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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published May 11 2013

Eriksmoen: Former North Dakota residents changed game of football

Football was revolutionized in the early 20th century, largely because of the efforts of two people who once lived in North Dakota.

The “forward pass” was illegal when Walter Camp first laid out the game’s rules in the late 19th century. The legalization of the pass began after President Theodore Roosevelt called together officials from major colleges to find ways to make football a safer sport. The officials’ ultimate decision was to open up the playing field, and they believed the forward pass might do that.

After the pass was legalized, the first college coach to recognize its potential was Eddie Cochems at St. Louis University. He had earlier coached at the North Dakota Agricultural College (now NDSU).

Roosevelt, who had been sickly as a child, came to northern Dakota Territory in 1883, believing that hard work as a cow puncher would enable him to become a healthy and hardy man. It worked.

Roosevelt became a major advocate of endeavors that would challenge young men’s strength, endurance and courage. Two sports he promoted were boxing and football. In the magazine St. Nicholas, Roosevelt wrote, “In life as in a football game, the principle to follow is: hit the line hard; don’t foul and don’t shirk, but hit the line hard.”

Roosevelt’s love of football was put to the test in what was called the “Bloodbath at Hampden” in 1894. In the annual game between Harvard and Yale, “seven players were carried off the field in near fatal condition,” and another player lost an eye. The two schools ended their football rivalry for two years, but in a letter published in Harper’s Magazine in 1895, Roosevelt urged the competition be continued, and it was.

“Between 1890 and 1905, 330 college athletes died as a direct result of injuries sustained on the football field.” Because it was illegal to throw the ball forward, brute strength was required to move the ball. “Players locked their arms in mass formations and used their helmetless heads as battering rams.” Wrenched spinal cords, gouged eyes, crushed skulls and broken bones were common injuries.

During the early years of the 20th century, football came under harsh criticism from the press, physicians and college administrators who wanted the game cleaned up. However, little was done because there was no central authority regulating college sports. With the 1905 football season drawing to a close, the University of California, Stanford, Columbia, Northwestern and Duke all announced they were dropping football, and Harvard, Yale and Princeton all said they would likely follow suit. It appeared college football was going to die

Roosevelt decided he needed to take action. Not only was he a big football fan, but he had an added incentive now that his son Theodore Jr. was on the Harvard team.

On Oct. 9, Roosevelt called school officials from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to the White House to look for ways brutality could be taken out of football so the game could be saved.

At the meeting, all in attendance, including Roosevelt, signed a pledge to improve conditions of the game. At a follow-up meeting at New York University on Dec. 28, representatives from 62 colleges and universities met and formed a rules committee for college sports called the Intercollegiate Athletic Association (later the National Collegiate Athletic Association).

On Jan. 12, 1906, the new association met and legalized the forward pass in an attempt to open up the field.

Most coaches did not see any advantage in the forward pass and ignored it. The play had a number of drawbacks. If the pass was incomplete or the receiver failed to gain five yards, it led to an automatic change of possession. If a player caught the pass in the end zone, it was considered a touchback, not a touchdown. At the time, the ball itself was not made for passing because it was shaped like a blimp or “pumpkin seed.”

Despite these drawbacks, one coach saw the potential of incorporating the pass into his arsenal. Eddie Cochems had been the star halfback for the University of Wisconsin from 1898 to 1901, a team that went 35-4 during those years. In 1902, at age 25, Cochems was hired as football coach at North Dakota Agricultural College. That team went

4-0, did not allow a single point to be scored against them and outscored their opponents 168 to 0.

In February 1906, he accepted the coaching position at St. Louis University and, after learning about the legalization of the forward pass, readily understood its potential.

What Cochems needed to do was to find out the best way to throw the ball for accuracy and distance. He later wrote, “I studied the proportions (of the ball) ... and discovered that it had been designed to fit the instep of the shoe for kicking and the pit of the arm for carrying. Then I lit on the seven lacings as the only physical part of the ball for finger purchase in throwing the ball on its long axis.” Through this method, he discovered that he could make the ball spiral, obtaining both distance and accuracy.

SLU was run by Jesuits, and they granted him and his team the use of their sanctuary at Lake Beulah, Wis., for one month. In July 1906, Cochems gathered up his 16 players, and they all went into seclusion at Lake Beulah to practice the pass.

The team had one exhibition game with the small Carroll College out of Waukesha, Wis., on Sept. 5. During the game, Carroll proved to be a tougher opponent than anticipated. After they were well into the game and both teams were scoreless, Cochems decided to unveil his new weapon.

When Bradbury Robinson, acting as quarterback, yelled “Hike!” it became the signal for the receiver to run downfield and get into an open position. His pass to Jack Schneider was incomplete, and according to rules, Carroll was given possession. On the next offensive play for SLU, Robinson connected on a 20-yard throw to Schneider, who marched in for a touchdown. After a few more passes, SLU had a comfortable lead, and they resumed the more recognizable running game.

SLU won 22-0.

During the 1906 regular season, SLU went undefeated (11-0) and led the nation in points, outscoring their opponents 407-11. Robinson and Schneider took turns throwing the ball, and some of their completed passes were in excess of 60 yards. It was obvious that football was entering a new era.

The two former North Dakota residents who were most responsible for the revolutionary change on the gridiron got to meet each other in 1912. Cochems had moved to Roosevelt’s home state of New York the previous year and became an active organizer and campaign speaker for the former president when Roosevelt attempted to regain the White House.

(Next week we will examine the life and career of Eddie Cochems.)


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“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at: cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.