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early days of football

DATELINE Nov. 23, 1907 – The Carlisle Indians Play a Final Game That Changed the Rules

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In the last game of the season, the Carlisle Indians (9-1) took on the Big Ten champs, the heavily favored University of Chicago. Worse, the Indians had lost their star quarterback, Frank Mt. Pleasant, to a broken thumb. Over 27,000 Chicago fans (below) were eager for a “massacre at Marshall Field.” Chicago’s coach, Amos Alonzo Stagg, was Pop Warner’s rival in trick plays and experimenting with the new passing game. To shut down the Indians’ air attack, Stagg had a new trick: the first “pass defense.” It was simple. When the ball’s snapped, knock down the Indians go-to receivers, Exendine and Gardner. If they get up and run, knock ‘em down again. It was all legal. During the game, it worked…

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DATELINE November 16, 1907 — “Masters of the New Football”

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Not only “masters,” the Carlisle Indians are moneymakers. When it comes to box-office draw, they’re No. 1 in the nation, taking in $45,000 at the gate in 1907 (President Roosevelt’s salary is $50,000.) Why such a draw? Every “footballist” in America wants to see how a crew of ingenious Indians from the little Carlisle Indian School are making big time changes to how football is played. When Carlisle traveled to the Midwest (the “Wild West of Football”) and took on the University of Minnesota, more than 8,000 fans crammed into Northrop Field (above; look above the left goal post – two guys on a power pole!). The game was a perfect matchup: old-school football vs. new-school football. Minnesota’s two scores…

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DATELINE Nov. 9, 1907 — The Carlisle Indians Finally Have Their Day at Harvard

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Eleven times, the Carlisle Indians have traveled to Boston to take on the Harvard Crimson. Eleven times, they have gone home defeated. Before the game, here’s what Coach Pop Warner told the Indians: Boys, today you face the sons and grandsons of the men who conquered your people. They are the descendants of the white men who ordered the ruination of your tribes. And now, the sons and grandsons of your conquerors want their turn to fight the tribe that has risen against them: the Carlisle Indians. But this time, unlike the wars of the past, the contest between red men and white will be waged on equal terms. This time, the playing field is level and you’re going to…

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DATELINE 1907 — The Carlisle Indians are First in Firsts

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  First all-Indian football team (1894) First non-college team to play against and beat the Ivy Leagues First to travel cross-country for a game (U. of California, 1899) First to launch the passing game and game-changing “single wing” (1907) First to send scouts to spy on other teams in prep for games First to call audibles, using Indian words unknown to opponents First to use the fake punt, reverse, and screen pass On Nov. 2, 1907, they bagged another “first” when they took on the Princeton Tigers at the New York Polo Grounds, home of baseball and football. Despite torrential rain, 30,000 football fanatics crowded into the Polo Grounds to see Carlisle’s dazzling new style of play. They witnessed the…

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DATELINE 1907 – Football Formation or the Top View of a Birthday Cake?

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Both! On Oct. 26, 1907, the “single wing” offense was unleashed on UPenn by Pop Warner and the Carlisle Indians. With the center able to snap the ball to three backs (TB, FB, QB), the options of run, handoff or pass were endless. The birth of the single wing (now called the “wildcat”) transformed football from a move-the-pile brawl, to the fast, open game we watch today. On that fateful day in 1907, what did the single wing do to No. 4 ranked UPenn? Two stats tell it. Carlisle had 402 yards to Penn’s 76, and 22 first downs to Penn’s 3. The Philadelphia Press told it this way: “With racial savagery and ferocity the Carlisle Indian eleven grabbed Penn’s…

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DATELINE 1907 – Olympian Jim Thorpe’s Weaknesses and the Invention of the Halftime Show

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Five years in the future, The Carlisle Indians’ Jim Thorpe will win gold in the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympics. The King of Sweden will tell Jim, “You sir, are the greatest athlete in the world.” Jim will reply, “Thanks, King!” But in the ’07 game against Bucknell, the “greatest” had his worst kickoff return. Jim brushed aside tacklers like horseflies and headed for the goal line. In the last few yards, Jim eased up, got clipped by a diving player, did a face-plant and fumbled. Luckily, a teammate scooped the ball up and scored the touchdown. Jim would go on to perform many greatests in track, football and baseball. But some of his  “greatests” are less well…

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DATELINE 1907 – Football Trickery Abounds

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Brian Meehl is the author of Blowback ’07 (MCP Books, November 1, 2016) and this article is the seventh in a new series discussing the radical changes in football from the 1905 to 1907.  No one masterminds trick plays like Pop Warner and the Carlisle Indians. If “there’s no rule against” (to quote Pop), they do it. In their ’07 game against Syracuse, Pop sprang the “many balls trick.” Each of his backs had a football-sized patch sewn on the belly of their jersey, making fake hand-offs impossible to read. (“Who’s got the ball? They all do!) Pop’s most notorious stunt is the “hidden ball trick.” For the 1903 Harvard game, Pop had elastic sewn into the bottom of the jersey…

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DATELINE 1907 – Helmets, Broken Noses and Pretty Boys

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Brian Meehl is the author of Blowback ’07 (MCP Books, November 1, 2016) and this article is the sixth in a new series discussing the radical changes in football from the 1905 to 1907.  Football introduces the first head protection: the “nose guard.” Who needs a helmet when players grow their hair long for all the skull protection they need. OK, if 1907 players fear a broken nose more than a broken head, are they dumb pretty-boys, or just plain tough? You be the judge. The “starting 11” means just that. You play both ways, offense & defense. Substitutions? Sure, but if you leave the game, you’re done, like in baseball. The only exception is if an injury takes you out, then…

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DATELINE 1907 – Pop Warner Bets Big on the “Air Attack”

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Brian Meehl is the author of Blowback ’07 (MCP Books, November 1, 2016) and this article is the fifth in a new series discussing the radical changes in football from the 1905 to 1907.  Coach Pop Warner, who maligned the forward pass in ’06, is singing a new tune in ’07. In the pre-season, he’s seen his Indians throw spirals that are “deadly accurate.” A change in rules before the ’07 season also smiled on the lowly pass. Instead of an incomplete and untouched pass being penalized by a turnover, such a pass now gets a 15-yard penalty from where the ball is thrown. (The rules guys still hate passing!) But when Pop’s star quarterback for the Carlisle Indians, Frank Mt. Pleasant,…

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DATELINE 1906 – Pop Warner Identifies the “Bastard” of Football

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Brian Meehl is the author of Blowback ’07 (MCP Books, November 1, 2016) and this article is the fourth in a new series discussing the radical changes in football from the 1905 to 1907.  The tale is as wobbly as a bad spiral. Actually, the first passes weren’t spirals. They were lobbed like basketballs and thrown end-over-end. One “first” forward pass was a ref’s blunder. In 1895, as North Carolina played Georgia Tech, the Tar Heels’ punter, about to be blocked, lobbed the ball forward to George Stephens, who ran for a 70-yard touchdown. The Bulldogs’ coach, Pop Warner, protested the illegal pass, but the ref had failed to see it. The TD won the game! In a 1905 game between Washburn…

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DATELINE 1906 – The Forward Pass and Football Fatalities

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Brian Meehl is the author of Blowback ’07 (MCP Books, November 1, 2016) and this article is the third in a new series discussing the radical changes in football from the 1905 to 1907.  None of the new rules were as hotly debated as the “newfangled” forward pass. The good ol’ boys on the Rules Committee wailed, “It’ll turn football into roundball!” (aka basketball). “It’ll sissify the game!” So, to cripple the forward pass in its rookie season, they’ve hit it with strict rules and penalties. If the ball is passed over the line of scrimmage within 5 yards of each side of the center, it’s a turnover to the opponents from where the ball was thrown. A ball thrown across…

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DATELINE 1906 — The Rules of Football are Re-Written

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Brian Meehl is the author of Blowback ’07 (MCP Books, November 1, 2016) and this article is the second in a new series discussing the radical changes in football from the 1905 to 1907.  Last year, President Teddy Roosevelt threw the gauntlet: Football, reform your brutal ways or be abolished! His decree triggered a battle between the good ol’ boys Rules Committee that has dictated the game for decades and college presidents who are sick and tired of seeing their student-athletes being killed and maimed on the football field. In the last days of ’05, the warring groups merged together (in what will become the NCAA). By the spring of ’06, they rewrote the rules of football with a major mandate:…

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DATELINE 1905: Why Did Teddy Roosevelt want Football to be Banned?

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Brian Meehl is the author of Blowback ’07 (MCP Books, November 1, 2016) and this article is the first in a new series discussing the radical changes in football from the 1905 to 1907.  If you think football is dangerous today, take a look at the early 1900s. In 1903, 25 players died from football injuries. The 1905 season claimed 18 lives. Perhaps the most pivotal injury was a Harvard player, Teddy Roosevelt Jr. getting his face staved in. His dad, President Teddy Roosevelt, threatened to abolish football for its “brutality and foul play.” Why was the game so brutal and foul? Because of its origins. The first “rush” was Yale sophomores against Yale freshmen in a rite of passage called “Bloody…

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