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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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The theft of tribal lands was a standing source of jokes on the Carlisle football team. After a bad call from a referee, the Indians said, "What's the use of crying about a few inches when the white man has taken the whole country?"

The 1912 Indians were a team of rampant high spirits. It wasn't unheard of on the Carlisle campus to find the dairy cows locked in the gym or a pig in a bag hung from the school flagpole. The football players took pride in the fact that so many disparate characters from so many tribes, regions and circumstances could form such a brilliant whole. They were also well aware that they were "making a record for their race," as superintendent Pratt put it. In fact, they would literally set a record: Carlisle became the highest-scoring team in the country.

Over the first four games of the season the Indians averaged almost 50 points. Under quarterback Gus Welch their offense kept opponents off balance and out of breath. Without huddling they would run a series of plays as Welch reeled off audibles or used hand gestures to make adjustments. Some of the gestures were Indian signs.

The team was improved by the addition of two wildly talented running backs who had recently been promoted from the Hotshots, Pete Calac and future All-America Joe Guyon. The Indians experienced just one hitch, in a game against Washington and Jefferson, which they did not take seriously. Thorpe missed three field goals, while Welch indulged in overly flamboyant signals that annoyed Warner. As the coach stalked the sideline in mounting frustration, the Indians fumbled around, and the game ended in a scoreless tie.

Chastened, the Indians blew out Syracuse 33--0, Pitt 45--8 and Georgetown 34--20. They became so cocksure that they taunted Lehigh with their signal-calling in a 34--14 victory. A player in the backfield would yell, "What about going around right end this time?" Then they would race around right end. The Lehigh victory gave the Indians a 10-0-1 record. But that's when the joking stopped. The following week they were going to West Point for the fight of their careers.

Army was in the midst of a four-year stretch during which it went 28-5-1. Cadets tackle Alexander Weyand was a 200-pound sophomore and a tireless one-man wrecking crew. In 1911 he sent two Yale men to the sideline, one with a broken collarbone and one with an injured knee. Leland Devore outweighed Weyand by 40 pounds. In the Cadets' backfield were four future World War II generals: Eisenhower, Geoffrey Keyes, Leland Hobbs and Vernon Prichard. Eisenhower had just average speed and weighed only 175 pounds, but, he said, "I so loved the fierce bodily contact of football that I suppose my enthusiasm made up somewhat for my lack of size."

The Army-Carlisle game had national implications for both teams. The Cadets, who had the best defense in the nation, had lost only once, to Yale 6--0. With a win over Carlisle they had a chance to be No. 1 in the year-end rankings. While the Indians had the best offense in the land, commentators suggested they had run up their extravagant scores against weaker competition. A defeat of gritty Army would end all argument and establish them as front-runners for the title of best team in the country.

Then there was the longer view. For Welch, the game couldn't help but recall "the real war out in the West." Thorpe, especially, "was primed for that battle," Warner would say later. "He and I had planned it ever since our trip to Stockholm, and when the time came to deliver, Thorpe was there."

The Indians' opening play from scrimmage made football history: Welch and the Carlisle offense lined up in the first double wing formation, which Warner had designed and the players had reserved expressly for Army. Both halfbacks shifted closer to the line of scrimmage, just outside the defensive tackles. The formation infinitely multiplied the Indians' options for trick plays. Anything could happen: Welch, Thorpe and running back Alex Arcasa might run, fake, reverse, pitch, block, catch passes or throw them. "Football began to have the sweep of a prairie fire," Warner observed.

The scheme played havoc with Army--and electrified the crowd. The Indians sheared off huge chunks of yardage. "The shifting, puzzling, and dazzling attack of the Carlisle Indians had the Cadets bordering on a panic," the New York Tribune observed. "None of the Army men seemed to know just where the ball was."

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