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A Brief History: "Real Football" vs. the Innovators

Some would have you believe that things like Air Raid and HUNH are passing fads or corruptions of the game, but the truth is, people have been pushing the boundaries of the sport from almost the very beginning.

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The 1911 Carlisle Indians posing with the game ball after they upset Harvard
The 1911 Carlisle Indians posing with the game ball after they upset Harvard
By Carlisle Indian Industrial School (Cumberland County Historical Society) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In the Beginning...

In the early days, football was more blood than sport, a taste of the war a generation of young men had grown up without, an opportunity for valor and manhood where death was still a very real possibility. In fact, in 1905 alone, there were 149 injuries and 18 deaths nationwide, both at the high school and college level, prompting an ultimatum from President Theodore Roosevelt—there would be reform or football would be banned.

The titans of the sport at that time were not all that different than they are today. Though the names on their jerseys would draw a few strange looks nowadays - Harvard, Yale, the University of Chicago (etc.) - their style of play, generally considered to be "real" football, would not have been all that unrecognizable to those who champion a similar distinction today. They were the vanguard, the bruisers, the ground-and-pound, 5-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust, hit-you-square-in-the-jaw-and-then-hit-you-again, red-blooded, American heroes, and they ruled the sport almost from its very inception.


I should say, they ruled the sport, except for this one tiny quarter, inhabited by folks who were either the true meaning or the polar opposite of "American", depending on your point of view: The Carlisle Indian Industrial School.

Founded in 1879, by Captain Richard Henry Pratt, a Civil War veteran and a champion of westward expansion, the Carlisle School offered to save Native Americans by assimilating them into American culture and values, thereby removing any threat they may have seemed to pose to the American public. Pratt was a master salesman, and soon Chiefs were sending their youths from reservations all over the country to be "civilized" at Carlisle. When they got there, however, they received more than just a new name or haircut, they were also introduced to this bulwark of real Americanism—football.

Though by some accounts they put together their first "team" within three years of the school's founding, the Carlisle Indians were not officially recognized by the NCAA as such until 1893. The most likely culprit for their lag in recognition was the fact that, in the beginning, the Indians were pretty terrible. Lacking the size, and sheer girth, of their Ivy-league counterparts, they were easily pushed around, yielding one lopsided victory after another. The fact that they were so terrible (and that one of his players had suffered a broken leg during a game) led Pratt initially to move to cancel the program, but he was met with fierce protest by the student body and the eloquence and passion of their appeal convinced him to keep it going.

Make Way for the Innovator!

Glen Scobey "Pop" Warner turned 28 in 1899, the year that Carlisle came calling. He'd been a coach at the University of Georgia and, most recently, at Cornell, but coaching at Carlisle was unlike anything he'd ever done before. Almost immediately, Warner recognized that he couldn't win against the traditional powers by playing the game on their terms. Given that his players were always much smaller than their competition -- only once did he have a team whose average weight eclipsed 170 lbs -- he changed the way he taught the technique of the game in order to overcome what they lacked in size and to highlight what they did have in spades, raw speed. It was Warner, for example, who first taught his players to eschew the straight-up blocking schemes of the traditional powers, training them instead to turn and throw their bodies at the legs and knees of their opponents, essentially the first appearance of the cut-block. Whereas the traditional stance for a running back was standing up, feet apart with your hands on your knees, Warner taught his players to start from a three or four point stance, which would help them get up to speed and reach the edge of the menacing defenses they faced more quickly.

Beyond technique, however, Warner also invented a host of novel formations and even trick-plays. In 1902, for example, in advance of his game with Harvard, Warner had elastic bands sewn into the jerseys of a few of his players. Then, at the start of the second half, with Carlisle leading the Crimson 15-0 and Warner looking to build on their momentum, he called for the return team to run the "hunchback" play they'd practiced only a handful of times before. As the ball sailed through the air, the Indians formed a wall, and, when their return man caught it, ducking behind his teammates, he tucked it in the back of another man's jersey. The team then scattered - each man running his own path, arms over his stomach as if holding a ball - while the real ball carrier ran straight up the middle of the field. By the time the Crimson realized they had been duped, all they could do was watch while the player from Carlisle ran the last few yards to the end zone.

The Greatest Innovation of Them All

Yet, the innovation that truly changed the game and allowed the Carlisle Indians to become one of the transcendent programs in the nation, was actually not one that Warner could claim as his own. In response to the President's ultimatum, representatives from each school with a football program came together in order to save the game they loved. There, they drafted a whole host of reforms, including increasing the first-down yardage from five to ten yards, but the most important change they made was to legalize the forward pass.

Of course, they paired that with a pile of regulations that made even attempting a forward pass unthinkable for most programs. For example, if a pass went without being touched, it resulted not in a loss of down but a loss of possession, giving the ball to the opposing team at the spot where it touched the ground. However, for Pop Warner, who spent hours in his garage attempting to figure out the most efficient throwing technique (and eventually settling on "spiraling" the ball), it was just the thing that could tip the scales in Carlisle's direction. While it's true that a quarterback from St. Louis is credited with the first completion, and Notre Dame is often considered its populizer, it was the Carlisle Indians who mastered the forward pass and used it to become one of the more dominant teams of the first decade of the 1900's.

In order to make the most efficient use of this new weapon, Warner drew up an entirely new formation, moving the halfback outside the opposing tackle rather than directly behind the quarterback, which allowed for a wide array of misdirection and deception. From the same basic formation, the Carlisle Indians could run any play in their arsenal (they could even punt!) and opposing defenses never knew which to expect. Indeed, Warner worked hard to disguise his plays, training his quarterbacks to begin each one by sprinting to the left or right before either handing off or launching the ball toward an open man. They didn't just use the forward pass, they owned the forward pass. As a reporter from the New York Herald noted, "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."

The King is Dead. Long Live the King.

Then, in November of 1907, Carlisle traveled to the University of Chicago to take on what many believed to be the best team in college football. With nearly 30,000 looking on, a massive number for the time, Chicago initially stalled the Carlisle passing attack by immediately shoving their receivers out of bounds at the start of each play. In response, Warner apparently coached his players to run down the sideline and re-enter the field whenever they could and, in one glistening moment, it worked. A Carlisle receiver, Albert Exendine, ended up running almost the length of the field, behind the Chicago bench, and then reemerged well behind Chicago's defenders, at which point, the quarterback unleashed a perfect spiral. Sally Jenkins, who wrote a book about Carlisle and their contributions to the game called "The Real All Americans", captures it this way:

For a moment, it was a frozen scene in a staged drama. The ball hung in the air, a tantalizing possibility... In that long moment, 27,000 spectators, mashed together on benches and cramped on platforms, may have felt their loyalty to the home team evaporate in the grip of a powerful new emotion. They may have noticed something they never had before, that a ball, traveling through space, traces a profoundly elegant path. They may have realized something else, that it was beautiful.

Carlisle won that game 18-4, and made more than a few converts to their style of play. However, what really brings the story home is the fact that, the very next off season, the traditional powers lobbied for a new rule to be added to the books, and it has been illegal for a receiver to be the first player to touch the ball after going out of bounds and then coming back in-bounds ever since.

Connecting the Dots

That was neither the first nor the last time that the traditional powers proposed a rule to limit or completely eradicate some innovation by Carlisle and Pop Warner, and it is exactly that struggle -- that evolutionary warfare, if you will -- that provides a perfect bridge into our time. For one, we need to realize that this fight between the "traditional powers" and the "innovators" has been going on almost as long as the game itself. When we hear about proposals to prevent teams from snapping the ball within ten seconds or to reduce the amount of yards a lineman can block down field, we are hearing echoes of a battle that has been raging for more than a century. As long as there have been "traditional powers", there have been men pushing the boundary of what was acceptable or allowed in order to level the playing field and give their guys a chance. In fact, I'd bet, if you took the time to assemble all the data, you could draw a bright red line connecting Art Briles and Pop Warner and all those in between who have attempted to carve out some unique approach to the game they love. In that sense, the innovators are as much a part of "real football" as anyone else.

More than that, though, as we are forced to consider once more the brutality of football, through our increased awareness of concussions and the damage done to players' bodies and minds over the course of a career, it is important to remember that it was innovation that saved the game all those years ago and it will likely be innovation that saves it moving forward -- and in the process, maybe we'll get a glimpse of just how beautiful this sport can be.