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The Team That Invented Football
Sally Jenkins
April 23, 2007
Just two decades after Wounded Knee, the Carlisle Indian School transformed a plodding, brutal college sport into the fast, intricate game we know today
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April 23, 2007

The Team That Invented Football

Just two decades after Wounded Knee, the Carlisle Indian School transformed a plodding, brutal college sport into the fast, intricate game we know today

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Although it's difficult to imagine, the spiral was not an obvious concept then. Two men seem to have hit on it at about the same time: Warner, who realized that throwing the ball point-first would present less surface to the air and make a pass travel farther, and coach Eddie Cochems at Saint Louis University, who saw 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 a little-noticed game against Carroll College. A more notable pass was completed against Yale, by Wesleyan on Oct. 3, but Carlisle may deserve partial credit for that throw: Wesleyan's coach, Howard R. Reiter, claimed he learned how to throw a spiral from a Carlisle Indian in 1903 when Reiter coached the semipro Philadelphia Football Athletics and the Indian was on the team.

The Carlisle squad that gathered on the practice field in September 1907 was the school'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." The quarterback was Frank Mount Pleasant, a 19-year-old Tuscarora-Iroquois chief's son from just outside of Niagara Falls, N.Y. He wasn't the only member of the team who could throw the ball. So could Pete Hauser, a burly 21-year-old Cheyenne from Oklahoma, who lined up at fullback.

To take advantage of the Indians' versatility Warner drew up a new offense. Camp would dub it "the Carlisle formation," but later it would be known as the single wing. 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. It opened up a world of possibilities. The Indians could line up as if to punt--and then throw. No one would know whether they were going to run, pass or kick. For added measure 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.

"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 Penn, ranked fourth in the nation, before a crowd of 22,800. No team all season had crossed the Quakers' goal line. But on just the second play of the game Hauser whipped a 40-yard pass over the middle that William Gardner caught on a dead run to set up a touchdown.

There are a few signal moments in the evolution of football, and this was one of them. Imagine the confusion of the defenders. Suddenly the center snapped the ball three yards deep to a man who was a powerful runner, a deadeye passer and a great kicker. Hauser's pass to Gardner must have felt like an electric charge. "It will be talked of often this year," the Philadelphia North American said. "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. From that moment on, Carlisle threw all over the field.

"The forward pass was child's play," the New York Herald reported. The Indians "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."

Penn's All-America fullback, William (Big Bill) Hollenback, said, "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."

There was one other significant event that day: Jim Thorpe's debut. In the first half the Indians' veteran starter at halfback, Albert Payne, wrenched his knee. Thorpe finally had his chance, and he was so excited that the first time Carlisle called his number he ran away from his blockers and was buried under a pile of tacklers. On the next play he gained 45 yards.

The Indians outgained Penn 402 yards to 76. Carlisle's fakes and feints so confused the Quakers that they "finally reached a point where the players ran in circles emitting wild yawps," Warner remembered. Carlisle won 26--6.

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