Oct. 17, 2013
By Lou Somogyi, Blue & Gold Illustrated
In the summer of 2013, Cedar Point Resort celebrated the 100th anniversary of football’s forward pass.
The ceremony featured the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Notre Dame legends Knute Rockne and Charles “Gus” Dorais, who were Fighting Irish senior teammates and roommates in 1913.
Prior to that 1913 season, Rockne and Dorais spent the summer on the beach at Cedar Point, working as lifeguards. Oh, and in their spare time the two practiced the intricacies of the still relatively newfangled forward pass along the beach. Timing, release points, precise patterns and catching the ball without breaking stride were the points of emphasis for the duo.
One hundred years later, family members of the two replicated the practicing of the forward pass.
Rockne and Dorais enrolled together in 1910, the year after Notre Dame’s first major upset in its football history, an 11-3 victory at Michigan in 1909. After several years of working at a postal office in Chicago to save money for college, Rockne was a 22-year-old freshman in 1910, and at first became more lauded for his athletic exploits in track as a pole-vaulter.
Wisconsin native Dorais was highly coveted as an athlete by Notre Dame football coach Frank “Shorty” Longman, a former Michigan player and mastermind behind the 1909 upset at Ann Arbor. Longman even got Notre Dame president, Rev. John W. Cavanaugh, C.S.C., involved to help get Dorais admitted and receive financial aid to get through school.
The 1909 victory at Michigan helped blackball Notre Dame among Western Conference (later Big Ten) members, so scheduling quality opponents became a problem.
Although Notre Dame was 17-1-3 in football during Dorais and Rockne’s first three seasons at the school, there were no marquee opponent on the schedule other than maybe Michigan Agricultural College, which didn’t become “Michigan State” until 1925. MAC defeated Notre Dame in 1910, 17-0, and wouldn’t play them again until 1916.
The hiring of Wabash College’s Jesse Harper as Notre Dame’s first athletics director, to complement his role as football coach, in the senior years of Dorais and Rockne dramatically altered the landscape and the course of history for the two relatively undistinguished student-athletes.
Contrary to popular belief, the forward pass in football did not begin with the Dorais-to-Rockne combination on Nov. 1, 1913, at Army, although an argument could be made that it was brought into the limelight.
Its genesis occurred in 1905 when the Chicago Tribune reported that 18 college football players had been killed and 159 seriously injured in a game where the pass was not in existence (and when touchdowns were worth five points and field goals four points).
Outcries became rampant to abolish the game, even leading President Theodore Roosevelt to demand rules changes to make it safer. That spawned in 1906 what eventually would become the NCAA. A special meeting of more than 60 schools created a Rules Committee, and on April 6, 1906, the “forward pass” officially became a legal play.
The rationale for the change, according to The New York Times back then, was to open up the game, or “to provide for the natural elimination of the so-called mass plays and bring about a game in which speed and real skill shall supersede so far as possible mere brute strength and force of weight.”
That year St. Louis University head coach Eddie Cochems became renowned as the first football coach to build an offense around the forward pass. To the objection years later of peers such as Chicago University’s Amos Alonzo Stagg, Cochems often became recognized as “The Father of the Forward Pass.”
On Sept. 5, 1906, history was made during Saint Louis University’s 22-0 victory over Carroll College when Bradbury Robinson and Jack Schneider connected on the first successful pass, a touchdown no less, in NCAA history. That St. Louis team finished 11-0 while outscoring its foes 407-11 and leading the nation in scoring.
Adapting to change can be difficult, though, and there was an initial reluctance by most teams to use the pass too much because it was in its rough draft stages.
Furthermore, the rules back then stated that an incomplete pass — or even a complete one — within five yards of the line of scrimmage was a turnover. A catch past the goal line became a touchback instead of a touchdown.
An incomplete attempt would lead to a 15-yard penalty from the spot from which the pass was thrown on first or second down. If the defense committed a foul, the 15-yard penalty didn’t apply to the offense, but the defending team was not penalized either.
In addition, a pass could not be caught more than 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, nor beyond the goal line (the end zone had not yet been invented).
Still, Cochems and his team thrived. During St. Louis’ 31-0 win against Iowa, SLU completed eight of 10 pass attempts for an average of 20 yards with four touchdowns, including one caught “on the run” instead of the popular “buttonhook” where an eligible receiver ran downfield a short distance (but more than the required five yards) before heading back to the quarterback for a low-risk pass.
In Rockne of Notre Dame, a book published in 1999 by Oxford University Press, author Ray Robinson wrote that “the St. Louis style of forward pass, as implemented by Cochems, was different from the pass being thrown by eastern players. Cochems did not protect his receiver by surrounding him with teammates, as was the case in the East.”
After the 1906 season, Cochems published a 10-page article entitled The Forward Pass and On-Side Kick in the 1907 edition of Spalding’s How to Play Foot Ball, which was edited by Walter Camp, “The Father of American Football.”
In ensuing years, the pass continued its snail’s pace progress when in December 1909 Cochems advocated the redesign of the large, more roundish football to be more aerodynamic and easier for a passer to grasp with his full hand and throw it instead of pushing it like a basketball.
“Some of the best teams in the country find it impossible to use the pass, owing to lack of players who can make it,” Cochems told The Washington Post. “Since it is impossible to grow larger hands and it is possible to make the ball conform to human dimensions, why not make the ball fit the needed conditions?”
Gradually, a new ball came into play that was longer, narrower and a bit heavier so it would carry better against a strong wind.
“With the new ball, deeper offensive formations could be logically planned and carried into execution,” Cochems predicted.
LIFE’S A BEACH
The pass was still perceived in many circles, particularly the East — which was today’s version of the Southeastern Conference — as a desperation ploy for weaker teams: Always the progressive thinker, Rockne saw it otherwise.
“One would have thought that so effective a play would have been instantly copied and become the vogue,” Rockne said years later. “The East, however, had not learned much or cared much about Midwest and western football; indeed, the East scarcely realized that football existed beyond the Alleghenies …”
Dorais first completed a pass to Rockne in 1911, but it wasn’t until their senior season in 1913 under new coach Harper that the emphasis on the aerial attack mushroomed. Harper had an innovative mind and implemented the pass at Wabash in an effort to make his team more competitive. In Dorais, he found an exceptional athlete who could wing the football as well as anyone he had seen, and the “overhand” toss began to be developed.
Because Harper’s mandate was to make the Notre Dame schedule more attractive, he was able to line up November 1913 games in St. Louis, at the University of Texas in Austin, Penn State, and most notably Army on Nov. 1. To become competitive, Notre Dame couldn’t remain status quo, so the 1913 summer at Cedar Point for Dorais and Rockne became the time to perfect their new technique. Not only had the shape of the football evolved, but also in 1913 another new rule allowed that no limit on the length a pass could be thrown.
“Perfection of the forward pass came to us only through daily, tedious practice,” Rockne wrote. “I’d run along the beach, Dorais would through from all angles. People who didn’t know we were two college seniors making painstaking preparations for our final season probably thought we were crazy.
“Once a bearded old gentleman took off his shoes to get in the fun, seizing the ball and kicking it merrily, with bare feet, too, until a friendly keeper came along to take him back where he belonged.”
“Spectators on the beach were not used to seeing a football thrown in the air,” Robinson wrote. “After all, footballs were made for kicking. They marveled at the insanity of these two young fellows exhausting themselves under a broiling sun.”
According to Dorais, “Rockne continued to develop his deceptive, stop-and-go style of going down the field for a pass, a style used by nearly all good pass receivers. I worked hard to increase the accuracy and length of my passes. … That summer of 1913 at Cedar Point, Rock and I practiced more than we had ever practiced before. Rock perfected his method of catching passes without tenseness in his fingers, wrists or arms, and with the hands giving with the ball, just as a baseball should be caught.”
“We mastered the technique of losing the football with hands relaxed and tried to master the more difficult feat of catching it with one hand,” Rockne later wrote.
Their work at Cedar Point was fully unveiled at Army on that Nov. 1, 1913 date. The first Notre Dame player named a consensus All-American, Dorais completed 14 of 17 passes for 243 yards and three touchdowns. A 40-yard completion to Rockne was the longest pass ever completed by a Notre Dame team at the time, and it helped Notre Dame take a 14-13-halftime lead.
With Army confused by the new style, it spread out its defense more, which then opened up Notre Dame’s ground attack, led by fullback Ray Eichenlaub. Unleashing the pass and then the run with equal aplomb, Notre Dame out-scored powerful Army 21-0 in the second half for a 35-13 victory. The football landscape had changed, and no longer would Notre Dame be in obscurity.
“The press and the football public hailed this new game, and Notre Dame received credit as the originator of a style of play that we simply systematized,” Rockne said.
All things come to a pass … and on that one day the aftereffects remain.
FAMOUS NOTRE DAME PASSES
The Gus Dorais-to-Knute Rockne passing combination in the 1913 upset of Army was a watershed moment in Notre Dame’s football history.
Unfortunately, no video footage of their play that day is available. Since then, there have been hundreds of other famous aerial plays in Irish annals.
Which ones rank among the most famous in terms of impact, clutch play and renown as the years pass (literally and figuratively)? Here’s a top-5 to consider:
5) Penn State (1992): Rick Mirer to Reggie Brooks
One of the greatest catches in school annals is not even officially listed as a reception because it was a two-point conversion.
After Mirer found Jerome Bettis for a four-yard score on fourth down to reduce the deficit to 16-15 with 20 seconds left, he eluded the pass rush on the two-point play and rifled the ball toward Brooks – who had caught only two passes during his career.
In the end zone, the outstretched, diving Brooks somehow held on to the pass with his fingertips for a 17-16 triumph in the “Snow Bowl” at Notre Dame Stadium.
4) Houston (1979 Cotton Bowl): Joe Montana to Kris Haines
This was Montana’s final play at Notre Dame.
Just like Mirer in the 1992 “Snow Bowl,” Montana rolled to his right from the Houston eight-yard line in the “Ice Bowl” and found a diving Haines barely inside the right end zone sideline as time elapsed.
After Joe Unis’ PAT, the miraculous comeback was complete as the Irish rallied from a 34-12 deficit with 7:37 left in the game to a 35-34 victory.
3) Ohio State (1935): Bill Shakespeare to Wayne Millner
Only the passer’s namesake could have inked better drama.
Off a reverse, Shakespeare’s 19-yard toss to Millner in the end zone with 32 seconds remaining lifted Notre Dame to a stunning 18-13 victory after trailing 13-0 in the fourth quarter. The triumph snapped the Buckeyes’ 10-game winning streak and was voted in 1969 as the greatest college football game in the sport’s first 100 years.
2) Army (1928): John Niemiec to Johnny “One Play” O’Brien
With the score tied 6-6 against the Cadets, winners of 11 straight, Notre Dame faced 4th-and-26 at the Army 33. Niemiec dropped back to punt at the Cadet 45, but head coach Knute Rockne inserted 6-foot-2 track man O’Brien, a third team player, for a pass off a punt formation.
Niemiec connected with O’Brien near the 10 and O’Brien dove past the goal line with about two-and-a-half minutes left to play in what would be a 12-6 victory.
Notre Dame finished only 5-4 this year – but without this play, the “One for the Gipper” speech in this contest would have been squandered and not preserved for posterity.
1) Alabama (1973 Sugar Bowl): Tom Clements to Robin Weber
To any Notre Dame follower, it is distinctly identified as “The Pass.”
Clinging to a 24-23 lead with two minutes left, and the national title on the line, the Irish faced 3rd-and-8 from their three. To disguise a pass play, head coach Ara Parseghian inserted a second tight end, Weber, in place of leading receiver Pete Demmerle. Weber had caught just one pass in his career and was overshadowed by All-American Dave Casper.
When Clements dropped back into the end zone off play action — a slip on the wet turf would have been a safety and the ball game — the Crimson Tide converged on Casper. Meanwhile, Weber streaked down the left sideline and Clements, under a heavy rush, hit him in stride for a 35-yard gain, helping clinch the national title in one of the gutsiest calls ever in college football.
— ND —