American College Football Allows the Forward Pass Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The creation of a 1906 rule allowing the forward pass in American college football significantly reduced the number of serious injuries and contributed to the game’s increasing popularity. It helped sports administrators overcome the dangerous and injury-plagued rugby style of play that had resulted in several players’ deaths. The changes to the rules also encouraged the formation of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

Summary of Event

American football evolved largely as a result of college-level games played in the 1800’s, and its rules were heavily influenced by the European games of soccer and rugby. The first official college-level game played in the United States took place on November 6, 1869, between Princeton and Rutgers Universities. At that time, however, the game’s rules were evolving toward the dangerous and injury-plagued rugby style, in which eleven to fifteen players from each side would mass together in a V shape and try to push the ball through the defense. This tactic sometimes resulted in head-on collisions between defensive players trying to slow the offense’s forward momentum. Forward pass (football) Sports;football Football National Collegiate Athletic Association [kw]American College Football Allows the Forward Pass (Jan. 12, 1906) [kw]College Football Allows the Forward Pass, American (Jan. 12, 1906) [kw]Football Allows the Forward Pass, American College (Jan. 12, 1906) [kw]Forward Pass, American College Football Allows the (Jan. 12, 1906) [kw]Pass, American College Football Allows the Forward (Jan. 12, 1906) Forward pass (football) Sports;football Football National Collegiate Athletic Association [g]United States;Jan. 12, 1906: American College Football Allows the Forward Pass[01580] [c]Sports;Jan. 12, 1906: American College Football Allows the Forward Pass[01580] [c]Organizations and institutions;Jan. 12, 1906: American College Football Allows the Forward Pass[01580] MacCracken, Henry Mitchell Harper, Jesse Heisman, John Pierce, Palmer E. Roosevelt, Theodore [p]Roosevelt, Theodore;college football

The rugby style of play resulted in many serious injuries and a few player deaths from head injuries, and many of the college administrators considered discontinuing the sport. President Theodore Roosevelt was one of forty-three thousand spectators at the 1905 game between Yale and Harvard in which six players were seriously injured. The game’s violent results led to a meeting at the White House between the president and representatives from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton Universities on October 9, 1905, and from that point on, it became clear that changes would have to be made by the colleges or by the nation’s lawmakers. At the end of the 1905 college football season, the Chicago Tribune reported in large print that, over the course of the season, 18 players had died and 159 had been seriously injured.

On December 28 and 29, 1905, Henry Mitchell MacCracken, the chancellor of New York University, hosted a meeting of representatives from sixty-two colleges and universities. At that meeting, Captain Palmer E. Pierce from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point recommended the creation of a new, formal organization for college athletics, and the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (IAAUS) was formed. Seven years later, the organization was renamed the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Captain Pierce served as the organization’s president from 1905 to 1912 and again from 1916 to 1930.

At Pierce’s urging, the new IAAUS committee on football’s rules met with Walter Camp, head of the Intercollegiate Football Association, on January 12, 1906. William T. Reid, Harvard University’s head football coach, was elected secretary of the IAAUS, an action that turned the Intercollegiate Football Association into a seven-member IAAUS committee. At the same meeting, several rule changes were approved, including the legalization of the forward pass. This approval, however, required that certain conditions be met. Hash marks were drawn at five-foot intervals down the length of the field in order to create a gridiron, because a pass could be thrown only when the thrower had moved five or more yards from the center of the line of scrimmage. Furthermore, a new rule made an uncaught, or incomplete, pass subject to the same treatment as a fumble: Either team could recover it and have offensive possession. If an incomplete pass traveled out of bounds, possession would be given to the defense at the field’s center. In addition, the yardage necessary to receive a first down was increased from five to ten yards.

The institution of the forward pass was due largely to the efforts of John Heisman, head football coach at Georgia Institute of Technology (also called Georgia Tech). Also important, however, was Harvard University’s 1903 construction of the first concrete stadium, a move that gave permanent dimensions to the Harvard football field and in so doing rejected the main alternative to the forward pass, which was a proposed widening of the field by forty feet.

Halfback Bradbury Robinson of Saint Louis University made the first attempt to throw a forward pass on September 5, 1906, at the start of a game against Carroll College in Waukesha, Wisconsin. It would take several years before coaches and players at all colleges would develop the passing skills and strategies that characterize the modern game.

The football-watching public and all the coaches took special note in 1913 when the undefeated University of Notre Dame team, coached by Jesse Harper, defeated a bigger, stronger Army team 35-13 before a large crowd on the military academy’s home field. Notre Dame was a small, relatively unknown school, and the headline in The New York Times the next day was “Notre Dame Open Play Amazes Army.” Using his small, 145-pound body, Notre Dame senior quarterback Gus Dorais sidestepped and avoided huge Army tacklers and lofted thirteen out of seventeen attempted pass completions to several receivers for 243 passing yards. One of his favorite targets that day was senior Knute Rockne, his dormitory roommate and frequent practicing partner during the previous summer. Rockne scored a key fourth-quarter touchdown by faking a leg injury—after limping around, he suddenly sprinted beyond his defender, caught the pass, and scored.

Before 1906, the football was round, like the rugby and soccer balls from which it was descended. It would take many years for the rules committee to adopt a lighter, narrower ball with seams that allowed the aerodynamic, spiral-spinning flight of the modern throw. The earliest passes were thrown end over end, or the ball was thrown with an upward pushing motion high and soft into the air, and offensive players would run downfield and defend and block for the receiver while he tried to catch the ball.


The founding of the organization that became the NCAA changed American college football from the dangerous and injury-plagued game it had been before 1906. Through the efforts of this organization, rules were created that both made the game safer and increased spectator interest. The innovation of the forward pass was one of these rules.

Most college football teams began implementing the forward pass soon after it was made legal, but it was not until the relatively small Notre Dame team of 1913 decisively triumphed over the Army team that the potential of the pass play gained significant media attention. From that time on, coaches’ strategies, offensive players’ throwing and catching skills, and rules began to evolve into the modern game, in which passing and catching have equal prestige. Forward pass (football) Sports;football Football National Collegiate Athletic Association

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Falla, Jack. NCAA: The Voice of College Sports. Mission, Kans.: National Collegiate Athletic Association, 1981. A historical biography of the NCAA that explains how the 1906 changes in football rules, including those related to the forward pass, significantly contributed to the formation of the NCAA.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lazenby, Roland. The Pictorial History of Football. San Diego, Calif.: Thunder Bay Press, 2000. Primarily a historical account of football’s development. Includes many photographs as well as a factual written account of the forward pass’s legalization.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Walsh, Christy, ed. Intercollegiate Football: A Complete Pictorial and Statistical Review, from 1869 to 1934. New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1934. Historical biography includes analysis and photographs of the players and coaches who had impacts on football’s evolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Walters, John. Notre Dame: Golden Moments. Nashville: Rutledge Hill Press, 2004. A pictorial and written summary recounting the author’s opinions on the twenty most important games in the history of Notre Dame football, including the 1913 game against the Army, when the much smaller Notre Dame team conquered the powerhouse Army using the forward pass.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Whittingham, Richard. Rites of Autumn: The Story of College Football. New York: Free Press, 2001. Companion book to the video series of the same name. Details the historical development of college football.

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Categories: History