Sunday, May 13, 2007
In 1879, a cavalry officer named Richard Henry Pratt established an experimental boarding school for American Indians in an Army barracks in Carlisle, Pa. His purpose was to "civilize" his students and make them U.S. citizens. "Kill the Indian, save the man," Pratt liked to say.
On Carlisle's athletic field, however, a different experiment took place, this one conducted by the pupils. In 1895, the students took up the American game of football, still in its formative years, and began to schedule the Ivy League teams. For the next 20 years, the dispossessed Carlisle Indians ranked among the foremost football powers in the country. Under the creative tutelage of coach Glenn Scobey "Pop" Warner, they developed an innovative array of trick plays, reverses, end-arounds and flea-flickers. And in 1906-07, they threw the first spirals through the air on a major stage. Today, every time a quarterback feigns a handoff, or rears back to throw, a debt is owed to the Indians.
The talent for deception was partly out of necessity: With a student body of just 1,000, ranging in age from 12 to 25, Carlisle was perpetually outmanned and dangerously undersized. By the early 1900s, football had become a lethal sport, with 18 deaths and 149 injuries reported on the field in the 1905 season alone. President Theodore Roosevelt insisted on reform, which led to a half-dozen rule changes, the most experimental of which was the legalization of the forward pass.
Previously, there had been no necessity for anything but the "slam bang method of attack," as Warner put it. But in September 1907, Warner and the Indians began to explore a new kind of football.
* * *
Warner and the Carlisle players were, as always, able to fire each other's imaginations. In the harness shop, Warner devised something called a "bucking strap" to teach new techniques in blocking and tackling. On the field, Warner and the Indians tinkered with the forward pass. "It may be basketball, but it's in the rules, so let's try it," Warner said.
Warner was back at Carlisle after a three-year hiatus during which he coached his alma mater, Cornell. He agreed to return as the school's head coach on Dec. 1, 1906, in the midst of the Army-Navy football game. The contest was held at Philadelphia's Franklin Field, and Albert Exendine, captain of Carlisle's football team, was standing on the sideline, listening to the uplifting strains of a new anthem debuted that afternoon by the Navy band called "Anchors Aweigh," when his old coach clapped him on the back and said hello. By the end of the afternoon, Warner and Carlisle's superintendent had reached a deal. As Exendine left the field to catch a train, Warner said, "I want you to meet the new football coach." By the end of the month, Warner was Carlisle's athletic director.
He was pleased to be back in the company of athletes whose capabilities clearly fascinated him -- and still bewildered him, too. That spring, Warner met the athlete who would amaze yet confound him more than any other. Seemingly out of nowhere came that unaccountable great, Jim Thorpe.
On a late-April afternoon, the 17-year-old Thorpe ambled along across the upper end of the athletic field with some friends, on his way to play in a football match between trade schools. Even at a saunter, the young Thorpe possessed a physical ease that caused the sportswriting legend Grantland Rice to remark that he moved "like a breeze."
Thorpe stopped to watch the track team practice the high jump. The bar was set at 5 feet 9 inches, and nobody in the school had ever cleared that height, not even Exendine, Carlisle's track captain. Body after body jackknifed through the air, but with each leap, the bar clattered to the cinder track. Everyone knocked it down.
"Can I try?" Thorpe asked.
Thorpe was dressed in overalls, a work shirt and a pair of borrowed gym shoes. The varsity boys laughed at him and told him to go ahead. They stood around and waited for Thorpe to crash into the apparatus.
Thorpe took a couple of practice strides toward the bar, and then took off and scissored his body over the bar. As the track boys stared at him, agape, Thorpe laughed and strolled away, rejoining his friends.
Among those who watched Thorpe's jump at track practice was a student named Harry Achenbald. He went straight to Warner to report what happened. The next morning, Warner summoned Thorpe.
"Have I done anything wrong?" Thorpe asked.
"Son, you've only broken the school record in the high jump. That's all."
"I didn't think it was very high," Thorpe said. "I think I can do better in a tracksuit."
Warner put an arm around the boy and told him that wouldn't be a problem. That afternoon, he exchanged his overalls for a uniform and was on the team.
After 18 months at Carlisle, Thorpe had grown almost five inches. A couple of hard-laboring summers had helped him put on 30 pounds. By that spring day in 1907 when he cleared the high bar, his weight was up to 145, and he had worked his way onto the football scrub team, called the Hotshots.
Warner turned his new prodigy over to Exendine for athletic tutoring. Exendine held most of the Carlisle records in track and field, but he had nothing to teach the skinny teen who moved like a breeze. It took only one meet for Thorpe to break all of Exendine's marks.
"Before Jim hit Carlisle, I was quite the athlete around there," Exendine remembered. "I held the college records in the broad jump and the high jump, the shot put and the hammer, and several other track and field events, and I was captain of the football team. But it took Jim just one day to break all my records. We went to a dual meet together and he won everything."
* * *
In August 1907, as fall football practices began, Thorpe pleaded with Warner for a chance to try out for the varsity. Warner was reluctant; Thorpe's build struck him as too "scrawny" for football and he didn't want his best track prospect to get hurt. But the boy pestered him so tirelessly that he relented.
"All right," Warner said irritably. "If this is what you want, go out there and give my varsity boys a little tackling practice. And believe me, that's all you'll be to them."
As Thorpe walked out onto the field he thought, "If I have to lick all these men to play football, now is when I start."
Warner tossed the ball at Thorpe and ordered an open-field drill. About 30 or 40 players were scattered around the field. Thorpe began to sprint, cutting and weaving through them.
Thorpe ran through the entire varsity "like they were old maids," Warner remembered. Some of them he outran; others he faked out and left facedown in the turf. Standing on the sideline, Warner was furious at his defense, but caught his breath at Thorpe's performance. After he crossed the goal line, Thorpe skipped back to Warner and tossed him the football.
"I gave them some good practice, right, Pop?"
One of Warner's assistants said, joking: "You're supposed to let them tackle you, Jim. You weren't supposed to run through them."
"Nobody's going to tackle Jim," he said.
Warner was goaded by Thorpe's cockiness. He slapped the ball in Thorpe's middle. "Well let's see if you can do it again, kid."
Thorpe cheerfully went back onto the field, while Warner had a loud word with his varsity. "This isn't a track meet! Who does this kid think he is? Hit him so hard that he doesn't get up and try it again! Hit, hit, hit!"
Thorpe ran through the entire defense a second time. Once more, he tossed the ball to Warner, who stood there cussing both Thorpe and his defense. When Warner finally calmed down, he said to trainer Wallace Denny, "He certainly is a wild Indian, isn't he?"
Years later, Warner wrote, "Jim's performance at practice that afternoon on the Carlisle varsity playing field was an exhibition of athletic talent that I had never before witnessed, nor was I ever to again see anything similar which might compare to it."
* * *
The Carlisle Indians of 1907 would be the most dynamic team in college football, as they pioneered that elegant, new invention called the passing game. The Indians were about to take off.
In popular histories, the first use of the forward pass on a major collegiate stage tends to be wrongly ascribed to Notre Dame in 1913, and the tandem of Gus Dorais and Knute Rockne. In fact, the Indians were the first team to throw the ball deeply and regularly downfield, in 1907.
Up until 1906, if a player threw the ball at all, he pitched it underhanded, sidearmed it or lobbed it through the air end over end. Though the pass was legalized that season, almost none of the major teams in the East dared to use it. It simply was too unfamiliar and awkward. Even Warner believed the pass was "good for gains at times, but not at all regularly."
Though it's difficult to imagine now, the concept of a spiral was not an obvious one then. Two men seem to have hit on the idea at about the same time: Warner, who realized that throwing the ball point first would present less surface to the air and make it travel farther, and a coach named Eddie Cochems at Saint Louis University, who decided that holding the ball by the laces offered the most secure grip.
The first downfield, overhand spiral was completed on Sept. 5, 1906, when Saint Louis quarterback Bradbury Robinson threw to teammate Jack Schneider in an obscure game against Carroll College. A more notable pass was recorded when Wesleyan completed one against Yale on Oct. 3. Carlisle may deserve partial credit for that throw: Wesleyan's coach, Howard R. "Bosey" Reiter, claimed he learned how to throw a spiral from an unidentified Carlisle Indian in 1903, when Reiter coached the semipro Philadelphia Football Athletics and an Indian was on the team. The only other significant pass that season was thrown by Yale, which gained a first down that led to victory over Harvard when Paul Veeder threw 30 yards to Bob Forbes.
By the start of the '07 campaign, most major teams still considered the pass too exotic and unsound, and refused to practice it. But as Warner watched the Indians work out in the fall of '07, he found that they had already become "deadly accurate" in the long pass. The squad that gathered on the practice field that September was Carlisle's most talented ever, so rich in ability that Warner considered it "about as perfect a football machine as I ever sent on the field." They put his imagination to work.
The Indians were led at quarterback by Frank Mount Pleasant, a 19-year-old Tuscarora-Iroquois chief's son from just outside of Niagara Falls with deceptive looks. Mount Pleasant only weighed somewhere between 130 and 140 pounds, and his student card said he had a "weak heart." He was so finely built that Warner nearly dismissed him from the football team, considering him "too light and frail" for the game. "He was always begging, however, and finally, thinking his speed might be useful, I gave him a chance," Warner remembered. As it turned out, you didn't dare judge Mount Pleasant by his appearance. Games came as naturally to him "as breathing," Warner discovered. He was a springy, dodging runner with surprising leg strength, a good punter and, most unexpected of all, a great passer who could set his feet and fling the ball 50 yards downfield, on target.
He was also an accomplished pianist and an Olympic long jumper, and he would soon enter Dickinson Law School. This oddly talented young man, so in tune with himself, nonplussed Warner, who found him to be "a handsome, careless lad."
Mount Pleasant wasn't the only member of the squad who could throw. So could Pete Hauser, a burly 21-year-old Cheyenne from Oklahoma who lined up at fullback. For targets, they had two tall, fleet veteran ends in Exendine and William Gardner, a Chippewa from Turtle Mountain, N.D. Both had recently graduated but remained on campus while they took courses at Dickinson Law.
Warner's pencil strokes seemed to flicker as he drew up a new offense to take advantage of their versatility. Walter Camp -- whose personal interventions between 1878 and 1925, when he sat on every rules committee, would set football apart from rugby -- dubbed Warner's new scheme "the Carlisle formation," but later it would be known as the "single wing" for its wing-shaped appearance. Whatever it was called, it was a bolt of inspiration. It was predicated on one small move: Warner shifted a halfback out wide, to outflank the opposing tackle, forming something that looked like a wing. But it opened up a world of possibilities.
Its beauty lay in its many options and disguises. They could show one thing and then do another. They could line up as if to punt -- and then throw. No one could know whether the Indians were going to run, throw or kick out of the formation.
For added measure, on pass plays Warner taught his quarterbacks to sprint out a few yards to their left or their right, buying more time to throw. The rest of the players flooded downfield and knocked down any opponent who might be able to intercept or bat away the pass.
The players loved it. "How the Indians did take to it!" Warner remembered. "Light on their feet as professional dancers, and every one amazingly skillful with his hands, the redskins pirouetted in and out until the receiver was well down the field, and then they shot the ball like a bullet."
Carlisle roared off to a 6-0 start. On Oct. 26, they went to Philadelphia to face unbeaten Pennsylvania, ranked fourth in the nation, at Franklin Field before a crowd of 22,800. No team all season had crossed Penn's goal line.
On just the second play of the game, Hauser whipped a 40-yard forward pass over the middle that Gardner caught on a dead run.
There are three or four signal moments in the evolution of football, and this was one of them. Imagine the excitement of the crowd that day -- and the confusion of the defenders -- if all they had ever seen was a densely packed, scrumlike game. Suddenly, the center snapped the ball three yards deep to a man who was a powerful runner, a deadeye passer and a great kicker. The play must have felt like an electric charge.
"It will be talked of often this year," the Philadelphia North American said. "No such puny little pass as Penn makes, but a lordly throw, a hurl that went farther than many a kick."
It was the sporting equivalent of the Wright brothers taking off at Kitty Hawk. And it utterly baffled the Quakers. From that moment on, the Indians threw all over the field.
"The forward pass was child's play," the New York Herald reported. "They tried it on the first down, on the second down, on the third down -- any down and in any emergency -- and it was seldom that they did not make something with it. . . . They wriggled out of tackles and made ten and fifteen yards when any ordinary football players would have been satisfied with one yard."
To the panicked Quakers, the Carlisle receivers came at them like a stampede. At the start of a play, every man shot downfield. Some decoyed the defensive backs and others hit the safeties. Penn's all-American fullback, William "Big Bill" Hollenback, described what it was like: "I'd see the ball sailing in my direction. And at the same time came the thundering of what appeared to be a tribe of Indians racing full tilt in my direction. When this gang hit you, they just simply wiped you out, and you lost all other interest in the football contest."
There was one other significant event that day: Thorpe's debut. In the first half, Carlisle's veteran starting halfback, Albert Payne, wrenched his knee. Thorpe finally had his chance, and he raced onto the field. He was so excited that the first time Carlisle called his number, he ran in the opposite direction from his blockers and was buried under a pile of tacklers. But on the next play, he ran 45 yards.
The Indians completed 8 of 16 passes -- even Thorpe threw one -- and outgained Penn by 402 yards to 76. The Quakers were so confused by the Indians' fakes and feints that they "finally reached a point where the players ran in circles emitting wild yawps," Warner remembered. Carlisle won, 26-6.
The ease of Carlisle's victory over Penn startled and discomfited football traditionalists. The New York Times reported that the Indians' explosive use of the pass "put all the coaches at the large universities at sea." Clearly, the Indians were miles ahead of any other team. Unsurprisingly, the competition did not congratulate them for it, but resented them. In the past, the Indians had been a novelty act, a plucky little team that played over their heads. But now they were a powerful and undefeated machine, and they had made an opponent look slow and stupid.
The Indians frustrated their opponents to the point of lashing out. At one point during Carlisle's unbeaten streak, Hauser had to be helped off the field. As he came to the sideline, Warner asked him what happened.
"Same old thing. They kneed me."
"Know who it was?" Warner demanded.
Hauser nodded. "Yep."
"Well, what did you do?" Warner said. "Didn't you say anything?"
"Sure, I said something," Hauser replied. "I said, 'Who's the savage now?' "
Adapted from the book "The Real All Americans" by Sally Jenkins, published by Doubleday, a division of Random House Inc. Reprinted with permission.
"The Real All Americans" By Sally Jenkins