Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in The Eagle on Dec. 22, 2005.
Christmas Day is the 100th anniversary of the first forward pass thrown in a college football game.
Or it’s not.
That first pass was thrown at Wichita’s Association Park by Fairmount College’s Bill Davis to teammate Art Solter.
Or it wasn’t.
Such is where Fairmount College – now Wichita State University – stands on the landscape of college football history.
While football historians have a tough time pointing to who threw the first legal forward pass in a college game, they have all but ignored a game played between Fairmount and Washburn University on a warm Christmas Day in 1905.
Dan Jenkins, a historian with the National Football Foundation, had not heard of the game when contacted this week.
None of those players are alive to tell their story, which is why pinpointing the significance of that game has become nearly impossible.
Still, it’s an anniversary worth remembering.
TOO ROUGH FOR TEDDY
Football was so bone jarring a game in 1905 that “rough-and-tumble” doesn’t do a description justice.
Until then, the forward pass wasn’t legal. Teams had three downs to gain five yards for a first down, much easier than the 10 yards needed today.
Needing only five yards, the most successful plays were flying wedges, where offensive formations were so tight that the only way to stop the ballcarrier was a defensive player or players throwing their bodies in front of the blocking formations.
With little padding and many times no leather helmets, it was a destructive game.
The Chicago Tribune reported there were 18 deaths from the game in 1905, with 159 additional serious injuries.
President Theodore Roosevelt stepped in during the 1905 season. Gathering some of the Ivy League’s top coaches, such as Yale’s Walter Camp, Roosevelt warned that unless there were sweeping changes designed to eliminate serious injuries, he would consider banning the sport.
“Brutality and foul play should receive the same summary punishment given to a man who cheats at cards,” Roosevelt was quoted in “The History of American Football.”
Several rule changes, including 10 yards for a first down and legalizing the forward pass, had long been talked about but not acted upon. Roosevelt’s mandate was the most serious impetus toward change.
And this is where history gets pretty murky.
THE MIDWEST TEST
Bliss Isely was one of the Fairmount College players that Christmas Day in 1905 and later became the game’s unofficial historian. Forty-five years after the game, he supplied the National Football Shrine and Hall of Fame with information about it, and in 1956 he wrote an article for a national Sunday magazine about his recollections.
Isely, a renowned publicity man in Wichita after his college days, wanted to make sure Fairmount and Washburn got their due.
“He thought the East Coast schools had gotten all the credit and that college football needed to remember Fairmount,” said Kenny Isely, 87, Bliss’ son who lives in Wichita.
In his ’56 article for “This Week: The National Sunday Magazine,” Bliss Isely wrote that Roosevelt didn’t want to wait for the 1906 season to see new rules implemented. He wanted an exhibition game played to try them out.
Isely wrote “when no big-league teams accepted the challenge,” Fairmount team manager and left guard Roy Kirk booked a game with Washburn and wired Roosevelt, telling the President that the game would be played under experime ntal rules.
For Kirk, it was another publicity coup. This was the man who a year earlier had given Fairmount its “Wheat Shockers” nickname while putting together a promotional poster and earlier in 1905 had organized what might have been the first night football game – a game played with Coleman lanterns stationed on poles around the field.
And now, another chance at history.
While no one can confirm the upcoming Washburn-Fairmount game was the reason, representatives of 13 eastern schools met to discuss reforms on Dec. 9, 1905. The results of that meeting were the rules that Fairmount and Washburn played under on Christmas Day.
WHO THREW FIRST?
The headline in the Dec. 26, 1905, Wichita Daily Eagle summed up the game nicely: “New Rules Are Not a Decided Success.”
The 40-minute exhibition game was not only scoreless, neither team penetrated the defense’s 15-yard line. Because an offense had only two plays to go 10 yards before having to decide whether to punt, there was little yardage gained. The game featured 38 punts and, most importantly, no injuries.
Both coaches, Washburn’s John Outland and Fairmount’s Willis Bates, declared three downs for 10 yards a failure. But they both recognized that the forward pass would open up the game more around the ends and up the field.
Now if we could only figure out who threw that first pass.…
No newspaper account, including The Eagle’s, recognizes which team attempted or completed the first pass. Fairmount’s first completion was from Davis, normally a center but with the best arm on the team, to Solter at right end.
Isely’s description of the play was Davis running right, avoiding a tackle and throwing a two-hand underhand pass to Solter, who had broken right toward the sideline. “Solter grabbed it easily and crashed ahead for a first down,” Isely wrote.
First pass? Maybe.
“They (Washburn players) say they used the pass four or five plays earlier than we did and they may be right,” Isely wrote.
Hugh Hope threw Washburn’s first pass, whenever it was, completing it to halfback Glenn Millice for a short gain.
“The History of American Football,” a 1956 book chronicling the sport’s early years, doesn’t mention the Washburn-Fairmount game. It says that three days later, men from 62 schools met to organize a seven-man committee that joined forces with the American Football Rules Committee. That led to the formation of the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States – now the NCAA.
On Jan. 12, 1906, in New York, sweeping rules changes were approved. Many were the same ones used in the Washburn-Fairmount game, including the three downs for 10 yards change that both coaches had called a failure. Only later would it be changed to today’s four-down standard.
By the time the 1906 season began, many teams had incorporated the forward pass into their playbooks, with varying degrees of success. Coach Eddie Cochems at Saint Louis was given wide credit for being the most successful at using the pass that first full season.
Jenkins, of the National Football Foundation, says Yale’s Paul Veeder is “generally considered” to be the first to complete a pass, to teammate Bob Forbes in the 1906 season.
Back at Fairmount, Bill Davis had been practicing his passing skills before the ’06 season. “He painted a bull’s-eye on a barn door and hit it regularly from 40 yards out,” Isely wrote in 1956. “Bill’s passing led Fairmount to the championship of the Kansas Conference that season.”
It’s not hard to see why Fairmount and Washburn didn’t receive recognition for the first forward pass. Even if historians had known about it – and Kenny Isely has proof that his father gave the National Football Shrine (now Foundation) information about it 55 years ago – they likely wouldn’t have called it the first pass because it was in an exhibition game and the pass wasn’t legalized until the next year.
Still, Fairmount and Washburn have a gripe. Mentions of pre-1906 pass plays usually only mention an “accidental” 1876 pass thrown by Yale’s Camp as a player, allowed to stand by a coin flip; or an 1895 game between North Carolina and Georgia, when the punter avoided a rush by throwing instead of punting to a teammate, who ran 70 yards for a touchdown. The referee said he didn’t see the illegal throw and let the play stand.
No mention of Christmas Day 1905.