The Team That Invented Football – Part I

13 Jul

Long before the BCS, there was a game between the top two teams in the country, pitting Indians against Soldiers.  Just two decades after Wounded Knee, a small Indian school from Pennsylvania challenged the mighty Cadets of West Point and transformed a plodding, brutal college sport into the fast, intricate game we know and love today

By Sally Jenkins, Sports Illustrated

The game, like the country in which it was created, was a rough, bastardized thing that jumped up out of the mud. What was football but barely legalized fighting? On the raw afternoon of Nov. 9, 1912, it was no small reflection of the American character.

The coach of the Carlisle Indian School, Glenn Scobey (Pop) Warner, strode up and down the visitors’ locker room, a Turkish Trophy cigarette forked between his fingers. Warner, slab-faced and profane, wasn’t one for speeches, unless cussing counted. But he was about to make an exception.

The 22 members of the Carlisle team sat, tensing, on rows of wooden benches. Some of them laced up ankle-high leather cleats, as thick-soled as jackboots. Others pulled up heavy football pants, which bagged around their thighs like quilts. They shrugged into bulky scarlet sweaters with flannel stuffed in the shoulders for padding. Flap-eared leather helmets sat on the benches next to them, as stiff as picnic baskets.

Often Warner was at a loss to inspire the Indians. He didn’t always understand their motives, and he had put his boot in their backsides on more than one occasion. Jim Thorpe could be especially galling. The 25-year-old Oklahoman from the Sauk and Fox tribe had an introverted disposition and a carelessness that baffled Warner. But on this Saturday afternoon Warner knew just how to reach Thorpe — and his teammates. Carlisle, the nation’s flagship institution for Native Americans, was to meet the U.S. Military Academy in a showdown between two of the top football teams in the country.

It was an exquisitely apt piece of national theater: a contest between Indians and soldiers. The officers-in-training in the home locker room represented a military legacy that taunted the Indians. The frontier battles between Native Americans and the saber-waving U.S. Army “long knives” were fresh in the players’ minds — Warner had been reminding them of the subject all week. “I shouldn’t have to prepare you for this game,” the coach had told them. “Just go to your rooms and read your history books.”

Only 22 years earlier, on Dec. 29, 1890, the U.S. Army had massacred Big Foot’s band at Wounded Knee in the last major confrontation between the military and American Indians. Feelings between the Army and tribesmen still ran so high that this was just the second time they had been allowed to meet on a sports field. “When Indian outbreaks in the West were frequent the Government officials thought it unwise to have the aborigines and future officers combat in athletics,” The New York Times reported.

Under a slate-colored sky, 5,000 people filled the grandstands that ringed Army Field in West Point, N.Y. Among them was silver-mustached Walter Camp, the sport’s eminence and the arbiter of All-Americas. Correspondents from the Times, the New York Tribune and the New York Herald scribbled bad Indian metaphors in their notebooks. Cadets in high-necked tunics stood erect in the bleachers, eager to see Army defend its honor.  Sporty young men in three-button sack suits with fashionably cuffed pants had come from Manhattan to see the results of their wagers. Ladies in organdy moved through the crowd, their enormous-brimmed hats floating in the air like boats.

It was an audience steeped in frontier lore, raised on blood-curdling newspaper accounts of “hostiles,” Western dime novels like Mustang Merle, The Boy Rancher and, of course, on Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.  The rising popularity of football had closely followed the ebbing of the frontier wars. Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Columbia had formed the Intercollegiate Football Association on Nov. 23, 1876 — just four months after the annihilation of Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s troops at Little Big Horn.  By the 1890s Victorian America was intensely preoccupied with the sport as a new male proving ground and a remedy for the neurasthenia of the age.  On quadrangles across the country, collegians slammed into one another until the blood and spittle flew, and leviathan stadiums were built to accommodate the growing pastime.

One of the campuses most obsessed with football was West Point.  Participation in the game was almost a requirement for the truly ambitious Cadet; the Army locker room on the day of the Carlisle game contained no fewer than nine future generals. And the Cadets loved the most bullying form of football. They were a squad of imposing brawn: Army’s captain, Leland Devore, stood 6’6″ and weighed 240 pounds. In the backfield was an iron-legged halfback named Dwight David Eisenhower, who was known for punishing opponents. The coach of the 1912 team, a martinet named Ernest (Pot) Graves, had looked at a steamroller parked outside the West Point officers’ club and said, “There is my idea of football.”

In Carlisle the Cadets met their philosophic and stylistic opposite. The Indians were significantly smaller than Army, but they were renowned for their dazzling
sleight of hand and for the breathtaking speed of their star runner, the Olympian Thorpe. Under Warner’s creative tutelage they had mastered an astounding array of trick plays — reverses, end-arounds, flea-flickers — and forward passes. Their talent for deception was born partly of necessity: With a student body of just 1,000, ranging in age from 12 to 25, Carlisle was perpetually undermanned. But deception also suited the Indians’ keen sense of injustice at the hands of whites.

“Nothing delighted them more than to outsmart the pale faces,” Warner observed. “There was never a time when they wouldn’t rather have won by an eyelash with some wily stratagem than by a large score with straight football.”

Ironically, it was a soldier who had founded Carlisle. Richard Henry Pratt, a cavalry officer who had commanded the all-black Buffalo Soldiers in the frontier wars, established the school in an old Army barracks in Pennsylvania in 1879 for the purpose of “civilizing” Indian children. It was a harsh social experiment. As Pratt liked to declaim, Kill the Indian, save the man.  Carlisle students were forbidden to speak their tribal languages, paint their skin or wear braids or blankets. The school clothed them in surplus military uniforms and taught them to march like soldiers.

On Carlisle’s athletic green, however, an altogether different experiment took place, this one conducted by the pupils. The record books couldn’t convey just how innovative and influential the Carlisle football teams were. Every time a quarterback today feigns a handoff or rears back to throw, he owes a debt to
the Indians. Before Carlisle, football was a dull and brutal game, wedges of men pushing one another around in the dirt. The Indians found new ways to win,
and they transformed the game into the thrilling high-speed chase it is now.

They didn’t change just football. They changed prevailing ideas about Native Americans. To well-meaning missionaries, land-grabbing politicians and Wild
West Show audiences, Indians were heathen, degraded, mentally inferior or simply assigned by God to be victims. The Carlisle players were different: They
were winners.

But against Army, simply winning wasn’t good enough. The Indians intended to win in a certain way. Warner had developed an extraordinary new offense: an
exercise in exact timing, artfully disguised ball handling and, above all, speed. The Indians had held it under wraps game after game. When Warner asked
them against which opponent they wanted to debut the scheme, they had been unanimous: “The soldiers.”

As the Indians finished dressing, Warner surveyed the locker room. There was quarterback Gus Welch, the orphaned Chippewa from Wisconsin, slightly built but with a conjurer’s quickness of foot and hand. There was tackle Pete Calac, a Mission Indian from Fall Brook, Calif., who lost two siblings to typhoid and
came to Carlisle on the Union Pacific with only a third-grade education. Then there was Thorpe, sleepy-eyed yet with a buried intensity. Warner took a few
minutes to review the new game plan. Then, when he was sure each player understood his assignment, he addressed them all.

“Your fathers and your grandfathers,” Warner began, “fought their fathers. These men playing against you today are soldiers. They are the Long Knives. You are Indians.  Tonight, we will know if you are warriors.”

End of Part I

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