The Forward Pass In Football (A History)

The forward pass was illegal in the early history of American football.

Several visionaries believed that bringing in the forward pass would reduce injuries and deaths in college football and save the sport from being banned.

This article runs through the history of the forward pass. Who invented it? Who threw the first pass? Read on.

Who Invented The Forward Pass In Football?

In 1897, North Carolina was playing Georgia in Atlanta. Georgia was coached by Glenn Warner one of the early visionaries in the sport.

If you’re not familiar with Warner, he told his linemen to use a crouching start in 1899. There’s another first!

The spectators included a young John Heismann who was coaching at Auburn in Alabama.

Heisman was one of the first college coaches to scout out future opponents! Nearly forty years later, the Heisman Trophy for outstanding college players was created in his name.

So, how did the first forward pass come about? Remember that it was illegal in 1897.

The first forward pass

Time was running out in the game and neither team had scored. Carolina had been backed up to their own goal line, and their fullback intended to punt.

As the Georgia players charged towards him, it seems that the young man panicked. This is how Heisman described it in a later article:

“[he] ran a few mincing steps to the right. Raising the ball to his shoulder he tossed it.

Luck was with the boy. The ball was caught by a North Carolinian…

At any rate, that lad who caught it ran 70 yards for a touchdown!”

At first, most of the crowd couldn’t work out what had happened. The ball had only traveled a few yards in a diagonal but forward fashion.

 Spectators may have thought it had been knocked out of the fullback’s hands.

The ref didn’t see it!

But the Georgia coach, Glenn Warner, knew exactly what had happened. He stormed towards the referee to protest the illegal action. It was a forward pass!

But the referee was also confused. Apparently, he also thought the ball had somehow traveled forward through the actions of Carolina!

He awarded the touchdown despite the protestations from Warner.

A converted coach

This is what Heisman wrote:

“I had seen the first forward pass in football. It was illegal, of course.”

But the fact that this play beat the onrushing defense and opened up a 70-yard opportunity was a revelation to Heisman.

He was immediately convinced that this would be a major improvement to the sport.

Heisman wrote to Walter Camp who chaired the committee that governed football’s rules. He implored him to consider removing the ban on the forward pass.

However, this was too outlandish for Camp at that time, who didn’t reply to the letter.

Why Did Some Innovators Want The Forward Pass?

blackboard showing circles and arrows for a specific play

Heisman spoke and wrote about the need for the forward pass in football over the next few years.

When he was coaching at Clemson in the early 1900s, he stepped up his lobbying efforts and won many supporters.

One of the most notable was Amos Alonzo Stagg who rowed in with calls for legalization. Stagg was another great name in the development of the sport.

Eddie Cochems, another innovator, was also in favor of changing the rules. Cochems replaced Heisman as coach at Clemson College when Heisman moved on to Georgia Tech.

Cochems later wrote this:

In 1905, as coach at Clemson College, John Heisman…and I talked over the possibility of having the Rules Committee permit the use of the forward pass.

But what did these visionaries think would be achieved?

Deaths on the football field

In 1904, 21 football players died from playing injuries. Another 200 were seriously injured. The following year, the deaths rose to 23.

Here is just one example of a Chicago professor raging against the sport that he described as:

“a boy-killing…gladiatorial sport….I do not know what should take its place, but the new game should not require the services of a physician, the maintenance of a hospital, and the celebration of funerals.”

Football was in danger of being banned by college authorities. If you want to learn more, read our article on the early history of American football.

Most of the deaths were coming from what was known as mass-movement plays. Groups of players would bunch up and run at full tilt against each other.

How would the forward pass help?

Heisman and others believed that the forward pass would open up the game.

Defenders would have to spread out to cover the backfield. The quarterback would suddenly have many more options for attack.

Why not bring it in?

Allowing the ball to be thrown forward would change the basic structure of the sport.

Remember that Rugby Union and Rugby League have never allowed its introduction.

The early football administrators were worried that their beloved sport would be so changed that it would also be destroyed.

Walter Camp was of this view and his influence was huge. But even Camp had to pay attention when Teddy Roosevelt decided to knock heads together.

Did Teddy Roosevelt Invent The Forward Pass?

Teddy Roosevelt is sometimes credited for inventing the forward pass. That’s a super stretch.

But Roosevelt deserves immense credit for being involved in its introduction into football.

With the growing clamor about football deaths and injuries, Roosevelt called a meeting with Harvard, Princeton, and Yale in October 1905. He demanded that they come up with strategies to reduce violence in the sport.

This didn’t result immediately in the forward pass. But the meeting was the start of a series of hotly debated gatherings over the next ten months.

December 1905

Seventy colleges sent delegates to a meeting in December 1905. Delegates were invited to submit their suggestions for reducing injuries and opening up play.

Here are examples from Jefferson and Washington:

  • adopting some variation of the forward pass
  • requiring ten yards in three downs
  • penalizing violent play through dismissal for the half

Walter Camp and some other leaders were reluctant to bring in radical rule changes. But the tide was turning against a conservative approach.

Some rules were changed to try to open up play. One of the pleas from Jefferson and Washington was granted: teams were required to make ten yards in three downs.

But there was no relaxation of the rules against forward passes yet. That finally changed in the following year.

1906 – Allowing The Forward Pass

In 1906, the forward pass was made legal in football.

However, Walter Camp advocated many restrictions, and these were also put into the rules.

Heisman and his followers were disappointed by the restrictions and continued to advocate for their removal.

What were the restrictions? Here you go:

  • 15-yard penalty for incomplete passes on first and second down
  • team loses possession for an incomplete pass on the third down
  • passed ball has to cross the line 5 yards left or right
  • ball has to be thrown from at least five yards behind the line of scrimmage

Do you see the problem? It was still a big risk for a team to throw a forward pass. Plenty of coaches don’t like to take risks!

In the season of 1906, forward passes were legal but were very rare.

There are several claims for who threw the first pass in football.

I’ll run through some of the candidates. Why is there uncertainty? Well, there wasn’t a newspaper report about every college match!

  • Wesleyan University of Connecticut gained 18 yards with a forward pass against Yale
  • Marietta College of Ohio passed for a touchdown against Ohio University

Eddie Cochems

I’ve already mentioned that Eddie Cochems had lobbied with Heisman for bringing in the pass. In 1906, he took his St Louis team to Lake Beulah to practice and develop the skills and plays required.

This is what Cochems wrote later:

“Of course we developed the pass first, at St. Louis University.”

And just in case you’re thinking he’s tooting his horn, here’s an extract from an excited newspaper reporter.

The St. Louis players shoot the ball hard and accurately to the man who is to receive it…

The fast throw by St. Louis enables the receiving player to dodge the opposing players, and it struck me as being all but perfect.

What about Heisman?

So, when did Heisman himself deploy the forward pass? Amusingly, it happened almost by mistake.

He coached Georgia Tech when they played against Auburn in 1906. The Tech kicker sliced a punt which fell into the hands of his own player.

This player hastily threw the forward pass to a half back who ran in a touchdown.

This slightly inauspicious play was actually quite momentous for the Tech college boys. It was the first time that the college had defeated Auburn!

Slow Adoption But Big Results

It’s fair to say that the forward pass in its early guise didn’t bring down the rate of injury and death.

But remember that there were still many restrictions on its use. Plenty of coaches simply didn’t adopt it.

However, the visionary coaches took full advantage.

Stagg and the play-action pass

Stagg was coaching at Chicago and was always ahead of the game.

He brought in a tactic where the quarterback had multiple options:

  • throwing directly to an end in close or out wide
  • faking to a back and then throwing to an end
  • pitching the ball to a halfback would pass

Seem familiar? We’d consider this now as the play-action pass.

Warner and Carlise

Remember Glenn Warner being furious that an illegal forward pass had cost him a game?

Well, he quickly embraced the move when it became legal.

Warner was coaching at Carlisle in 1907. Carlisle College was founded for Native Americans.

A young player by the name of Jim Thorpe appeared for Carlisle in 1907. Of course, he’d go on to become one of the greatest football players of all time.

But let’s get back to the forward pass. Warner coached his team to deploy it highly effectively. They were so effective, they lost only one game in eleven that year.

Their loss was to Princeton. Their wins included Harvard, Penn, Chicago, Minnesota, and Villanova.

This was huge news at the time and brought considerable attention to this new-fangled forward pass.

Final Removal Of Restrictions On The Forward Pass

Percy Haughton was another coach who had advocated for the forward pass. He was appointed coach at Harvard in 1908.

Haughton had been strongly against the extra restrictions imposed by Walter Camp. He believed that this was preventing the reduction in football injuries.

The big problems were the penalties and automatic loss of possession for incomplete passes. This was ensuring that coaches didn’t utilize the tactic and open up the game.

In the fall of 1909, eight college players lost their lives and many more were injured. There was more public outcry.

Haughton made strong representations as a member of the football committee.

There were still some committee members who wanted the forward pass removed from the sport completely. However, Haughton gathered supporters and fought hard.

At last, the restrictions were gradually removed over the next three years.

Did Knute Rockne Invent The Forward Pass At Notre Dame?

If you’ve got this far(!), you may be wondering why we haven’t mentioned Knute Rockne yet.

That’s because we haven’t yet reached 1913.

Back then, Notre Dame was a somewhat obscure college in Indiana. During the summer, two players practiced together to hone their skills.

One was quarterback Gus Dorais, and the other was end Knute Rockne. They worked hard on their passing combinations.

At the time, the Army Cadets were on an unbeaten run through the year. When Notre Dame traveled to play them, everyone expected the Indiana boys to be well beaten.

But the Catholic school unveiled their new tactic to devastating effect. The quarterback completed 14 of 17 passes for 243 yards.

The team beat Army by 35-13, a result that sent shockwaves through college football.


The quotes in this article come from a book called “Creating The Big Game: John W. Heisman and the Invention of American Football” by Wiley Lee Umphlett.