First in flight: Origins of forward pass are in Missouri, Kansas

Presumably between shifts as lifeguards at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, Notre Dame’s Gus Dorais and Knute Rockne 100 summers back took to the sand to toil at the quirky new aerodynamic element of football known as “the forward pass.”

“Spectators on the beach were not used to seeing a football thrown in the air,” biographer Ray Robinson wrote in his 1999 book, “Rockne of Notre Dame,” adding, “They marveled at the insanity of these two young fellows exhausting themselves under a broiling sun.”

The more memorable marveling came Nov. 1 at West Point, N.Y., when the duo bewildered Army as Dorais completed 14 of 17 passes for 243 yards and three touchdowns in a 35-13 romp.

“The yellow leather egg was in the air half the time, with the Notre Dame team spread out in all directions over the field waiting for it,” The New York Times wrote from the game. “The Army players were hopelessly confused and chagrined before Notre Dame’s great playing, and their style of old-fashioned, close line-smashing play was no match for the spectacular and highly perfected attack ...”

The high-profile nature of the game (Army was then a national powerhouse located near the media hub of the nation) combined with the fancy passing ensured that it would be no passing fancy.

The moment was pivotal in reversing skepticism about the potential of the newfangled concept that initially had been dismissed by many as gimmickry or a fad that would dilute the manliness of the game.

But contrary to myth-making enhanced by the popular 1940 movie, “Knute Rockne: All-American” and the short-attention span shorthand of history, the forward pass hardly was first put to use or invented by Dorais and Rockne.

In fact, its sanctioned origins were years before in Kansas (employed by Wichita State and Washburn in a 1905 exhibition game) and Missouri, where Saint Louis University became the first to make bold use of it after it was legalized in 1906.

Toward the cause in the summer of ’06, SLU coach Eddie Cochems whisked his team away to a Jesuit sanctuary in Lake Beulah, Wis., to work with the balloon-like ball, then commonly known as a blimp, to adapt its use for what he called “the overhead projectile spiral pass.”

It paid off in ways that ultimately would transform the game starting Sept. 5, 1906, when Bradbury Robinson threw for a 20-yard touchdown to Jack Schneider in a 22-0 win over Carroll College to open a season in which the Billikens went 11-0 and outscored opponents 407-11.

Others threw that year, and the Billikens owe some of their firsts to simply being scheduled to play earlier than most, but no one is known to have taken more prolific or instant advantage of the rule than SLU.

“E.B. Cochems is to forward passing what the Wright brothers are to aviation and Thomas Edison is to the electric light,” Dave Nelson, the former secretary-editor of the NCAA Football Rules Committee, wrote in his 1994 book, “The Anatomy of a Game: Football, the Rules and the Men Who Made the Game.”

Likely obscured by playing in the remote Midwest at a school that dropped football in 1949, Cochems and Robinson never received their due in terms of Hall of Fame recognition.

Cochems’ 1906 team largely was made up of future doctors, including Robinson, who also became a politician, but Cochems’ career seemed to sputter amid reported accusations he later was recruiting professionals.

Below the popular radar as each might be, some still consider them the fathers of the forward pass. Dorais and Rockne didn’t dispute it.

“As with most revolutionary movements in established practice, the forward pass came in quietly, almost obscurely,” Rockne wrote in a 1930 article for Colliers magazine, quoted in Allison Danzig’s 1971 book, “Oh, How They Played the Game,” adding that Cochems “enrolled a few boys with hands like steam shovels who could toss a football just as easily and almost as far as they could throw a baseball.

“One would have thought that so effective a play would be instantly copied and become the vogue. The East, however, had not learned much or cared much about Mid-West and Western football; indeed the East hardly knew that football existed beyond the Alleghenies.”

For all we still don’t know and should worry about concerning the long-term ramifications of head injuries in football, the game still was seen as savage in 1905, when the Chicago Tribune reported 18 college and high school deaths and 159 serious injuries under a headline, “Football Year’s Death Harvest.”

Or as Shailer Mathews, dean of the University of Chicago Divinity school, put it at the time, “There arises a general protest against this boy-killing, man-mutilating, money-making, education-prostituting gladiatorial sport,” and a number of influential schools, including Columbia, Northwestern and Stanford, were dropping the sport.

The Tribune article was written to the attention of President Teddy Roosevelt, who either paid heed or was otherwise persuaded and that October summoned leaders from Harvard, Princeton and Yale to talk about profound changes in the game.

“I demand that football change its rules or be abolished,” he has been widely quoted by sports historians as saying, though the original reference is elusive. “Brutality and foul play should receive the same summary punishment given to a man who cheats at cards! Change the game or forsake it.”

In December 1905, some 62 schools convened in New York to begin implementing ways to change the game.

By the time the group that was the precursor to the NCAA held its last meeting in April, major changes had been instituted: yardage for a first down was changed from 5 yards to 10; a neutral zone was established; fewer momentum/mass formations were allowed; unnecessary roughness was banned (philosophically, anyway) and there was an allowance for the forward pass.

Not that it hadn’t already been tried.

In the 1876 Yale-Princeton game, Yale’s Walter Camp, later to become instrumental in the shaping of football’s rules, threw a football forward to a teammate as he was being tackled, which led to a touchdown. The referee hadn’t seen it and responded to the protest with a coin toss that allowed the TD to stand.

There were other similar episodes, including in the 1895 North Carolina-Georgia game.

But then there was Dec. 25, 1905, in Wichita, in an exhibition game between Fairmount (now Wichita State) and Washburn of uncertain origins.

An historic account by The Wichita Eagle refers to a 1956 article written by Bliss Isely, one of the Fairmount College players in 1905, for “This Week: The National Sunday Magazine.”

Per Isely, the game came about because Roosevelt himself had wanted an exhibition demonstrating the new rules as they were being tinkered with.

“When no big-league teams accepted the challenge,” Isely wrote, Fairmount team manager and left guard Roy Kirk booked a game with Washburn and wired Roosevelt about it.

It’s unclear who completed the first apparently legal, yet unofficial, as an exhibition, pass. Perhaps it was Fairmount’s Bill Davis to Art Solter, the Eagle wrote, perhaps it was Washburn’s Hugh Hope to Glenn Millice.

But Isley described Davis’ pass to Solter as the first completion, albeit one of modest technique as he ran right to avoid a tackle and lobbed a two-hand underhand pass to Solter.

Part of the hesitance to embrace the new concept in 1906 was that it came with deterrents such as the fact that an incomplete pass was a 15-yard penalty, there was no such thing as pass interference and a pass that hit the ground without being touched awarded possession to the opponent.

“Well-executed they are undoubtedly highly spectacular, but the risk of dropping the ball is so great as to make the practice extremely hazardous and its desirability doubtful,” The New York Times wrote from the Villanova-Carlisle game of Sept. 26, 1906.

Even so, Carlisle would soon advance a cause that Cochems committed to and took advantage of first in ways few else would for years until after the rules and the ball began to be streamlined more favorably for its use.

After the season, he wrote a 10-page article on “The Forward Pass and On-Side Kick” for the Camp-edited 1907 edition of Spalding’s “How to Play Foot Ball,” extolling the endless possibilities of the pass.

“Should I begin to explain the endless ways in which the pass could figure,” he wrote, “I would invite myself to an endless task.”

He could never have known how right he was, as Notre Dame began to more broadly showcase in 1913.