Cumberland - Chapter 4: John Heisman

Football is not a contact sport. It’s a collision sport.
Dancing is a contact sport.
- Duffy Daugherty, football coach 

     George Edward Allen wasn’t the only individual who bore responsibility for the events that would transpire. The other individual was none other than Coach John W. Heisman. If that name sounds familiar to you, it should. To say John Heisman was a football legend was near about the most heinous understatement one could possibly make. Among his innovations were the handoff, the center snap, the flea flicker, the hidden ball trick, the double lateral, yard markers, and the scoreboard. He even invented the word “Hike!” Alongside the other pioneers of the game like Walter Camp, Pop Warner and Knute Rockne, John Heisman completed the “Mount Rushmore” of American football’s early beginnings. If Camp was the brains and Rockne was the heart, then Heisman was the soul.

     "The coach should be masterful and commanding, even dictatorial," Heisman was quoted as saying. "He has not the time to say please or mister...he must be severe, arbitrary and little short of a Czar." From the beginning, John Heisman was a fierce competitor and strict disciplinarian. There were two things he found intolerable: using the Lord’s name in vain and fumbling the football. His wife, Evelyn, was the first football widow. Off the field, the iron handed coach was more civilized, his behavior even bordering on eccentric. He would send out nightly for ice cream for Woo, the family poodle. And his summers were spent as a Shakespearean actor in summer stock theaters. It was observed by Fuzzy Woodruff, a sportswriter covering southern football, as well as a music and drama critic, that Heisman was an exceptional football coach, but a terrible thespian.

     Any lack of talent on the stage didn’t hinder his career in coaching. Heisman quickly became one of the early icons of the sport. He was a visionary, unmatched motivator. His career was devoted to one thing, and one thing only, and that was winning. He saw the world in a way that was extremely black and white. There were winners and there were losers. He was the embodiment of the philosophy that you control your own outcome. Where George Allen was a grasshopper bouncing through life, he was a worker ant. He was all about delivering maximum effort to be smarter, faster and better than the next guy. If you were not born with the best of gifts, you made up for your limitations through spirit and determination.

     There was no better illustration of this than on the football field, which he saw as a microcosm for life. Every important lesson a young man needed to learn to guide him through the trials and tribulations of life could be learned on the gridiron. He would instill this wisdom in the young boys who played under him. His players would develop an appreciation for fair play and hard work. The sport of football taught those things to them in a way no textbook ever could. Your head coach was your uncontested ruler and your teammate was your brother in arms. Players learned the value of teamwork and camaraderie from Heisman. They may not have always liked him, but they always respected him

     More than anything else, Heisman saw himself as a strict guardian over the virtue and integrity of the young sport of American football. You could say he wrote the book on it. Literally. In 1922, he published a book titled Principles of Football that laid out in frank terminology and colorful detail his unique coaching philosophy and approach to the sport. “A winning football team is never turned out by the coach and players alone,” he wrote. “If there isn’t the right football atmosphere in the entire college, if the whole sentiment of the institution isn’t interestedly and loyally behind the football squad they will never win the championship no matter how much native talent they have nor how hard they work.”

     Having been born two weeks before the first American football game was played, Heisman acted as the game’s conscience. In his New York Times article about the outspoken and often controversial coach, Bill Pennington regarded him as “a forceful defender of its soul and a tireless advocate of its potential.” Pennington illustrated in his article the seemingly contradictory blend of savagery and sophistication Heisman brought to coaching football. “He seemed a paradox to most who knew him,” wrote Pennington. “As a middle-aged coach, he would bang shoulders with his 20-year-old linemen in practice, then excuse himself to leave early to attend the opera. He used a silken cord around his neck to hold a small, effete set of eyeglasses that he would prop on a flattened nose he broke while blocking a punt against Penn State in 1890.”

     During his years in coaching, Heisman came to be regarded as a gridiron god in the south. As a god, he would naturally make players in his own image. When Heisman had been a player, he wasn’t the biggest or the strongest. But he was quick, and crafty, with a will to win. "We always considered that Johnny Heisman knew more football than he could play," recalled Penn teammate Harry Mackey. "He was very light, but he knew every trick of the game as well as the fundamentals." This is how he would develop his teams.

     “Heisman offset his team’s lack of size by stressing speed and quickness,” wrote Wiley L. Umphlett in Creating the Big Game. At first, it had been out of necessity. When he arrived at Clemson, he found no large players. So he emphasized quickness and speed, relying on plenty of laterals, reverses, end runs and onside kicks. Out of these deficiencies he developed his own unique style of play that was often as high tech as it was hard hitting.

     Heisman described what he looked for in a football player. “To produce a football team, the fundamental thing is to have football players,” wrote Heisman. “A football player I conceive to be something above the average individual. A person is not a football player merely because he weighs 200 pounds; nor because he can run 100 yards in 10 seconds; nor because he can catch a ball. A football player must have brains. He must have more than the usual amount of brains. And in addition, he must also have speed and power, fight and skill. He must be something out of the ordinary.”

     His job was to turn boys into football players, football players into a football team, and a football team into champions. To do this, his disciples were required to adhere to a set of commandments. During his years in coaching, Heisman developed his own list of fundamental do’s and don’ts for playing the game that would one day make up his book Principles of Football. His anthology of football axioms covered every aspect of the game: 

Don’t try to play without your head. 

Don’t charge with less than your full force.

Don’t see how light you can hit, but how hard. 

Don’t put him down easy but hard - always.

Don’t wait for opponents to come to you. Take the battle to them.

Don’t blow - keep calm, cool and determined - but FIGHT all the way.


Use your brain on both offense and defense all the time.

Never forget a football player can be a gentleman.

Don’t fail to talk encouragingly.

Don’t cuss, and don’t be un-sportsmanly ever.

Don’t argue with the officials; it’s the captain’s job.

Don’t lose the game.

     Heisman broke a football player down like a science, giving him a series of valuations. He said a player was 25% athletic talent, 20% aggressiveness, 20% mentality, 20% speed and 15% weight. His training regimen for his players was even stricter than his rules on the field. He forbade the use of tobacco or alcohol of any kind during the season. No candies, desserts, soft drinks or fried foods were allowed, and no sex. He prohibited the consumption of coffee, hot breads, apples and nuts, for the reason they did not agree with his constitution.

     The use of soap and hot water was also restricted during the season because the coach considered it debilitating. In regards to his rules for his players, Heisman expected total obedience. “The first duty of a soldier is to obey orders,” Heisman instructed his players. “It so happens it’s the first duty of a football player as well. The man who hesitates is lost. Even more surely the footballer who hesitates.” The scientific approach he took to recruiting and training his players was as innovative as the plays he devised for the field. His methods put him far ahead of his contemporaries and made him larger than life in the eyes of football fans.

     If Heisman was a god however, he was a flawed god. His story read like a Shakespearean tragedy, Heisman playing the role of the noble king who sets up a trap for his adversary only to be ensnared in his own trickery in the end. His strict defense of virtue becomes his own undoing when his Machiavellian method for righting a wrong, and prescribing his righteousness upon the misinformed, reveals his own behavior to be less than honorable. He played the role of the tragic hero: Strong and principled, but not without fault. Honor was his Achilles heel. He was always moral to a fault. His approach to life was no different than his approach to the game. One could not separate the two. Heisman applied the same use of strategy to making a point, or exacting revenge, that he did to getting a key first down late in the game.

     Part of that strategy would, occasionally, involve deception. Not everyone agreed deception should be part of the game of football, but Heisman did. He saw it as a vital component of the game. The game of American football was the closest thing there was to recreating military warfare in sports. As the field general, Heisman would not advocate the traditional, straightforward approach of simply lining two opposing armies up on a field, across from one another, each dressed in brightly colored uniforms, so the two armies can exchange blows until one is victorious. He would not condone this on the battlefield, and he would not condone this on the football field.

     Heisman took more from the military styles of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Rider or Pancho Villa, and his ethics on the football field seemed straight out of The Art of War by Sun Tzu, who believed “all warfare is based on deception.” Heisman’s axioms for the football field even sound similar to 5th century BC writings in their plain-language articulation of strategy and tactics. The coach would not be the last person to point out the similarities between football and war. Comedian George Carlin perhaps best articulated the differences between football and what was the current favorite pastime:

Football is technological; baseball is pastoral.

Football is played in a stadium; baseball is played in the park.

In football, you wear a helmet; in baseball, you wear a cap. 

Football is played on an enclosed, rectangular grid, and every one of them is the same size; baseball is played on an ever-widening angle that reaches to infinity, and every park is different!

Football is rigidly timed; baseball has no time limit - we don't know when it's gonna end! We might even have extra innings!

The object in football is to march downfield and penetrate enemy territory, and get into the end zone; in baseball, the object is to go home! "I'm going home!"

In football, you get a penalty; in baseball, you make an error - whoops!

And, in football, they have the clip, the hit, the block, the tackle, the blitz, the bomb, the offense and the defense; in baseball, they have… the sacrifice.

     The road to gridiron greatness was not a simple one for the legendary coach. Heisman was first introduced to football at Titusville High School, up in northwestern Pennsylvania, where he, despite being significantly undersized, played guard for three seasons before graduating salutatorian of his class in 1887. His fascination with football, particularly the rules and strategies of the game, followed him to Brown University and later Penn as Heisman pursued a degree in law.

     But after suffering an eye injury in a football game while playing at Penn, Heisman would be forced to delay joining a law firm after graduation in order to rest his eyes. This innocuous event provided the impetus for his entry into a career that landed him in the College Football Hall of Fame and placed his name on, what is universally regarded as, the most distinguished trophy in football, if not in all of sports.

     Unable to spend his days and nights poring over law books, Heisman accepted an offer to become the first football coach at Oberlin College in Ohio. It was during his short tenure at Oberlin that Heisman put on display his knack for innovation, introducing an early iteration of a reverse play as well as a primitive signal system for relaying plays to the players from the sidelines. It was in his first year of coaching Heisman inadvertently invented what became one of the game’s most famous, and deceptive, plays - aptly referred to as the Hidden Ball Trick.

     The play is simple. At the beginning of the play, instead of the center giving the ball to the quarterback, like he always does, he keeps it instead, shoving the ball under his shirt or somewhere to hide the ball from the other team. With the opposing team preoccupied with the player they believe has the ball, the actual ball carrier is able to waltz to the end zone un-accosted for an easy touchdown. Even though the first occurrence of the play back in 1892 had been a complete accident, Heisman would go on to use the play repeatedly over the course of the next decade, regarding it as one of his best trick plays, before the play was finally outlawed.

     While many in the sport found the play and others like it distasteful and adverse to the spirit of the game, Heisman defended trick plays. To defeat them on the field, he advocated challenging opponents, not just physically, but strategically, like a battlefield general. To him, trickery was just part of the game, another layer of a complicated and fascinating sport. And whatever was allowed in the rulebook (provided it’s not morally reprehensible) was well within the realm of fairness and acceptability in his mind.

      “In his desire and eagerness to experiment and improvise to find ways to open up the game and help eliminate its questionable elements,” noted Wiley L. Umphlett in Creating the Big Game. “Heisman was often accused of deception and underhanded stratagems.” For that reason, the highly successful head coach was often misunderstood. But those who studied closely his work and how he put together his teams, inevitably concluded he played, and coached, the game the way it was meant to be played.

     The way the “One Great Scorer” from the Grantland Rice poem “Alumnus Football” would want it to be played. In fact, Heisman understood that, while the game of football did attract its fair share of unseemly and distasteful behavior, this did not preclude it from being a valuable tool for shaping the moral character of the nation’s youth. Heisman wrote as much in his book: 

     In no game and in no calling is there so strong a temptation for a participant to cheat, to take unfair advantages, to do small, petty, mean things, to lose temper, to indulge in profanity, to quarrel, to show a nasty disposition, and even to resort to downright fighting, as in football. Better stay away from such a pastime, say you? Not I! That’s the time, the place and the way to learn how to govern, to control, to conquer yourself. On properly regulated fields you see even the coaches frowning such things down.

     The up-to-date coach will no longer encourage nor even permit “dirty” playing or muckerism of any kind by any of his players. And it is in the game to make the participants admire even an opponent who does big things in a big way. If a player is a real sportsman his example is contagious and the rest desire to emulate him. On a properly regulated field there is not place any longer even for profanity or for indecent language of any kind. Will not this help at least a little in the right molding of a boy’s character? And now the game has made our hero a sportsman and a gentleman.

     Since the coaching position at Oberlin was unpaid, his move to Buchtel College (now the University of Akron) and the $750 a year salary that came with it, was generally regarded as a positive one. As had been the case at Oberlin, Heisman immediately went to work on turning the football program into a success by producing the school’s first winning season. While there, he also invented the center snap that continues to be a fundamental component of the game to this day. Previously, the center had rolled the ball to the quarterback, but since the Bechtel quarterback was extremely tall, making the process quite awkward, Heisman devised this new method for transferring possession of the ball. A vocal cue was needed to prompt such a transfer, so Heisman came up with the word “hike!” to accomplish the task.

     During this period in his life, Heisman also fell in love with a young woman. Her name was Edith Maora Cole, but the unexpected discovery of a serious, and believed to be incurable health condition forced her to move to Colorado, preventing them from marrying. From there, Heisman took his coaching talents south to Auburn where he finished out the century. This was his first coaching venture into the region of the country that would bring him the majority of his success.

     In an 1895 Auburn team photo, Coach Heisman is seen standing amongst his players, looking like nothing more than a fellow classmate, wearing a cap, striped shirt and spectacles, and being dwarfed in size by almost all his players. In the photograph, Heisman looks more like Rudy, from the football movie, than the draconian field general who would one day command the sideline with a bold determination that elicited fear and absolute compliance from the players on his team.

     His Auburn stop would prove an opportune time to try out his hidden ball trick, which he decided to do in the opening game against Vanderbilt University. Vanderbilt would become a perennial powerhouse in the south and famed sportswriter Grantland Rice, elicited his first romanticized memories from the 1892 team and attended Vanderbilt where he became a letterman on the 1899 team. Vanderbilt football would maintain a special place in the heart of Rice in all the years he wrote poetically about southern athletics. The trick play was successful in scoring a touchdown, as well as raising the ire of the opposition, but it did not prevent Vanderbilt from ultimately winning the game. This was just one of a long series of incidents where the fates of Heisman and Vanderbilt would cross paths in the coming years. 

     By the turn of the century, Heisman had moved once again, this time from Alabama to South Carolina, to take over as football coach of the Clemson Tigers. And through the years, and with the changing of coaching stops, Heisman was changing too, at least in appearance, which could be observed through team photos. Where Heisman had appeared young and collegiate back in 1895 at Auburn, by his first season at Clemson in 1900, Heisman had dropped the usual cap for a more stylish look, featuring a high collar.

     By 1902, Heisman had gone full dandy with a bowler hat and bowtie to go with his ultra-modern jacket and vest. For his final year at Clemson, Heisman returned to a more conservative look, wearing a high-collared suit, tie and spectacles to go with a receding hairline beginning to betray his advancing age.

     Out of the gate at Clemson, Heisman delivered his unique style of success, posting an undefeated 6-0 record and Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association (SIAA) championship. Most notable along the way were road wins over Georgia and Alabama by scores of 39-5 and 35-0. In 1901, Clemson went 3-1-1, but narrowly lost the conference championship to the undefeated Vanderbilt Commodores. In 1902, Clemson and Vanderbilt were named conference co-champions, having both teams only lost one game. The 1902 football season also included a game against Georgia Tech, the large engineer school in Atlanta where Heisman achieved his greatest fame and success.

     What was most interesting about the game is how Clemson went about defeating Georgia Tech 44-5 in Atlanta. The heavily one-sided win had been set up by an act of deception on Heisman’s part the night before. The head coach sent a group of scrubs, along with the team’s athletic equipment, to Atlanta the day before the game. Thinking they were the actual players, Georgia Tech boosters took the players out on the town, drinking until the wee hours of the morning, in hopes of ruining them for the contest the next day.

     The following morning, the real players showed up for the game, bright eyed and ready to go, having spent the night, incident free, in a small inn just out of town. The team made the big win and the scrubs enjoyed a fun night of free drinks, courtesy of the Georgia Tech supporters. If this game didn’t already convince Georgia Tech to go hire Heisman away from Clemson, the game the next season certainly would.

     In 1903, the Clemson Tigers were scheduled to return to Atlanta, once again, for the second game of the season. This year, there was no ruse with phony players, but the Georgia Bulldogs team who lost to Clemson 29-0 in the first game, according to a story in the Clemson University program, offered Clemson a bushel of apples for every point over twenty-nine they scored on rival Georgia Tech. This turned out to be a lot of apples as Heisman dropped 73 points on his future employer who responded with no points of their own.

     With the 1903 season drawing to a close, and his contract with Clemson running out, Heisman found a number of southern schools vying for his services as head football coach. His former employer Auburn wanted him back. His current employer Clemson wanted him back. And Georgia Tech’s most hated rival Georgia wanted Heisman to come to Athens to coach for them. The biggest red carpet had been laid out by Georgia Tech, who had grown tired of Heisman-coached teams dismantling their team on the gridiron each season and made it their mission to get him to come coach for them instead. The Georgia School of Technology offered impressive academic credentials, a progressive southern city to reside in, as well as a boatload of money.

     Contracts would be signed with Georgia Tech, but not before he competed once again for the SIAA championship, having finished the season 4-1-1. Clemson would be playing in the their first ever playoff game against a relatively new school in the conference called Cumberland. Down in Lebanon, a new university president had been named that year who inspired growth and fresh thinking at an institution that had grown a bit old and stodgy and, in the process of doing so, had re-energized the school’s emphasis on athletics.

     The results were almost instant, particularly on the football field, where the university immediately put together a highly competitive team that challenged Heisman’s Clemson team for sole ownership of the Southern championship. The game ended in an 11-11 tie. Heisman, in an act of proper sports decorum, was duty-bound to concede the SIAA title to Cumberland. The various sportswriters and publications were divided on who was the best team in the south and the conference championship would wind up split. Intentional or not, the outcome of the playoff game provided the first occasion Cumberland University had managed to irk John Heisman, but it would not be the last.

     With or without a decisive victory over Cumberland in the southern title game, Heisman was establishing a reputation as the most dominant coach in the south. Clemson’s “First Bowl Game”, which had been Heisman’s idea, also continued his distinction as an innovator. The game was one of the first postseason playoff games in college football history where two teams vying for the title, play a game on a neutral site to determine which team was best. In a 1928 column featuring the headline “Heisman Finds Way to Select National Gridiron Champion”, the legendary coach was the first to advocate a four-team football playoff. It would not be until 2015, however, that college football would finally institute a playoff system to determine a national champion.

     The system enacted looked like one Heisman proposed 87 years earlier. Heisman knew early on the system of selecting champions was flawed. What he didn’t know was how dearly those flaws would cost his own team in the future. And, once again, wrapped up in the middle of it all, would be Cumberland.

     Those would be battles for other days. During his four seasons at Clemson, Heisman’s teams recorded 19 wins, 3 losses and 2 ties for a .833 winning percentage. His teams claimed 3 conference championships and just barely missed out on a fourth one to Vanderbilt. He was a rising star in the sport, but an eastern bias allowed southern teams to often be slighted on the national stage. With schools like Harvard, Yale and Princeton dominating the sport in those early years, football was yet to see a national champion emerge from the south. Heisman recognized the football being played in the southern states was on par with the football being played on the east coast, and the coach intended to demonstrate this to the world.

     It was around this time Heisman was instrumental in two other major developments to impact American football in the game’s formative years. The first was John Heisman’s innovative new system he introduced to football called the Jump Shift. Also known as the Heisman Shift, the maneuver first introduced pre-snap movement to the game of football. Watching football today, fans of the sport are used to seeing players do all sorts of movements and machinations before the snap, such as players shifting from one position to another or going in motion. That was not always the case, however.

     Prior to the introduction of the shift, teams held perfectly still until the ball was snapped. A predecessor of the T and I Formations, the Jump Shift had members of the backfield who were not intended to get the ball “shift” their position just before the start of the play to create an entirely new formation. In doing so, Heisman could stack his players in whatever direction the ball was headed to create an unbalanced number of blockers. Teams who were unprepared for these pre-snap shifts had no answer for this ingenious maneuver and often found themselves on the losing end of the matchup. Heisman rode this offensive system to great success in the coming years and revolutionized the game in the process.

     The second major development Heisman influenced had a far greater impact to the game and, quite possibly, saved the sport from becoming a long-departed footnote in history instead of the crowd-pleasing pastime it is today generating billions of dollars per year. The “Walter Camp Rules” instituted back in the 1880s designed to lessen injuries in the game had unfortunately ended up having the opposite effect.

     The tipping point finally arrived when muckraking journalist Henry Beach Needham blindsided the football world with his controversial article titled “The College Athlete” published in the June and July issues of McClure’s Magazine. The article exposed the brutality and scandalous nature of the game and returned the subject of banning football to the forefront of national debate. As detailed in Heisman: The Man Behind the Trophy, one of football’s biggest fans, now serving his second term as President of the United States, Roosevelt would once again be compelled to act:

     After McClure’s published a two-part condemnation of football in 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt - an admitted fan of intercollegiate football - summoned representatives of Harvard, Princeton, and Yale to the White House in October 1905. The president told them it was time to clean up the sport once and for all.

     With allegations of football factories wining and dining recruits, cheating on admissions, paying star athletes and intentionally targeting opposing players to inflict injury, the article did a great deal of damage to the sport in the important arena of public opinion. The most serious backlash came over the rash of injuries and game-related deaths plaguing the game of football. “Football Year’s Death Harvest,” said the front page of the Chicago Tribune Sunday edition, “Record Shows That Nineteen Players Have Been Killed; One Hundred Thirty-Seven Hurt.” Two, the newspaper reported, had been killed the Saturday before.

     The paper called to reform or abolish the game and for Harvard to lead the way. In the article, the Tribune declared concussions had been responsible for six of the deaths, internal injuries caused four fatalities and spinal injuries had claimed three lives. The paper also revealed 31 broken legs, 19 broken collarbones, 10 skull fractures, 9 broken arms, 8 concussions, 3 broken ribs and 3 spinal injuries among the injuries over the course of the year that didn’t claim lives. The progressive voices were growing louder and louder as names of “immature boys of 17 and under” who were being “slaughtered to make a touchdown.”

     Something had to be done. And something would be done. Roosevelt, the originator of the term “bully pulpit,” used his presidential influence to compel the top football coaches in the country to reform football or risk the sport being lost forever. One football coach who answered the call was John Heisman. The coach was called on again to defend the sport he’d devoted his entire life to. He understood the threat football was under from muckrakers and politicians.

     When Heisman renewed his contract with Georgia Tech in 1907, there was a final provision that stated, “This contract shall forthwith become null and void in event the Legislature of the State of Georgia or the Board of Trustees of the Georgia School of Technology enact Laws or Resolutions prohibiting Football or Baseball contests by the students of the Georgia School of Technology.”

     Beginning in his final year at Clemson, Heisman had become a strong vocal advocate of what he believed to be the one development that, instead of clustering players into a mob like mass play did, would open the game up and reduce serious injuries. The development was the forward pass. And it would change the game of football forever.

     Heisman witnessed the inspiration for the forward pass way back in 1895, around the time he was first trying out his hidden ball trick against Vanderbilt. The coach was scouting a game between North Carolina and Georgia when he witnessed what is generally regarded as the first ever forward pass. Heisman was, not surprisingly, one of the first coaches to scout his opponents, now a common practice in football. The Georgia eleven, coached by Glenn “Pop” Warner, with the game in a scoreless deadlock, had forced North Carolina to punt late in the game when the incident in question occurred. Heisman recalled the play years later:

     In a few minutes, the time-keeper’s whistle would blow and the game would be over. North Carolina had the ball, her back pressing her own goal. Perhaps she couldn’t win, but she could see to it that Georgia didn’t. The thing to do, the North Carolina quarterback estimated, was to get that ball far down the field - and hold ‘em, hold ‘em, hold ‘em!

     The North Carolina fullback retreated until the crossbar of the goal was above his head and from the Georgia stand came the exhortation to ‘block it, block it, block it!’ And Georgia’s forwards, gathering all their waning strength and riding over North Carolina’s tired defense, might have blocked it and even scored, had the sturdy boy from North Carolina kicked. But instead of punting straight into the leaping bodies of those onrushing Georgians, he ran a few mincing steps to the right. Raising the ball to his shoulder, he tossed it. 

     They play was illegal of course, and the ball only traveled a few yards in the air, but having been flung in a frenzied moment of confusion, the ball somehow landed in the hands of a teammate, who ran off with it 70 yards for the winning score. Coach Warner witnessed what had happened. And so had Heisman, who’d been standing about eight yards from the fullback when the play occurred. Both men vigorously protested, but to no avail. “The referee had not seen the North Carolina lad, goaded to desperation, toss the ball. And he refused to recall the ball,” recalled Heisman. “A touchdown had been made and a touchdown it remained.”

     An account the next day in the Daily Tar Heel stated, “Stephens takes the ball on a double pass and makes a brilliant run from the center of the field for a touchdown, scattering the Georgia backs along the field as he goes.” But something much bigger had happened at Brisbine Park that day in front of 1,500 spectators. From that moment on, Heisman understood what the forward pass could mean to American football and championed its legalization, even when faced with skeptics and critics. Author Wiley Lee Umphlett chronicled Heisman’s contributions in regards to instituting what served as the foundation of the high-flying passing game that exists in football today:

     If for no other reason, though, John Heisman-the-football-coach should be remembered as the foremost proponent of the forward pass, a lone voice at first but one whose relentless, tireless efforts finally resulted in acceptance of the game's most revolutionary feature since Walter Camp's proposal of the scrimmage line in 1880. Considering how much a part of the game the forward pass has become, we would find it difficult today to realize how strongly opposed to its adoption certain factions were in Heisman's day. In championing its cause, Heisman was as much a competitor off the field as he was on it, and he exercised a visionary quality in his quest to open up the game that few coaches ever had.

     Walter Camp, the great football innovator, was the chairman of the Rules Committee at that time. Heisman hounded Camp for years advocating the idea until the committee finally relented and formally adopted the forward pass at the close of the 1905 season. President Roosevelt strongly approved of Heisman’s solution. Other changes were made to accommodate the shift to a new passing style of play and further reduce headline-making injuries. The changes must have worked because the abolitionists never put up another serious threat to banning the sport after that.

     Still, injuries would remain a part of the sport despite advances made to technology, as well as the rules. In 2015, Columbia Pictures released the movie Concussion, starring Will Smith, about the highly publicized topic of brain damage caused by football. The film is based on a GQ article titled “Brain Drain” and the subject is stirring up talk once again as to whether football should continue as a sport. 

     Soon the world would get a sneak peek of what the forward pass would mean to the game. In 1913, what was considered at the time to be a small Catholic boys school from South Bend, Indiana shocked a heavily favored Army team by completing 14 of 17 passes for 243 yards. Those might sound like pretty good passing numbers today, but in those days those numbers were unheard of. Although the forward pass had been legal since 1906, teams rarely took advantage of the play. That changed on November 1, in week four of the football season.

     Quarterback Charles “Gus” Dorias and left end Knute Rockne (who would go on to become a legendary coach himself) spent the summer working at the Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio. In their free time, they worked out pass patterns on the beach. When Notre Dame unleashed this precision passing attack on the Army Cadets, it must have felt like a German air raid. By the end of the game, Notre Dame had defeated the Cadets 35-13 and the days of curls, slants, hooks, posts, hitches, streaks and bombs were here to stay. A century later, millions of football fans were entertained by plays like the “Bluegrass Miracle,” the “Hail Flutie” and the “Miracle in Michigan”.

     “When, years ago, the Rules Committee finally decided to permit forward passing, it did so in the hope such a play might open up the game and result in a less dangerous sport than had been in vogue up to that time,” wrote Heisman in the book Principles of Football. “The author, in suggesting to the Committee such incorporation, had this thought in mind also, but that was not all. I had seen such a play accidentally pulled off in an actual game and realized at once how much more interesting and spectacular the game of football would become if only forward passing were allowed, and I had no doubt that, in time, such a play would come to be relied upon as a dependable method of advancing the ball. That stage of development has now been reached in the evolution of our great college game.”

     With his efforts to legalize the forward pass, Heisman made, what is widely regarded to be, his most significant contribution to the game of football, earning the much-deserved nickname “father of the forward pass.” He, as much as Roosevelt, saved football from being banned. And now that the prohibitionist threat was mostly gone, Heisman could stop spending his time being a lobbyist and return his focus to coaching his team.

     At only 36 years of age, he was already regarded as the most celebrated coach in the region. He could now get to work building the greatest football team the South had ever known. Except two very important things had changed: His address had moved 120 miles from Clemson, South Carolina to Atlanta, Georgia. And Heisman had traded in his Tiger stripes for those of a Yellow Jacket.

Written by Scott Larson
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