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The Team That Invented College Football
Sally Jenkins
September 09, 2010
JUST 22 YEARS AFTER THE BATTLE OF WOUNDED KNEE, THE CARLISLE INDIANS, COACHED BY GLENN (POP) WARNER, TRANSFORMED A PLODDING, BRUTAL AND DULL SPORT INTO THE FAST, INTRICATE AND EXCITING GAME WE KNOW TODAY
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September 09, 2010

The Team That Invented College Football

JUST 22 YEARS AFTER THE BATTLE OF WOUNDED KNEE, THE CARLISLE INDIANS, COACHED BY GLENN (POP) WARNER, TRANSFORMED A PLODDING, BRUTAL AND DULL SPORT INTO THE FAST, INTRICATE AND EXCITING GAME WE KNOW TODAY

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"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."

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, then 19, 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.

Two weeks later the Indians were in Cambridge for the game that was annually the emotional high point of their season: Harvard. In 10 previous meetings Carlisle had never beaten the Crimson. But this time the Indians were convinced they had the superior team. The game wasn't seven minutes old when Mount Pleasant struck Exendine with a 45-yard pass that the end gathered in at Harvard's three to set up a Carlisle touchdown. From then on the Crimson didn't know where to look. "Only when a redskin shot out of the hopeless maze...could it be told with any degree of certainty just where the attack was directed," the Boston Herald reported.

The Indians scored three more times that afternoon. Payne started around end as if to run—but pulled up short and heaved a scoring pass all the way across the field. Then Hauser caught a 31-yard pass from Mount Pleasant. Last but not least, Mount Pleasant wove through the entire Harvard defense on an 80-yard punt return.

The final score was 23-15. From Boston to New York City, Carlisle's victory was front-page news. CRIMSON HOPELESSLY BAFFLED BY BRILLIANT TACTICS OF REDSKINS, one headline announced. But the real story wasn't that a team of Indians had beaten Harvard. It was that they were the masters of a new sport. Carlisle football, mixing the run, pass and kick with elements of surprise, was the game of the future.

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 would say, "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. The players—including Thorpe, who earlier in the year had won gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon at the Stockholm Olympics—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.

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