Meet the American who gave flight to football, Bradbury Robinson, college star who threw first forward pass

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Imagine the United States of America without football — our most popular sport and a cherished cultural spectacle. 

No Friday night lights, Saturday afternoon madness or Super Bowl Sunday. 

It nearly happened as gruesome violence on the gridiron in the early 1900s spurred calls from pigskin prohibitionists to spike football.

St. Louis University star Bradbury Robinson was the first player to take a shot downfield to save football and beat the blitz that threatened to sack the popular but deadly sport. 

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Robinson threw the first forward pass, and then the first touchdown pass, in the history of the game. 

His “Blue and White” beat Carroll College, 22-0, on Sept. 5, 1906, in Waukesha, Wisconsin. 

“I had worked on forward passing, and at the time the pass was introduced I was the only finished passer in the country,” Robinson said while speaking about his role in sports history at a conference in 1947.

The forward pass was a regulatory Hail Mary — a longshot chance to save a sport that had grown wildly popular on high school and college campuses but too deadly for millions of Americans to tolerate.

“I had worked on forward passing, and at the time the pass was introduced I was the only finished passer in the country.”

President Theodore Roosevelt called an audible from the White House that launched a new era in the history of the sport — and in America’s cultural heritage.

“Football was incredibly brutal and violent at the turn of the century,” author and football historian John J. Miller told Fox News Digital. 

Miller is a journalism professor at Hillsdale College in Michigan and author of the 2011 book “The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football.”

A total of 48 players were killed on the gridiron between 1900 and 1905, according to several sources.

“Brutality in playing a game should awaken the heartiest and most plainly shown contempt for the player guilty of it,” President Roosevelt said at the time. 

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The First Football Fan called together college football rule-makers at the end of 1905 season. He demanded they find a way to make the sport safer to quell the anti-football uprising. 

The forward pass proved their most important innovation. 

“Without Roosevelt and the forward pass, what would have happened to football? Would the prohibitionists have won?” Miller said on NFL Films production “A Football Life: The Forward Pass.”

“Yes, they might have won. Football might have been abandoned. It might have been outlawed. It might have been erased from our cultural landscape.”

Intolerable death toll

Bradbury Norton Robinson Jr. was born on Feb. 1, 1884 in Bellevue, Ohio to Bradbury and Amelia Isabella (Lee) Robinson. 

The first football game, a duel between Princeton and Rutgers, had been played only 15 years earlier.

Dad “Brad” Sr. was a Civil War veteran from Massachusetts who spent much of his life working on railroads. Mom Amelia was born in England. 

The family moved to Wisconsin when the future pigskin pioneer was a young child. 

He proved a star high school athlete and made his way to the University of Wisconsin, where he saw playing time with the varsity football team as freshman in 1903. 

“Football might have been abandoned. It might have been outlawed. It might have been erased from our cultural landscape.” 

He was reportedly dismissed from the football team after an altercation with another student.

He enrolled in St. Louis University the following season, where he became a star on one of the most dominant teams of what was then considered western football. 

Among other honors, St. Louis University holds the distinction of being the only team in history to win an Olympic gold medal in American football, according to university archivist Caitlin Stamm.

The 1904 Olympics were held in St. Louis that year, with American football, primarily a college game at the time, one of the featured sports.

St. Louis University went undefeated that year while the popularity of college football swept across the nation.

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But the 1905 season that followed proved intolerably deadly: A shocking 18 high school and college football players were killed on the field of play.  

The cries to end the brutality and even ban the game presented political headwinds for the football-loving reformist president. 

“President Theodore Roosevelt, whose son was on the freshmen team at Harvard University, made it clear he wanted reforms amid calls by some to abolish the college game,” Smithsonian Magazine reported in 2010. 

University officials from across the nation met in New York City that December. 

Smithsonian Magazine added, “They made a number of changes, including banning the ‘flying wedge,’ a mass formation that often caused serious injury, created the neutral zone between offense and defense and required teams to move 10 yards, not 5, in three downs.”

It also said, “Their biggest change was to make the forward pass legal, beginning the transformation of football into the modern game.”

“President Theodore Roosevelt … made it clear he wanted reforms amid calls by some to abolish the college game.” 

Robinson reportedly got a heads-up on the pending rule changes from a family friend. 

Wisconsin Gov. Robert M. La Follette Sr., according to numerous accounts, shared with Robinson a letter from the president hinting at the potential of the forward pass a year earlier. 

Robinson became one of the first people in the nation to practice a new skill that backyard quarterbacks take for granted today: passing the pigskin.

Ball in the ‘shape of a watermelon’

St. Louis University brought in a new coach before that 1906 season: former Wisconsin assistant football coach Eddie Cochems. 

The forward-thinking coach was only 29 and apparently knew Robinson from their days at the University of Wisconsin football program. The football star reportedly urged school authorities to hire the new coach. 

Their game plan to unleash the forward pass was formulated during a team retreat in Wisconsin.  

“Cochem brought a team of 16 players to Lakeview, Wisconsin, and used the time to train them on how to use the forward pass,” Caitlin Stamm, St. Louis University archivist, told Fox News Digital. 

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Among other things, players had to learn to throw a spiral.

Robinson proved a natural. He was able to throw a football accurately 40 yards downfield, said Stamm. 

It was an incredible testament to his arm strength. 

“The ball he would have thrown would have been the shape of a watermelon,” said Miller.

Cochems adapted faster than most coaches to the new rules changes.  

“Some of the new features are very acceptable,” he said in a preseason edition of the SLU publication Fleur de Lis. 

“The ball he would have thrown would have been the shape of a watermelon.” 

“I think that the quarterback kick and the forward-pass will develop many spectacular plays before the season closes.”

It took little time for his words to prove prophetic. 

St. Louis University opened the 1906 season on September 5 against Carroll College at the end of the summer retreat. 

It gave the Blue and White — SLU adopted its Billikens nickname five years later — a head start of most on making history. Most programs would not play their first game until October.

The first pass in the history of football fell incomplete. It was a turnover by the rules of the time. 

Robinson’s second pass proved the potential aerial fireworks ahead. He hit teammate Jack Schneider for a 20-yard score — the first touchdown pass in football history.

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“Robinson was an end and I was a fullback. But Brad could throw the ball a long way, so we switched positions for that one play,” Schneider recalled 50 years later for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. 

“We were told to run after the snap and just keep going until we heard the passer yell ‘hike’ or our name. So, I ran and ran. I was about to give up when I heard Robinson call. I turned and caught the ball a yard or so short of the goal and went over with it.” 

“Somebody had to be the first. Somebody had to take the risk and show the football world what the forward pass could do,” author and historian Miller said of the transformative moment in sports history. 

“I bet it was pretty exciting.”

Armed with a new weapon, the Blue and White went 11-0 and savaged opponents by a combined score of 407-11. 

The game of football was off and flying.

Robinson thrilled football fans later in the season with 48-yard completion against Kansas University. It was an unfathomable achievement in a sport that only one year earlier had been a deadly war of attrition. 

The game of football was off and flying.

A legend nearly lost

Bradbury Robinson died in Florida on March 7, 1949. He was 65 years old. 

He served as a captain in the U.S. Army in World War I, after his football heroics, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

He went on to have a distinguished career as a physician. Among other accomplishments, he worked in Europe after the war for U.S. Surgeon General Hugh S. Cumming. 

He’s also credited in the 1940s as being one of the first medical professionals to alert the world of the dangers of insecticide DDT in agriculture.

Robinson’s legacy as pigskin pioneer was nearly usurped by a legendary moment in football history. 

The forward pass enjoyed a public relations coup in 1913, when a little-known Catholic school from Indiana used the tactic to shock an eastern power in front of New York City media at West Point.

“The forward pass made the game both safer – and more exciting.” 

Upstart Notre Dame smashed mighty Army, 35-13, as end and future coaching legend Knute Rockne caught two touchdown passes from Gus Dorais. 

“The Westerners flashed the most sensational football that has been seen in the East this year,” The New York Times wrote of the event, “baffling the cadets with a style of open play and perfectly developed forward pass, which carried the victors down the field at 30 yards a clip.”

The forward pass pioneered by small western schools had finally caught the attention of the eastern football establishment.

Notre Dame’s legend was further cemented by the celebrated 1940 movie “Knute Rockne, All American,” starring Ronald Reagan. 

Yet the claim to fame rightly belongs to St. Louis University, a school of firsts, said archivist Stamm. 

The institution, she noted, was both the first university and first medical school west of the Mississippi River; it was also the first federally recognized aviation school. 

“It’s a long tradition of excellence and firsts,” she said. “Even in a sport we don’t participate in anymore, the forward pass is still a part of our heritage.”

The forward pass, said Miller, made the game both safer — and more exciting.

Former NFL quarterback and sports personality Boomer Esiason claimed the forward pass also made football uniquely American.

“Other countries don’t do this. They play rugby. They flip it back. They play soccer. They kick it,” Esiason said during the NFL Films production “A Football Life: The Forward Pass.”

“We Americans are all about freedom and liberty. We can flip it back. We can kick it. But more importantly, we can throw it. Nobody can throw it like an American.” 

To read more stories in this unique “Meet the American Who…” series from Fox News Digital, click here

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