The Team That Invented Football – Part 2

18 Jul
by Sally Jenkins, Sports Illustrated

The Carlisle practice field was a piece of hardpan that could chip the blade off a shovel. It was an uneven, rock-strewn acre irrigated with the Indians’ sweat. The players themselves had dug the field, measured it, graded it and sodded it.

On a September day in 1899, Warner stood on the field and scrutinized his new football team. His heart dropped to his shoes.  The players were “listless and scrawny, many looking as if they had been drawn through a knothole,” he would recall later.  Over the next 13 years, the coach would have just one Carlisle team whose players averaged more than 170 pounds.

Carlisle Indians - 1899

Warner was 28 when he was hired by Carlisle on the recommendation of Camp, for whom he had played at Cornell before going on to coach football at Georgia, Iowa State and his alma mater. Warner had a reputation for creativity.   At Georgia he had experimented with the screen pass and the tackling dummy.  He also developed theories of fitness, diet, training and motivation.  He rousted the Bulldogs at 6 a.m. for five-mile runs and locked them in their dorm at night.  He was an authoritarian who backed up his words with physical force; he gave up scrimmaging with the Bulldogs only when he broke the collarbone of one of his players. Then in two seasons as Cornell’s head coach he went 15-5-1.

When Pratt approached him to become Carlisle’s athletic director, Warner was intrigued. The Indians had begun playing intercollegiate football four years
earlier. Cornell had beaten them 23-6 during the ’98 season, but, Warner would recall, “the Indian boys appealed to my football imagination.” Also, Pratt offered him $1,200, a salary almost unheard of for a coach.

Young Pop Warner

The first practices went slowly. A number of the players didn’t speak English, and when Warner wanted them to do something he had to gesture with his cigarette.  In addition, Warner admitted later, “I had all the prejudices of the average white.” Among them was the idea that Indians were lazy. “Back in the days when Daniel Boone was my hero,” Warner said, “I used to read that Indians always quit if they didn’t win a fight at the very outset.”

Gradually, coach and players got better acquainted. The Indians had a mordant wit that Warner began to enjoy. They gave each other acerbic nicknames.  One boy, who had a habit of eating pie with his knife, was known as Sword Swallower.  Warner also found he and his players had something more important in common: audacity.  The coach was brimming with fresh theories, and the Indians were open to all of them.  Best of all, they were fast learners. “After a week or so of keen-eyed watching,” Warner remarked, “these beginners would turn and do the thing as though they had been trained to do it their whole lives.”

Since the Indians lacked size, Warner developed new techniques to exploit their speed and agility.  He invented the body block.  The standard method of blocking was with the shoulder, but Warner taught the flyweight Indians to roll and use the length of their bodies to cut their opponents down at the knees. Quick, low line charges became their hallmark, a style so distinctive that opponents termed it “Indianizing.”

A later version of Pop Warner's Body Block

Next Warner came up with the crouching start. The normal position for a running back was upright, with his feet apart, hands on knees.  But it occurred to Warner that a runner could fire more quickly from a coiled position.  He had the Carlisle backs crouch and push off with one or both hands.

The Indians opened the 1899 season with four straight victories.  Then, on Oct. 14, they met Pennsylvania, a team that featured three All-Americas.  The Quakers had beaten Carlisle by an average of 24 points in their four previous meetings, but they weren’t prepared for the speed with which these Warner-coached players jumped off the lines. Carlisle never trailed on its way to a 16-5 victory.

The Indians went on to an 8-2 season, their only losses coming to the Nos. 1 and 2 teams in the country, Princeton and Harvard, respectively.  On Thanksgiving Day, Carlisle met Columbia at New York City’s Polo Grounds.  The Indians put on a virtuoso exhibition of their new techniques and formations, including a baffling line shift they employed for the first time: The entire team moved to one side of the center, and on a signal the unbalanced line surged forward, followed by a ballcarrier.

Carlisle’s Isaac Seneca vaulted out of his three-point stance to rip off gains of 25 and 30 yards. He scored twice, while Frank Hudson drop-kicked four field goals.  The final score was 42-0, and Columbia’s players retreated to their dressing room in shame.  The Indians were rewarded with a No. 4 national ranking by Camp, who named Seneca a first-team All-America at running back — the only honoree who didn’t attend an Ivy League school. Carlisle’s Martin Wheelock was a second-teamer at tackle and Hudson a third-teamer at quarterback.

Isaac Seneca

But the Indians weren’t finished playing yet.  They were invited to take on the best team in the West, Cal, which was 7-0-1. On Christmas Day, 15,000 fans went to San Francisco’s 16th and Folsom streets field to watch a game billed as the “East-West championship.” Unfortunately the Westerners had gone to
extreme lengths to enhance their home field advantage.  They had covered the pitch with sand. Next, Cal presented the game ball: a weighty thing that looked
like a large squash. With the sand and the heavy ball Cal meant to negate the Indians’ speed and Hudson’s dropkicks. Warner and his players protested, to no
avail.

All afternoon the two teams crawled through the sand. Hudson missed every kick he tried. Carlisle scored just once — on a safety.  But that was enough: The
Indians won 2-0.

As the players made their way home by rail, they stopped to visit other Indian academies. One of these was the Haskell Institute, in Lawrence, Kans.  On Jan.
12, 1900, the Haskell student body turned out for a dress parade and a breakfast in the Carlisle players’ honor. One boy gazed with particular awe at the famous All-Americas, Seneca, Wheelock and Hudson.

He was a woebegone child who was infected with the football craze that had swept the Haskell campus. Like his schoolmates he played in his work jeans and boots, chasing a homemade ball — a stocking stuffed with grass and tied at both ends.  This was the 12-year-old Jim Thorpe.

Football and Carlisle had become indivisible.  Warner created an ambitious junior varsity nicknamed the Hotshots, and the field house and gymnasium were hives of constant training.  Nevertheless the Carlisle varsity was perennially shorthanded. It had to cull an 11 from just a couple of hundred fit male students, most of whom had vastly less experience than their collegiate counterparts.  Harvard, Princeton or Yale could choose from enrollments of 4,000 to 5,000 men. Mark Twain attended the Yale-Princeton game in the fall of 1900 and observed, “The Yale team could lick a Spanish Army.”

Mark Twain

To bolster Carlisle’s roster, Pratt and Warner resorted to recruiting.  Then, as now, enrolling students purely to play football was regarded as ethically
questionable.  It was also rampant. According to Caspar Whitney, a journalist who helped Camp choose the All-Americas, the Columbia team of 1899 was “nothing short of an offense against college sport,” with four adult ringers, one of whom had played quarterback at Wesleyan and even coached.

Pratt delicately queried the reservations, looking for football candidates.  “If you should by chance have a sturdy young man anxious for an education who is
especially swift of foot or qualified for athletics,” he said, “send him and help Carlisle compete with the great universities on those lines.”

Still, Warner was realistic: Carlisle was not like other colleges or universities.  It was an agricultural and industrial training school with an academic curriculum that extended only to the rough equivalent of 11th grade.  As late as 1886 Pratt reported that more than half of Carlisle’s students had no previous education when they arrived, and only six had finished third grade.  The average age at enrollment was 14, and some students stayed as long as 12 years. Debates about the “eligibility” of Indian players were therefore senseless.

As the Indians continued to make do with what they had, physical toughness became their hallmark.  “Gameness,” Warner said in 1902, “was a marked
characteristic of every Carlisle boy.” A short but stout Alaskan named Nikifer Shouchuk fashioned himself into a center and held his own against the best in the country.  During a game against Harvard, Crimson captain Carl Marshall berated his own center.  “A big fellow like you,” he said, “weighing twice as much as that little Indian, and letting him carry you around on his back all afternoon!”

By 1902 Carlisle was more deceptive than ever.  One piece of razzle-dazzle installed by Warner was the double pass: Quarterback Jimmie Johnson would toss
the ball to a halfback sweeping laterally — who then tossed it back to him.  Under the quick-footed Johnson, a future All-America, the shifting Carlisle lines looked like a deck of cards being shuffled.

Jimmie Johnson

One afternoon Warner introduced the Indians to a play he had dreamed up when he coached at Cornell. It was called the Hunchback, and it required a sewing
machine.  Warner had Carlisle’s tailor, Mose Blumenthal, sew elastic bands into the waists of a few players’ jerseys.  Among those was the shirt of Charles
Dillon, a Sioux guard who could run 100 yards in 10 seconds.  Warner instructed Dillon to wear the jersey untucked, so the opposition would get used to seeing it that way.

The play was designed for a kickoff. As the ball descended into the arms of Johnson, the other players would huddle around him.  Hidden from view, Johnson
would slip the ball up the back of Dillon’s jersey and secure it with the waistband.  The huddle would then split apart, leaving the opposing team with no idea where the ball had gone.

The play would punish any team that took Carlisle lightly.  One school had a particular tendency to do so: Harvard.  Though they’d never beaten the Crimson,
the Indians had always given them a game.  Carlisle both admired and resented Harvard.  The Indians sarcastically mimicked the Harvard accent, but Harvard was also their idea of collegiate perfection, and they labeled any excellent performance, whether on the field or in the classroom, as “Harvard style.”

By the time the Indians checked into the Copley Square Hotel in Cambridge on Oct. 30, 1902, they had a 5-1 record, but the Crimson dwarfed them.  Carlisle’s
heaviest player was the center, Shouchuk, at 165 pounds, while two Harvard linemen weighed in at 215.  But Johnson directed the Indians in lightning line
charges, and the Crimson defense ripped like paper.  Carlisle constantly shifted and realigned, tossing the ball back and forth. Johnson would fake a run to the
outside — only to hand the ball to Albert Exendine coming around from the end.

Albert Exendine

After the Indians moved all the way to the Harvard 18-yard line, Johnson kicked a field goal, which in those days was worth five points.  The score was still
5-0 as the first half ended. Warner was emboldened.  In the locker room he called the play his team had been waiting for all season.  On the kickoff, he said, run the Hunchback.

Back on the field, Johnson and Dillon dropped back to the five-yard line.  Harvard’s kicker sent the ball into the air.  Johnson gathered it in, and the Indians
formed a wall in front of him. Exendine pulled out the back of Dillon’s jersey, and Johnson slipped the ball beneath it and yelled, “Go!”

The Indians scattered, each player hugging his stomach as if he held the ball.  The Harvard players bore down on them and began slamming Carlisle backs to the turf.  Marshall was playing safety, and as Dillon ran toward him, his arms swinging freely, Marshall, thinking he was a blocker, stepped neatly out of the
way and let him go by.  After 30 yards Dillon was alone.  As the Crimson scuttled around, wildly looking for the ball, the crowd of 12,000 noticed the bulge in
the back of Dillon’s jersey and began to shriek with laughter.  Finally Marshall understood what was happening.  He wheeled and chased vainly after Dillon for
the last several yards.

Harvard coach John Cranston vehemently protested to the referee, but Warner had taken the precaution of warning the official that his team might attempt the play, and the ref had watched carefully as it unfolded.  He signaled a touchdown.

John Cranston

A celebration erupted on the Carlisle sideline.  The Indians had just outwitted and embarrassed the foremost university in the country — Carlisle style — and
taken an 11-0 lead. “I don’t think any one thing ever gave them greater joy,” Warner said later.

The Crimson was incensed, and the game from then on was a mauling.  Harvard’s superior size and depth began to tell.  The Crimson flooded the field with fresh players who exhausted the Indians’ starters.  Harvard bulled its way over the line for a touchdown.  To Warner it seemed that “every Indian was out on
his feet.”  Harvard scored again and held on for a 12-11 victory.  “For once, however, there was no mourning after a loss,” Warner remembered.

For the first time, the Indians were credited with intelligence.  The New York World ran a series of stories explaining and diagramming the play.  The paper’s leading sportswriter, Charles Chadwick, a former Yale football star who had often written patronizingly of the Indians, now wrote, “The poor Indian, so often sized up as deficient in headwork, has at last earned the right to be considered as something more than a tireless, clumsy piece of football mechanism.  He is now to be regarded as a person of craft.  He has added his quota to the history of strategic football.”

When Jim Thorpe first set foot on the Carlisle campus, on Feb. 6, 1904, he was a slight, narrow-shouldered boy of 16, brooding, shy and guileless.  His tribe, the Sauk and Fox, had been expelled from Illinois to Wisconsin, then to Kansas and finally to a 17-mile-wide rectangle of land cut by rivers in what is now
northern Oklahoma.

Jim Thorpe

Jim and his twin brother, Charles, were born in May 1887.  As the boys grew up, the Sauk and Fox were in transition.  Half the tribe was still clad in blankets and lived in traditional bark houses; the Thorpes, however, were a literate family and lived in a timber house on the banks of the Canadian River, where they
worked a 160-acre parcel of land.

The boys’ father, Hiram Thorpe, was a rowdy horse trader and bootlegger.  Their mother, Charlotte Vieux, a Kickapoo-Potowatomie and a French Catholic, was as refined as one could be in Indian Territory, educated by Jesuits and fluent in three languages.  Hiram was over 6 feet, weighed 225 pounds and was exceedingly good-looking.  He fathered at least 19 children by five women.  Charlotte bore him 11, only five of whom survived to adulthood.  She herself died before she was 40.

Hiram frequented Keokuk Falls, a stagecoach boomtown with a red-light district famed for its seven “deadly saloons.”  The stage driver liked to announce as
he pulled in, “Stay for half an hour and see a man killed.”  Hiram would get drunk and pass out in the front yard of the justice of the peace.  Or he would ride home amusing himself by shooting out the lights of the homesteads along the way.

The Thorpes’ land was an abundant provider, studded with elm, oak, cottonwood and pecan trees and lush with grasses to feed the horses Hiram bred.  The family planted corn, hay, squash, beans, melons and cabbage and raised hogs, chickens and cattle.  By age five Jim could wield a shotgun with which he hunted deer, turkey, rabbit, pheasant, quail and squirrel.  He fished for catfish and bass and collected blackberries from the thick bushes.

Hiram beat his children liberally, but he also tied a rope to a tree that hung over the riverbank so they could swing on it, and he passed on his enjoyment of
footracing and wrestling.  He taught his sons to handle horses and dogs.  Jim would have been happy to hunt and ride for the rest of his life, but his parents insisted he go to school.  In 1893, after their sixth birthday, Jim and Charles were enrolled in the Quaker-run Indian Agency boarding school.  Jim hated
being shut in and forced to follow a rigid routine. He became a chronic runaway despite repeated whippings from Hiram.

When the boys were 10, a typhoid epidemic hit the school.  Charlie was stricken and soon died.  Jim would never recover from losing his brother; it appeared to make him permanently withdrawn.  He refused to return to school.  According to Jim’s daughter, Grace, “Hiram finally tired of beating him and asked the Indian Agency to send him so far away he would not find his way home again.”  He was packed off to Haskell, 300 miles away, where he learned to march and to play football.

Haskell Indian School

Jim ran away from Haskell, too.  He hopped freight cars, hiked and hitched rides on wagons for two weeks until he reached home.  This time Hiram whipped him so badly that he bolted to Texas, where he found work breaking horses and mending fence lines on cattle ranches.  Jim was just 14, but he earned enough to buy his own team of horses, which he drove back home in late 1902, only to learn that his mother had died after childbirth.  Hiram let him stay at home for a while, but by December 1903 Hiram had remarried and was again seeking a boarding school for his son.

When Jim arrived at Carlisle he stood just 5’5″ and weighed 115 pounds.  If he was tempted to run home again, his motivation died just a few weeks after he
arrived in Pennsylvania.  On April 24, 1904, word reached him that his father had been killed by blood poisoning, probably from snakebite, at age 52.  The
orphaned boy settled into the regimen of Carlisle.  He would reside there for the better part of nine years.

Gym Class at Carlisle

In late December 1905 representatives of 28 major colleges met and formed the National Intercollegiate Football Conference.  They charged a seven-member rules committee with developing a safer, cleaner sport.  Over heated objections from Camp they instituted a half dozen rule changes.  Mass-momentum plays were forbidden.  Teams now had to move 10 yards for a first down instead of five, which took the emphasis off pure strength in the center of the field.  Most innovative of all, the forward pass was legalized, though with an inhibitor:  A team that threw the ball and failed to complete the pass would be penalized 15 yards.

By the spring of ’07 Jim Thorpe had grown almost five inches, put on 40 pounds and worked his way onto the Carlisle scrub team, the Hotshots. Warner turned his prodigy over to Exendine for athletic tutoring, but the Indians end had nothing to teach the young Oklahoman who moved like a breeze. “I held the college records in the broad jump and the high jump, the shot put and the hammer and several other track and field events, and I was captain of the football
team,” Exendine would recall. “But it took Jim just one day to break all my records. We went to a dual meet together, and he won everything.”

Thorpe Throwing Discus

That August, Thorpe pleaded with Warner for a chance to try out for the varsity.  Warner was reluctant; Thorpe struck him as still too “scrawny,” and
the coach didn’t want his best track prospect to get hurt.  But the boy pestered him so tirelessly that Warner relented.  He tossed the ball at Thorpe and
ordered an open-field drill.  About 30 or 40 players were scattered around the field.  Thorpe began to sprint, cutting and weaving through them.  He went
through the entire varsity “like they were old maids,” Warner remembered.  Some of them he outran; others he faked out and left facedown in the turf.  After he crossed the goal line he skipped back to Warner, tossed him the ball and said, “I gave them some good practice, right, Pop?”

Warner slapped the ball in Thorpe’s middle and said, “Well, let’s see if you can do it again, kid.”  Thorpe cheerfully went back on the field and ran through the entire defense a second time.  Once more he tossed the ball to Warner, who stood there cussing both Thorpe and his defense.  Years later Warner called Thorpe’s performance that day “an exhibition of athletic talent that I had never before witnessed, nor was I ever to again see anything similar.”

In 1907 the Indians were the most dynamic college team as they pioneered the elegant, high-speed invention called the passing game.  In popular histories the
first use of the forward pass on a major collegiate stage tends to be wrongly ascribed to Notre Dame and the tandem of Gus Dorais and Knute Rockne, in 1913.
In fact, Carlisle was the first team to throw the ball deeply and regularly downfield, in 1907.

Gus Dorais - 1913

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.

Eddie Cochems

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.

Bradbury Robinson

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.

Frank Mount Pleasant

End Part 2: The Team That Invented Football

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