ST. LOUIS — It was a pass that would change football forever. And no one caught it.
The first recorded legal forward pass in American football history has its 100th anniversary today.
It took years for Saint Louis University football coach Eddie Cochems to get credit for calling the first pass play for a football program that was disbanded more than 50 years ago.
The play would go on to lift football’s grueling hard-nosed battle on ground to the air and create a faster and more exciting sport.
And the Saint Louis player who wrapped his big hands around the fat, rugby-shaped ball to throw what was called a “projectile pass” is remembered only in obscure sports trivia as Bradbury Robinson.
The pass was incomplete, and the other team automatically got the ball, according to university archives. But the game wasn’t over.
“It was the coach who pushed to do the play. He was definitely looking to draw some attention to his school,” said Jerry Vickery, curator for the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in Springfield.
Ten years ago, Vickery did extensive research on the private Catholic university’s team and the forward pass.
The St. Louis school was considered a regional powerhouse at the time, Vickery said, but received little recognition. It was overshadowed by larger football schools to the east, such as Yale and Harvard.
“Football was like a war, bloody and dangerous. They had plays where they would slingshot players over the line and over the pile,” Vickery said.
With serious injuries, deaths, biting, kicking and punching in football drawing criticism across the country, a rules committee urged by President Theodore Roosevelt officially made passing legal, university archivist John Waide said. The move opened the field and the game’s close formations, making it safer. That committee would become known as the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
Forward passes had been tried before, including in an experimental game in 1955 between Washburn and what would become Wichita State before the new rules were approved in early 1906. Successful but illegal forward passes also were completed a number of times.
It was hard to throw the rugby-like football with any accuracy at the turn of the century. The aerodynamic pigskin that the NFL’s Peyton Manning launches today would not spiral on to the gridiron until years later.
Fans saw a legal forward pass for the first time on Sept. 5, 1906, in a game between Saint Louis and Carroll College in Waukesha, Wis., according to archives.
With his patience wearing thin in a scoreless game, Cochems called for the play the team had secretly practiced — the “air attack.”
At the time, hitting a receiver within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage meant an automatic turnover. And if a player caught a pass in the end zone, he didn’t celebrate; the pass would have been ruled a touchback and a turnover.
When Saint Louis got the ball back after the first failed pass attempt, Robinson completed a 20-yard touchdown pass to Jack Schneider.
Archives indicate that the play stunned fans and Carroll players alike, as Saint Louis won 22-0.
University spokesman Brian Kunderman said that for many years, legendary Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne would be remembered for mastering the forward pass, but historians later cleared things up in a biography about him, passing credit to Cochems.
“Saint Louis was undefeated that year. And it’s no wonder why,” Waide said. Saint Louis shut out nearly every team it played and beat one 71-0.
“But no one would ever think of us as a football school today,” he said. “None of the students know this history.”