Answer Man

Answer Man: Pigskin first took flight in St. Louis

Q. Someone tried to tell me that a player from St. Louis University threw the first documented forward pass in American football history. Can that be true?

— R.T., of Belleville

A. As unbelievable as it sounds, a school that no longer fields a football team did indeed revolutionize the sport by completing what historians call the first legal pass in college football history on Sept. 5, 1906.

And, just as rules still are being tweaked, it was all designed to make the game safer at a time when many were calling for its prohibition.

If you think football is brutal today, you should have been around at the turn of the last century. On Nov. 25, 1905, for example, Union College’s Howard Moore died of a cerebral hemorhage after crashing into a New York University runner during a tackle. On the same day, an Indiana high school player died as well, bringing the season total to 19 fatalities and 135 with major injuries, according to the Chicago Tribune.

“As an institution, (football) is a boy-killing, man-mutilating, money-making, education-prostituting, gladiatorial sport,” said Shaller Mathews, dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School.

“College Presidents Denounce Game and Demand Change,” the New York Times reported in a headline the following Tuesday, followed on Wednesday by “Football Is Abolished by Columbia Committee — Game Too Dangerous and Demoralizing.” (The Ivy League school banned football through 1914).

In response to the public outcry, major university officials sat down with President Theodore Roosevelt to try to stop one particularly nasty defensive tactic. Because there was no forward pass, defenders felt safe massing together behind the line of scrimmage and then barrelling into the oncoming rusher. By allowing the forward pass in 1906, it was hoped play would open up and injuries would decrease.

But initially, the pass came with heavy risk. Both incomplete passes and passes of less than five yards resulted in an immediate change of possession. And get this: Catching a pass in the end zone resulted in a touchback and change of possession — not a touchdown. As a result, many coaches were leery of using it in 1906.

Not Eddie Cochems (Coke-ems). After a year at Clemson, Cochems came to St. Louis to take over a football program that had enjoyed instant success. The Bills fielded their first intercollegiate team in 1899 and went undefeated in 1901 and 1904. So, Cochems was more than ready to try out what was then called the “projectile pass.”

He got his chance on Sept. 5, 1906, when the Billikens paid a visit to Carroll College in Waukesha, Wis. Locked in a scoreless duel, Cochems called for the air attack.

Quarterback Bradbury Robinson’s first attempt was incomplete, so the ball went over to Carroll. But on St. Louis’ next possession, Robinson hit Jack Schneider with a 20-yard strike. It befuddled the Carroll defense so much that Schneider scampered in for a touchdown, starting a 22-0 rout.

More important now, East Coast football didn’t start until later in the fall, so the Billikens are now credited with the first pass. Even legendary Notre Dame Coach Knute Rockne acknowledged that fact in his biography.

“(Cochems) enrolled a few boys with hands like steam shovels who could toss a football just as easily and almost as far as they could throw a baseballl,” he wrote. “One would have thought that so effective a play would have been instantly copied and become the vogue. 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.”

Cochems resigned in March 1909, and St. Louis U. football came to an end with a 35-0 loss to Houston on Nov. 24, 1949. But Cochems’ fearless acceptance of the forward pass (St. Louis whipped Iowa 31-0 in 1906 by completing eight of 10 passes, four for touchdowns) was a major first step toward the air wars you’ll likely see today in Super Bowl XLIX.

Q. How did a football come to be called a “pigskin” when it is actually made of cowhide, rubber or plastic?

— C.V., of Cahokia, et al.

A. Perhaps because “pigskin” was a bit more socially acceptable than “pig’s bladder.”

That’s right — centuries before Deflate-gate (and American football, for that matter), British footballers kicked pig’s bladders around, historians say. After all, they were cheap, readily available, easily sealed and reasonably durable. Now, some understandably may have become a bit queasy while using the natural nozzle to inflate them. Others, however, would argue they were a step up from what the English sometimes say was the original football — the skull of a Danish invader, which, according to legend, workers dug up in the 11th century and began kicking around.

In fact, some say the oldest football that can be seen today was made about 1540 and was found in the 1890s in the roof of Stirling Castle in Scotland, which dates from the early 1100s. Made of a pig’s bladder covered by what is probably deerskin, it’s about 6 inches long, weighs just over 4 ounces and still can be seen at the Smith Art Gallery and Museum in Stirling, Scotland.

But pig’s bladders quickly went the way of all flesh about the time intercollegiate football started in 1869. Charles Goodyear had perfected his process of vulcanizing rubber in 1844, so it’s no surprise that reports of rubber bladders were being seen by 1871 — and probably well before that. Still, the euphemistic “pigskin” survives.

You didn’t ask, but maybe you’re also wondering about the football’s odd shape. While balls in other sports are reasonably round, the football stands out as a prolate spheroid. Yet, it, too, might have been round had it not been for some troubles encountered during the second Princeton-Rutgers game on Nov. 13, 1869, according to witness Henry Duffield:

“The ball ... was supposed to be completely round. It never was, though. It was too hard to blow up right. The game was stopped several times that day while the teams called for a little key from the sidelines. They used it to unlock the small nozzle which was tucked into the ball, and then took turns blowing it up. The last man generally got tired and they put it back in play somewhat lopsided.”

Soon, the shape became standard and now balls must be about 11 inches long, 22 inches in circumference at the center, weigh 14-15 ounces — and, of course, be inflated to 12.5 to 13.5 pounds per square inch.

Answer to Saturday’s trivia: So, did you know the only two men to win Super Bowls as a head coach, assistant coach and player? If you said Mike Ditka and Tom Flores, treat yourself to a few more of those 1.25 billion chicken wings expected to be eaten today. (Laid end to end, they’d stretch back and forth from Century Link Field in Seattle to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., nearly 23 times.) In any case, Ditka caught a touchdown pass in the Dallas Cowboys’ 24-3 win over Miami in Super Bowl VI in 1972 and helped Tom Landry coach the Cowboys to their 27-10 win over Denver in Super Bowl XII in 1978. Then, he was at the helm when da Bears buried New England 46-10 in Super Bowl XX in 1986.

Flores, who was a quarterback for Fresno City College, was a backup to Len Dawson when the Kansas City Chiefs downed Minnesota 23-7 in Super Bowl IV in 1970. But he earned his greatest fame in Oakland, where he helped John Madden coach the Raiders to a 32-14 win over Minnesota in Super Bowl XI in 1977 before taking over the team in 1979 and guiding it to wins over Philadelphia in Super Bowl XV (27-10, 1981) and Washington in Super Bowl XVIII (38-9, 1984).

Tony Dungy won as a coach in Indianapolis and player in Pittsburgh, but not as an assistant.