Interestingly enough, for a long time, only Association Football allowed the forward pass.
At this point, you are likely already confused.
Chances are, you’ve never heard of Association Football. At least not in those terms. Depending on where you live, you’ve always referred to it as either football, futbol, or soccer.
The point, however, is that unlike Rugby Football and Gridiron Football (American Football), Association Football has always allowed the forward pass. Before the invention of Gridiron Football, Association Football used this as yet another way to differentiate itself from Rugby Football.
At the beginning, Gridiron Football was built around setting up plays where somebody would either run the ball or hand it to a friend who would run it while other friends got in the way of people trying to stop them. It was a game solely based around friends helping each other out of a jam.
Eventually, though, it became clear that they needed to do more than just run. So in the late 1800’s, Gridiron Football started to toy with the usage of the forward pass, since the sport was basically nothing more than Rugby Football with a lot of stops.
What is interesting about this, though, is that every usage of the forward pass in the 1800’s was illegal. Even stranger? It wasn’t clearly defined, so several instances of it being used illegally were allowed.
Likely the earliest example of a forward pass was performed in 1876, during the Yale-Princeton game. Back then, Yale and Princeton playing each other in Gridiron Football used to be a big deal. These days….well….
Yale’s Walter Camp was about to get tackled at a key moment in the game, so he acted on instinct and threw the ball to teammate Oliver Thompson, who scored a touchdown off of it. Princeton protested, but since this was unprecedented, the score stood.
These days, there is a major award named after Walter Camp. It is awarded annually to the biggest cheater in collegiate Gridiron Football.
Nothing was really made of this idea for 30 years, though. That is, until Gridiron Football was almost no more.
1905 was a particularly rough year for Gridiron Football, with a reported 18 in-game deaths. Talk across the nation was that the sport was going to be banned.
Like a badass, he demanded that the rules of the game be reformed to allow the pass and therefore make the game safer.
Reaction to this rule change wasn’t all positive, however. The New York Times reported in September of 1906 that they didn’t believe it could be integrated into the game, saying “There has been no team that has proved that the forward pass is anything but a doubtful, dangerous play to be used only in the last extremity.”
Since, you know, Gridiron Football was so safe before then.
At the time, Eddie Cochems was the head Gridiron Football coach at St. Louis University, and his team threw the first ever legal forward pass. It was incomplete, but they were the firsts to adapt to this revolution. So that’s important.
It took many years for the forward pass to fully catch on in Gridiron Football, though today it is an essential part to any offense.
But things could have been MUCH different.
Because of the high profile of the Yale-Princeton game in 1876, Walter Camp’s forward pass garnered national attention. The referee allowed the play to stand because he hadn’t seen it before. But the decision wasn’t made by him.
He flipped a coin.
That’s right, he was so unsure of what to do, he just left it up to the fates to decide. There was a 50/50 chance that it would have been called back. Gridiron Football could have looked MUCH different.
Imagine if it had not been allowed to stand. There’s a chance that instead of just being an unclear rule, it would have been completely outlawed.
Maybe it is eventually legalized, but much later than 1906, as it had not been experimented with. Gridiron Football today would have developed much slower. It could end up looking like it did years ago.
Or even worse, after the bloody 1905 season, Gridiron Football could have been outlawed entirely. People who these days make millions throwing a large leather egg around would be out of work. What hope would there be for men like Tom Brady?
And what would Americans turn to for athletic entertainment in the fall?
However, the play stood, and history was made. Today, the forward pass is a highly important part of Gridiron Football’s never ending quest to get farther away from Rugby Football, which really is all the sport is about.
And it’s all thanks to the quick thinking of Walter Camp.