The Team That Invented Football – Conclusion

20 Jul

by Sally Jenkins, Sports Illustrated

To take advantage of the Indians’ versatility Warner drew up a new offense.  Camp would dub it “the Carlisle formation,” but later it would be known as the single wing.  It was predicated on one small move: Warner shifted a halfback out wide, to outflank the opposing tackle, forming something that looked like a wing.  It opened up a world of possibilities.  The Indians could line up as if to punt — and then throw.  No one would know whether they were going to run, pass or kick.  For added measure Warner taught his quarterbacks to sprint out a few yards to their left or their right, buying more time to throw.  The rest of the players flooded downfield and knocked down any opponent who might be able to intercept or bat away the pass.

Single Wing - Cal Poly Pomona 1924

Single Wing - Princeton 1950

“How the Indians did take to it!” Warner remembered.  “Light on their feet as professional dancers, and every one amazingly skillful with his hands, the redskins pirouetted in and out until the receiver was well down the field, and then they shot the ball like a bullet.”  Carlisle roared off to a 6-0 start. On Oct. 26 they went to Philadelphia to face unbeaten Penn, ranked fourth in the nation, before a crowd of 22,800.  No team all season had crossed the Quakers’ goal line.  But on just the second play of the game Hauser whipped a 40-yard pass over the middle that William Gardner caught on a dead run to set up a touchdown.


There are a few signal moments in the evolution of football, and this was one of them.  Imagine the confusion of the defenders. Suddenly the center snapped the ball three yards deep to a man who was a powerful runner, a deadeye passer and a great kicker.  Hauser’s pass to Gardner must have felt like an electric charge.  “It will be talked of often this year,” the Philadelphia North American said.  “A lordly throw, a hurl that went farther than many a kick.”  It was the sporting equivalent of the Wright brothers’ taking off at Kitty Hawk.  From that moment on, Carlisle threw all over the field.

First Flight at Kitty Hawk

“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.”

Penn’s All-America fullback, William (Big Bill) Hollenback, said, “I’d see the ball sailing in my direction.  And at the same time came the thundering of what appeared to be a tribe of Indians racing full tilt in my direction.  When this gang hit you, they just simply wiped you out.”

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 finally had his chance, and he 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.

The Single Wing's powerful off-tackle play

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 Forward Pass

By the fall of 1911 Thorpe was a superbly proportioned 180 pounds.  He could run 100 yards in 10 seconds, throw a 16-pound shot 48 feet and clear 6’1″ in the high jump.  In addition to his brilliance in football, baseball and track, he led Carlisle in basketball, lacrosse, hockey, handball and tennis.

Thorpe as a sprinter.

But Thorpe was perplexing.  His practice habits bespoke laziness.  Warner lost his patience but could not intimidate him.  Thorpe was mule-headed, proud
and fearless.  He believed he could overcome anything, which made him careless about his ability.  “Nothing bothered Jim,” Warner told sportswriter Grantland Rice.  “When he was ‘right,’ the sheer joy of playing carried him through.  When he wasn’t, he showed it.”

Grantland Rice

Interestingly, Thorpe agreed with Warner’s estimation.  “I played with the heart of an amateur — for the pure hell of it,” he told Rice.  For Thorpe, games were an escape; he was more comfortable on the field than in society.  He was fundamentally a loner.

But beneath the seeming indifference something burned.  He enjoyed making opponents look silly.  “He’d come straight up to a man, then fake him one way ever so slightly, then go the other,” Exendine said.  “He’d hit him a kind of glancing blow which knocked him more off balance than flat as a pancake.” Sometimes Thorpe would seek out a defender just for the sport of it.  “When he’d get loose and head for the goal,” Exendine recalled, “he took a devilish delight in upsetting the safety man.  He’d run at him instead of away from him.  When he’d get a few yards in front of him … he’d begin to feint with his shoulders, eyes and legs, until the anxious fellow was in a fearful state of indecision.  Then he’d charge right for the man, with his head and shoulders down and his legs far out of reach.  When they met, Thorpe would … deal him an awful blow with his hip.  I’ve seen him spin them almost completely around in the air.”

Jim Thorpe

The Indians went 11-1 in 1911, and when the season was over Warner and Thorpe moved inside to the gymnasium, to train for the 1912 Summer Olympics in
Stockholm.  They sailed for Sweden with a U.S. team that included a West Point pentathlete named George Patton.  Contrary to stories told over the years,
Thorpe trained hard during the 10-day trip on the liner, pounding around a cork track laid on the deck. He was in peak condition, as his performances showed in Stockholm.  He won four of the five events in the pentathlon and pocketed his first gold medal in a rout.  Then he set a record in the decathlon, 8,412.96
points, that would stand for 16 years.

A young George Patton

The decathlon ended on the final day of the Games, and Thorpe had his famous exchange with King Gustav of Sweden.  The king presented him with a gold
medal, a wreath and a jeweled chalice of gold and silver in the shape of a Viking ship, offered by the Czar of Russia.  As the two men shook hands, the
Swedish monarch said, “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world.”

“Thanks, King,” Thorpe replied.

Thorpe receiving gold.

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.

Gus Welch

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.

Joe Guyon

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.”

Dwight D. Eisenhower

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 Double Wing from Pop Warner's playbook.

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.”

Army scored first, however, when Hobbs broke loose around right end for a touchdown.  But Prichard missed the extra point, and the Indians countered
immediately with a drive to take the lead.  The Cadets tried vainly to defend with a seven-man line, as Eisenhower and his partner at linebacker, Charles
Benedict, double-teamed Thorpe.  It didn’t work. “Starting like a streak, he shot through the line, scattering tacklers to all sides of him,” the Tribune

On play after play, the Indians showed up Devore. Just after the second-half kickoff, the Army captain lost his temper.  As Guyon lay on the field, Devore took a running start and stamped on the Carlisle back.  The crowd hissed, and Devore was thrown out of the game.  The Indians responded with a seven-play scoring drive to take a 14-6 lead, and from then on they totally outplayed the Cadets.  Thorpe, in his greatest performance as a college player, ripped off 20-yard gains as if they were nothing.  Once, when Eisenhower and Benedict seemed to have him cornered, Thorpe stopped short.  The two defenders crashed head on, and Thorpe galloped past them.  His runs set up three touchdowns by Arcasa, whose scoring was merely the finishing touch.  Thorpe made one last spectacular play, a circus catch of a 40-yard pass while surrounded by defenders.  The final score was 27-6.

Thorpe running through defense.

The Indians, joyous, spent and bruised, boarded a train for the trip home.  As they seated themselves, a distinguished looking gentleman with a
silver mustache joined them. Walter Camp introduced himself and congratulated the players on their victory.

Walter Camp - The Father of American Football

All the way to New York City the Indians and the arbiter of the game quizzed each other and exchanged thoughts on strategy.  Camp said he greatly admired the team, but he didn’t understand its lightning style.  “Your quarterback calls plays too fast,” he said. “He doesn’t study the defense.”

Thorpe replied that speed was the point.  “Mister Camp,” he said, “how can he study the defense when there isn’t any defense?”

The next day The New YorkTimes called the Indians “one of the most spectacular aggregations of football players, especially in the backfield, ever assembled.” They had played, the paper concluded, “the most perfect brand of football ever seen in America.”

Every member of the Carlisle team considered it the most satisfying game he had ever won.  “The rattling of the bones,” Welch called it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: