a forward pass in a game is found in Athletics at Princeton – A History (1900) as pointed out by Dr. L. H. Baker. In the 1876 Yale – Princeton game, it states, Walter Camp, when tackled, threw the ball forward to Oliver Thompson, who ran for a touchdown. Princeton protested and claimed a foul. The referee tossed a coin to make his decision and allowed the touchdown to stand.” (Danzig, 32)
No one man should be credited for the forward pass. Teddy Roosevelt began agitating for change in 1904. Between the 1905 and 1906 seasons, the forward pass was legalized. An incompletion or pass out of bounds was a turnover, and the forward pass was classified by most coaches and fans as a “trick” play. According to Danzig, “it appears that the man who first had the idea and took it to the Rules Committee” was John Heisman. Heisman got the idea while he was in attendance at the 1895 North Carolina vs Georgia game. A North Carolina fullback in punt formation was rushed, and threw the ball “out to the side and forward” to a teammate who scored a 70 yd touchdown. The Georgia coach protested; the referee said he had not seen it and allowed it to stand. The Georgia coach at the time was none other than Pop Warner.
1906 St. Louis University head coach Eddie Cochems has his team throw, and deep.
Referee H. B. Hackett, in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, article by Ed Wray, November 30, 1906:
“What struck me the most in the work of the St. Louis University team this afternoon was the perfection which the eleven has attained in the forward pass. It was the most perfect exhibition of the possibilities in the new rules in this respect that I have seen all season and much better than that of Yale and Harvard. St. Louis style of pass differs entirely from that in use in the east. There the ball is thrown high in the air and the runner who is to catch it is protected by several of his teammates, forming an interference for him. The St. Louis University players shoot the ball hard and accurately to the man who is to receive it, and the latter is not protected. With the high pass protection is necessary as the ball requires some time to reach its goal, time enough for the defensive side to mix in. The fast throw by St. Louis enables the receiving player to dodge the opposing players and it struck me as being all but perfect.”
Note: At the time “interference” was used to refer to what is now called blocking.
In 1906 Massillon, OH pro team coach Eddie Stewart went to Cleveland to recruit “Peggy” Parrott, a well-known basketball player, “because the pass was becoming so popular.”
In 1906 Stagg had 64 pass plays the first year of the forward pass. Stagg wrote:
“We used to throw the ball around in practice, but coach Walter Camp wouldn’t let us do it in a game because he thought it was too dangerous.”
After the 1906 season, Camp (as Editor) updated his Spalding’s football manual for the forward pass, and the person he selected to write the 10 page article was Cochems.
In the article, “The Forward Pass and On-Side Kick,” Cochems wrote:
“The brevity of this article will not permit of a detailed discussion of the forward pass. Should I begin to explain the different plays in which the pass could figure, I would invite myself to an endless task.”
So . . . he didn’t write much. We must move on.
1907 Carlisle vs Penn Carlisle was 8 for 16 passing, including a pass thrown by Jim Thorpe.
The New York Times wrote “The Forward Pass, Perfectly Employed, Used for Ground Gaining More Than Any Other Style of Play” and “forward passes, end runs behind compact interference from direct passes, delayed passes and punting were the Indians’ principle offensive tactics.
1909 Washington Post headline “Football Like an Airship Would Open Up the Game”
In the article, Cochems says the football should be more aerodynamic and easy to handle.
“The story in a nutshell is this. The ball is too large and too light. Some of the best teams in the country find it impossible to use the pass owing to lack of players who can make it. Since it is impossible to grow larger hands and it is possible to make the ball conform to human dimensions, why not make the ball fit the needed conditions? With a ball such as I have proposed, longer, narrower, and a bit heavier so that it would carry in the face of a strong wind, I firmly believe that the game of rugby would develop into one of the most beautiful and versatile sports the world ever saw. With the new ball, deeper offensive formations could be logically planned and carried into execution.”
1910 The rules were changed, there were less repercussions. A forward pass that was incomplete or out of bounds was no longer a turnover. This is what really opened up the game.
1910 Stagg wrote he had “50 or more pass patterns in my repertoire.”
1912 Carlisle Indian School versus Army both teams “used the forward pass to great advantage.”
Carlisle had Jim Thorpe, Pete Calac, and Joe Guyon, who could all run and throw, and ran the Head Coach Pop Warner’s Single Wing and Double Wing. One of the players injured trying to tackle Thorpe in the 27-6 Carlisle victory was a young Dwight Eisenhower.
Note Thorpe played for Carlisle from 1907-1912; he became an Olympic legend also in 1912.
And then on a Saturday in 1913 Notre Dame played Army and the forward pass took over the American imagination. Notre Dame End Knute Rockne running timing routes (mostly the button-hook) as the ND QB went 14-17 for 243 yards and 3 TDs in a 35-13 win that would have still meant nothing but for the New York writers in attendance. I think Rockne was almost always the Strong Tight End, but maybe some Weak Split End. The forward pass excited the writers, and the stories of the forward pass fascinated readers.
Legend has it that Notre Dame HC Jess Harper and QB Gus Dorais and End Knute Rockne unveiled downfield passing on November 1, 1913 versus Army. Later that year Army upset Navy with passing. Prichard to Merrilat (often spelled Merillat) one of the first great passing combinations in college football, Prichard and Merrilat also passed and won in 1914 as “the Western game” I think mostly referring to Notre Dame, it seems the “eastern” teams were the last to move to the forward pass.
1931 Knute Rockne says Cochems deserves the credit.
“One would have thought that so effective a play would have been instantly copied and become the vogue. The East, however, had not learned much or cared much about Midwest and Western football; indeed, the East scarcely realized that football existed beyond the Alleghenies.”
Later in 1931, Rockne’s death in a plane crash gets much publicity, most of which mentions the passing game and his career at Notre Dame. His legend grows throughout the 1930s. In 1940 the movie Knute Rockne, All American cements Rockne’s legend as father of the forward pass in the minds of the American public.
1932 Cochems says Harvard, Princeton, Yale all called him to explain the forward pass to them. (In an interview with a Wisconsin sports columnist.)
1940 Bradbury Robinson wrote that he saw the 1904 efforts of Roosevelt and began practicing passing in Wisconsin and then taught it to Cochems in 1906, when Bradbury started playing for Cochems.
1952 Gus Dorais says Cochems deserves the credit.
1954 Stagg says Cochems’ claims are untrue, and that “after the forward pass was legalized in 1906, most of the schools commenced experimenting with it and nearly all used it.”
1994 David M. Nelson’s excellent history of football rules, Anatomy of a Game, agrees with Rockne:
“Eastern football had little respect for football west of Carlisle, Pennsylvania . . . [they] may not have recognized what was happening in the West, but the new forward-passing game was off to an impressive start.”
2008 Murray Greenberg, in his excellent biography of Benny Friedman, writes:
“Cochems and his St. Louis eleven aside, rarely during the early part of the century’s second decade did a team try to dominate the game through the air.” (Greenberg, ~ page)
So, some still credit Rockne, while Rockne and some experts credit Cochems, but maybe we should credit Robinson and Stagg. Regardless, the people in charge eventually changed the shape of the ball to make it easier to throw, and the passing game exploded, and ever since they’ve often changed rules to increase passing and scoring and rarely changed rules to help the defense.
Note: I believe “eastern” teams refers to Army, Navy, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Penn, Rutgers, Syracuse but I’ve never found a clear definition of this. I’m not sure how many people called passing a “western” thing or not. Certainly, many referred to pass plays as “trick plays”. Army’s 9-0 1914 team was voted National Champion. The “east” and “west” thing lasted a while. In multiple articles around the 1940 NFL Championship between the Chicago Bears and Washington Redskins, famously won 73-0 by the Bears, the Bears are referred to as “westerners”.
I’ve gotta find the page numbers for some of the sources…
Cohen, Richard M., Jordan A. Deutsch, and David S. Neft. The Scrapbook History of Pro Football Bobbs-Merrill: Indianapolis/New York, 1979
Danzig, Allison. The History of American Football Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1956
Danzig, Allison. Oh, How They Played the Game Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1971
Greenberg, Murray. Passing Game: Benny Friedman and the Transformation of Football 2008
Nelson, David M. Anatomy of a Game: Football, the Rules, and the Men Who Made the Game 1994