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Was Wichita State really the first college to throw a forward pass in football?

Hugo Phan

Several universities, including Wichita State, claim that football's first forward pass was thrown at their school. Who's right?

The second floor of the Rhatigan Student Center at Wichita State University contains a series of murals highlighting a number of “firsts” in school history.

First African-American football coach in Division 1-A.

First school to offer a comprehensive integrated program in communication.

First college to throw a forward pass in football.

Well, maybe. But maybe not.

“A lot of places like to claim to be the birthplace of the forward pass just the way that everybody likes to claim that George Washington slept here,” said Dr. Denis Crawford, a historian at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta.

Crawford said at least two other schools, St. Louis University and the University of North Carolina, also claim the first forward pass.

Passing became part of the college game in 1906. And to understand how that happened, you have to understand what college football was like back then.

Mike Kennedy is the longtime voice of Shocker athletics and its unofficial historian. He says football in that era was brutal.

Theodore Roosevelt
White House Archives
President Theodore Roosevelt convened a meeting with some of the leading football coaches in October 1905 to discuss making the game safer.

“First of all, very little padding, if any, and then the flying wedge where the lineman locked arms and just led the way … and that's why the discussion of the forward pass came up,” he said.

“Teddy Roosevelt, the president — who was a man's man — thought this is getting too brutally rough and there needs to be something happening to kind of reduce the roughness and brutality a little bit.”

And Crawford said the rules at the time — teams had three plays to move five yards to get a first down — contributed to the roughness.

“The shortest distance between two points is a straight line,” he said. “And so combining that strategy and tactic with the fact that the padding and the helmets, if there were helmets being worn at the time, were minimal. It led to a lot of injuries.”

And deaths. Nearly 20 players died in 1905. Countless others suffered severe injuries, including Teddy Roosevelt Jr., a member of Harvard’s freshman team.

Despite all of that, President Roosevelt truly loved college football. But he knew that many college presidents wanted to abolish the sport.

So, he convened a meeting with some of the leading coaches in October 1905 to discuss making the game safer.

That led to a pair of gatherings in December where coaches discussed rules changes, including the forward pass.

The changes also included a neutral zone between the offensive and defensive lines; requiring six offensive linemen on the line of scrimmage, and making teams travel 10 yards in three plays for a first down.

The new rules were put in place ahead of the 1906 season. But Wichita State, then known as Fairmount College, played a game against Washburn University using the proposed rules on Christmas Day in 1905.

Some historical accounts say Roy Kirk, the Fairmount team manager, wired Walter Camp for permission to use the forward pass in the game. Camp was a member of the newly formed rules committee and was known as the “Father of American Football.”

Wichita State University
The 1905 Fairmount College football team

Kennedy said that sounds like something Kirk would do. After all, he’s also the person who coined the nickname “Wheatshockers” for the school’s athletic team. And he organized a night football game earlier that season, using Coleman lanterns to illuminate the field.

“Apparently a pretty enterprising young man,” Kennedy said.

In that Christmas Day game, Fairmount's Bill Davis completed a pass to Art Solter in what the New York Times described as a “test” game.

The game ended in a 0-0 tie, and a headline in the Los Angeles Times read, “Reform Game Planed by Two Kansas Teams; Much Kicking, but Neither Side Able to Score; Entirely Safe, but not Conducive to Sport.”

But in the first official game of the 1906 season, St. Louis University’s Bradbury Robinson completed a pass to Jack Schneider against Carroll College in Waukesha, Wisconsin.

So, who was first?

“We have a number of notable firsts at the university that we're very proud of … and this is just one of them,” said Caitlin Stamm, the archivist for St. Louis University.

“So, I think on this particular topic, it's certainly the first legal forward pass. I think that's pretty well documented.”

Crawford, from the Hall of Fame, tends to agree, but …

“I know people always hate this but neither fan base is wrong,” he said. “It just depends on how closely you hold that word ‘official.’ ”

North Carolina claims it threw the first forward pass in 1895 in a game against Georgia. The pass was illegal then, but the referee didn’t see it and allowed the play — which resulted in the game’s only touchdown — to stand.

Stamm said having more than one college team claim the first forward pass is what keeps the sport interesting.

“I think this is one of those college rivalries that colleges thrive on,” she said. “So it's OK if we have some disagreements about things like this.

“I'm not losing sleep over it.”

Whichever team was first, the forward pass would revolutionize — and popularize — college football on a national scale.

“They embrace the forward pass right around the same time that radio becomes a mass media,” Crawford said.

“You start to have a lot of wonderful quarterbacks in the ’20s into the ’30s. So a lot of the golden age of college football is really tied heavily into Red Grange, but that's also where we start to get a lot of the early passing combinations.”

Ironically, neither St. Louis University or Wichita State still play college football. The Shockers last season was in 1986; St. Louis ended the program shortly after World War II.

“Actually a funny story,” Stamm said. “The university kind of reassured the campus, ‘Listen, we're going to stop football temporarily. This is just a temporary cost-saving measure. We're going to bring football back as soon as possible.’

“And that was in 1949. So I think they … are still waiting.”

So, did Wichita State officially throw the first forward pass in college football? Either way, Kennedy said the Shockers still deserve some credit.

“So I would guess that a trial game, or whatever they called it, probably wouldn't necessarily stand as the first of something,” Kennedy said. “You'd have to think really what counts was the first one played when it had become part of the rules, and so I can certainly see St. Louis University's claim.

“But you know, a little pride that Wichita State had the forethinking to give it a try and actually see what it looked like.”

Tom joined KMUW in 2017 after spending 37 years with The Wichita Eagle where he held a variety of reporting and editing roles. He also is host of The Range, KMUW’s weekly show about where we live and the people who live here. Tom is an adjunct instructor in the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University.
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