The Early History of Football’s Forward Pass

The forward pass was ridiculed by college football’s powerhouse teams only to be proved wrong by Pop Warner and his Indians

In an era where an incomplete pass resulted in a 15-yard penalty, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School showcased the potential of the pass. (Library of Congress)

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Carlisle romped 26-6, outgaining Penn 402 yards to 76. Two weeks later, the Indians again used the pass to defeat Harvard, a team they’d never beaten, 23-15. Carlisle lost one game that year, to Princeton 16-0 on the road. The game had changed forever. In the ensuing decades, a Notre Dame victory over Army in 1913 somehow earned the reputation as the game that pioneered the use of the forward pass and changed football. Irish quarterback Gus Dorais completed 14 of 17 passes for 243 yards, some to an end named Knute Rockne, in a shocking 35-13 victory. By then, the rules had been changed to eliminate the penalties for incompletions and throwing the ball over the center of the line.

But Jenkins says the idea that Notre Dame created the modern passing game “is an absolute myth.” Newspaper story after newspaper story from the 1907 season details the Carlisle passing game. Even Rockne, she adds, attempted to correct the record later in life.

“Carlisle wasn’t just throwing one or two passes a game. They were throwing it half their offense,” she adds. “Notre Dame gets credit for popularizing the forward pass, but Pop Warner is the man who really created the passing game as we know it.”

Thorpe, who became an Olympic hero and one of the most celebrated athletes of the century, went on to play for Carlisle through the 1912 season, when Army Cadet Dwight Eisenhower was injured trying to tackle him during a 27-6 Indians victory. After the 1914 season, Warner left Carlisle for Pittsburgh, where he won 33 consecutive games. He went on to Stanford and Temple, finishing his coaching career in 1938 with 319 wins.

In 1918, the U.S. Army reoccupied the barracks at Carlisle as a hospital to treat soldiers wounded in World War I, closing the school. Carlisle ended its short stretch in the football limelight with a 167-88-13 record and a .647 winning percentage, the best for any defunct football program.

“They were the most innovative team that ever lived,” Jenkins says. “Most of Warner’s innovations he got credit for later were created in 1906 and 1907 at Carlisle. He was never so inventive again.”

About Jim Morrison
Jim Morrison

Jim Morrison is a freelance writer whose stories, reported from two dozen countries, have appeared in numerous publications including, the New York Times, and National Wildlife.

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