Article by Willard Manus

What would the modern game of pro football be like without its dynamic
young passers, quarterbacks such as Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Jay
Fiedler and Kurt Warner? Following in the footsteps of contemporary
sharpshooters John Elway, Dan Marino, Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas and Dan Fouts, these players are responsible for the game's popularity and
excitement, its swift pace and razzle-dazzle aerial displays.

Forgotten in all the attention the passing game has received in the past forty or fifty years is the man who invented it: Benjamin "Benny" Friedman. Friedman, born into an Orthodox Jewish family in 1905, grew up in Cleveland and played high school football (and basketball and baseball) there, before being recruited by the University of Michigan. Before he left the university in 1926, the 5'10", 175-pound Friedman had not only led his team through three near-perfect seasons and been honored as an All-American, but had revolutionized the game of football itself.

Until then, the forward pass was not really a part of the offensive arsenal. The ball itself, a heavy, melon-shaped thing, was made for lugging and kicking, not tossing. The rules mitigated against the forward pass: the passer had to stand at least five yards behind the line of scrimmage and if he threw two consecutive incompletions, his team was penalized. An incomplete pass in the opposition's end zone resulted in the ball being forfeited. Because passing was considered a sissyish manuever, roughing the passer was not only legal but encouraged.

Football was strictly a grind-it-out affair, with one running play following another and only an occasional lateral or drop-kick to spice things up. The game was about as compelling to watch as a prolonged Greco-Roman wrestling match.

Friedman changed all that. As he said in his 1931 book The Passing
Game, "I was not any roaring success during my high school career but
when I entered Michiogan I decided I would do better in college. I had
all my freshman year to prepare. It was at that time that I decided what the varsity really needed was a good forward passer and that if Michigan were to succeed in football she would have to depend on the forward pass."

To prepare himself for the challenge, Friedman worked at developing his
fingers, wrists and hands. Following the lead of baseball pitchers, he would carry a tennis ball or handball wherever he went, constantly gripping and releasing it. He'd also spread his hand over railings and armrests, squeezing and stretching with all his might, trying to increase the size of his fingers, a fraction at a time.

"It all helped," he said. "Before I finished my freshman term at Michigan I was able to wrap my hand around a football and grip it as firmly as a pitcher grips a baseball."

Strength also played a part in Friedman's development as a passer. Because his first great ambition was "to become the world's champion strong man," he had lifted weights and exercised hard as a kid, giving him physical attributes which later served him well on the gridiron. "To be a successful forward passer you must have sturdy forearms and shoulders. To stand the physical gaff of four periods of football you must be in tip top physical condition and your legs, above everything else, must be strong."

It must be remembered that in those days players like Friedman played
sixty minutes and came out of a game only when they were incapacitated.
Despite the pounding he took in college and pro ball, Friedman was never
knocked out of action. He attributed his good fortune not only to his
conditioning but to his unique technique as a passer. Unlike most other
passers, even great ones like Marino and Montana, Friedman never threw
three-quarters or sidearm. He brought his arm up directly over his head
and, after cocking the ball, threw down, like a pitcher, with his feet, head and arm in line with the receiver. His follow-through also resembled a pitcher's, with his arm coming down so low it almost touched the ground.

In this fashion, Friedman could be remarkably accurate. His short passes were thrown hard, but on medium and long tosses he threw high and soft, so that the ball would drop from its highest arc into the receiver's hands with a spin that was easy to catch. "When a Friedman pass reaches the receiver it has gone its route," sportswriter Paul Gallico declared. "The ball is practically dead. The receiver has merely to reach up and take hold of it like picking a grapefruit off a tree. That is Benny's secret and that is why so many of his passes are completed.

"He is the greatest forward passer in the history of the game," Gallico
added. "No other passer has his accuracy, his judgment of distance, his
intuitive ability to pick out the best receiver. He is the Dead-shot Dick of football."

Friedman's unique way of throwing also kept him out of danger. "Charging tackles, bearing down on the passer, come at the original position of the passer, which is the apex of the angle," he wrote in his lowkey, analytical style. "The passer, if he delivers the ball properly, will escape the tacklers. They will converge behind him." If he could not avoid being hit, Friedman would draw his legs and arms in, and fall in a compact ball, absorbing the impact all through his body.

Friedman, who was never knocked out of a game, also attributed his good
fortune to his family's faith in Judaism. "On the wall at home was a pushke (charity box)," he said. "I noticed when I was a high school player mother would go over after serving me lunch and drop some coins in the box. I would see her lips moving as though she was saying a prayer. I asked what she was doing and she said she was protecting me by putting 18 cents in the pushke. I asked why. She told me that 18 in Hebrew stands for chai, which means life...I never was hurt and throughout my high school, college and pro career mother continued her vigil. I never questioned whether it was my ability that kept me aloof from injury. I let it go that it was chai working for me."

Successful as he was as a college player--his coach, Fielding Yost, said he was "the coolest man I ever saw on a football team. He is never ruffled. Regardless of how the play goes, he never loses his poise. There is never a moment when your confidence in him wavers...he's the best quarterback I ever coached"-- Friedman intended to study law when his undergraduate days ended, but when his father, a tailor, came down ill and could not work, he decided to earn some quick money by turning to pro ball.

His father certainly didn't push him in that direction. Like most immigrant parents, especially those who had been born in an East European ghetto, Mr Friedman had very little interest in football and did not see his first game until 1926, when Michigan took on Ohio State before a full house. Looking around at the hundred thousand spectators, he asked, "Who gets all this money?" It was explained that the two universities split the gate receipts.

Just then two mammoth Ohio State linemen attacked son Benny as he was
throwing the ball, knocking him dizzy. Time was called and the Michigan
trainer came in and gave Benny a whiff of smelling salts. Benny got up
woozily and slipped his leather helmet back on.

"The players, they get nothing?" Mr Friedman asked. Not a dime, he was told.

"For this my Benny went to college," Mr Friedman sighed.

Numerous professional teams wanted the talented Benny Friedman--"he was
the complete player as a passer, kicker, runner and blocker," said sportswriter Grantland Rice-- but he signed with the Cleveland Bulldogs
because they played in his home town. In those days, playing football
was hardly an easy way to make a living: the Bulldogs, for example, played a 23-game season--with only seventeen men on the roster (and no taxi squad). As Friedman said, "You couldn't get hurt and we, of course, didn't get hurt. And we had to go sixty minutes. I remember playing the Frankford Yellow Jackets on Saturday because in Pennsylvania, with their Blue Laws, you couldn't play on Sunday. We then played in Cleveland on the very next day. I would say we were rugged."

A year later, the team transferred to Detroit, changing its name to the
Wolverines, after Friedman's team at the University of Michigan.

Pro football in the 20s and 30s was anything but the highly regimented and popular sport to which we are accustomed today. As the illustrious runner Red Grange said, "Outside of your franchise towns the people hardly knew anything about pro ball. You'd get back into the hinterlands and tell them that pro football was a good game, that the pros blocked hard and tackled hard, and they'd laugh at you. A U.S. Senator took me to the White House and introduced me to Calvin Coolidge and said, 'Mr President, I want you to meet Red Grange. He's with the Chicago Bears.' I remember Calvin Coolidge's reply very plainly. He said, 'Well, Mr Grange, I'm glad to meet you. I have always liked animal acts.'"

In his first two pro seasons, Friedman became a star attraction. Still throwing that big blob of a ball, he completed passes from all over the field and, as the Chicago Tribune said, "ran with the kind of reckless, knock-them-down abandon that never fails to excite a crowd. As far as football goes Friedman has IT and is IT."

One of his best games was against the New York Giants. As retold in
Stephen Fox's Big Leagues, "Battlin' Benny Friedman" directed a startling comeback for the Wolverines. "Before thirty thousand fans, the second-largest football crowd ever at the Polo Grounds, the Giants started the fourth quarter leading 19-7. Friedman, 'a veritable man of rubber and iron,' rushed for four straight first downs, to the 25. One of his halfbacks, Len Sedbrook, then bolted for the score. The Giants took the ball back and obligingly threw an interception. Friedman passed to Carl Bacchus for 15 yards, down to the Giants 10. Three running plays lost only 10 yards. On fourth and 20, his last shot, Friedman faded back, avoided four different Giants, ran to his right,
and threw to Bacchus in the end zone. The game ended at 19-19, a moral
victory for the Giants."

Tim Mara, owner of the Giants (and a bookmaker), knew a good thing when
he saw one. The Giants, like most barnstorming pro teams in those days,
had lost money every year. Having Friedman on his team, a star Jewish
quarterback in a Jewish city, was the key to turning his fortunes around. Trouble was, the Wolverines would not sell or trade Friedman. Mara made four more offers, raising the ante each time, but the coach and owner of the team refused to surrender his star player.

Mara's solution was to buy the entire Wolverines' franchise, including the coach. To make Friedman happy, he paid him $10,000 a year, an unheard-of sum in those days, when most players earned $100 a game. Friedman in return did his best to help promote the Giants by visiting every high school and university in the city to talk up the pro game. Friedman's gifts as a speaker later served him well when he became athletic director at brand-new Brandeis University and had to tour the country as a fund-raiser.

In 1928, the year before Friedman joined the Giants, the team had finished $54,000 in the red. In 1929, the first year he was with them, the Giants earned $8,500. Next year, profits soared to $23,00 and the year after that, $35,000. Mind you, this was in the middle of the Depression.

The NFL kept few records in those days. Sports historians have had to rely on newspaper accounts and other sources to compile reasonably accurate statistics for the years Friedman spent in the league (1927-33). These statistics show that in those six years, the second-ranked passers, year by year, threw for aggregate totals of 3,770 yards and 27 touchdowns. Friedman, however, passed for at least 5,653 yards (50 per cent more than the runners-up) and 55 touchdowns (more than twice as many).

As Stephen Fox comments, "His nearest peers were barely visible in the
distance. Friedman easily passed for more than 1,500 yards in a season;
even under the soon-liberalized passing rules, no other NFL quarterback
managed it until 1942. He threw 3 touchdowns passes in a quarter, 5 in
a game, 20 in a season: all records, probably, that outlived his era. In 1933, his final season, he played less but still completed 53 percent of his passes...And today he is mostly unknown, a phantom with missing numbers."

Friedman, always a man who knew his worth (there are some, like Red
Grange, who read his self-confidence as arrogance), went to Mara after
the 1931 season and asked for a piece of the action. "My timing was off," Friedman later confided. "If I had asked him in the years when the team was like a plaything to him, I probably would have got what I wanted. But at the time I asked him it was his sole asset. He said, 'No, I'm keeping it all for my sons.'

"That was that. I thought I deserved a piece of the club because I felt I had played a big part in moving it from the red ink to the black ink. And when Tim turned me down I felt I should move along, that I couldn't stay with him."

Friedman, who had worked part-time the previous year as backfield coach
at Yale, thought of moving fulltime into coaching. But Bill Dwyer, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, approached Benny to bcome quarterback--and coach--of his team. "Since it was for the same money I was making with the Giants, I agreed, and in the season of 1932 I went over to Brooklyn," Benny said.

"I was never happy there," he added. "Bill, one of the biggest bootleggers in the United States, was a good guy. But he was surrounded by some strange characters. After the first season, he sold out to Shipwreck Kelly, the former Kentucky player, and Chris Cagle. They brought Colonel John McEwen in to coach. It was a cloak-and-dagger operation and after the 1933 seasson I called it quits. Mayor LaGuardia had asked me to coach City College in New York and I thought that this was as good a time as any to step down.

"I had some good years left but of course I didn't know pro football was going to progress as much as it did. If I had, I might have stayed in."

And so Friedman's career fizzled out, thanks to the grievous disappointment triggered by the Mara rejection. There would be other, even more painful disappointments to come. These followed on some good years, though. Friedman enjoyed his nine years at City, taking a perenially-losing football program and turning it around (on a salary of $4500 a year).

"It was quite a job," he recalled later, "because many of the candidates had never played football. Many boys needed a good meal. The field was a skin diamond. There wasn't much to work with. We had to start with definitions because so many of the boys didn't know the terminology. But the kids were wonderful and I take my hat off to them."

Friedman left City College when the war broke out, joining the Navy as a Lt. Commander. He served aboard an aircraft carrier and then as backfield coach at the Great Lakes Naval Training Stationm. After the war, Friedman accepted an offer from Abraham Sacher, the president of brand-new Brandeis University, to join the faculty as athletic director and football coach. Friedman's challenge was to build a sports program from scratch; the fledgling university had a campus and buildings, books and laboratories--but no playing fields or players.

"Do you even have a football?" Friedman asked Sacher.

"No, but we'll find one," came the reply.

Determined to make Brandeis known as a secular Jewish university, open
to all religious and ethnic persuasions, Sacher saw football as a quick
way to earn national attention and respect. He and Friedman toured the
country together, attending one fund- raising event after another. "The
two of them were a regular horse-and-pony show in those early years,
traveling like vaudevillians on the circuit...going wherever anyone would give them an audience...enlisting supporters, and convincing those growing thousands of 'foster alumni' to donate generously," wrote Robert D. Farber in a 1998 Brandeis University "Benny Friedman Tribute."

By 1950, Friedman was able to field a freshman football team that held
its own against such major schools as Harvard, Boston College and Boston
University. Brandeis' first freshman basketball team, coached by his best friend, Harry Stein (who had played for him at CCNY), also took the court against equally tough, top-notch opposition. Friedman was most proud, though, of the girl's basketball team, which became the school's first undefeated team.

A strong supporter of women's intercollegiate sports, Friedman had tapped a Helena Rubenstein Foundation grant to bring quality coaches and players to the campus. When the funding was summarily cut off after three years, Friedman "rescued the women's program by moving all of its expenses onto his own budget until a separate budget was established for the women the following year," Farber writes.

Friedman was "admired and respected by the athletes he coached," Farber
continues. "He committed himself to them from the very beginning, when
they came to play for a new program operating on a dream and a shoestring." At the Benny Friedman Tribute, one of those athletes stood
up and said, "He was a true gentleman. He never cursed, never berated a
player in front of his teammates."

In the spring of 1960 Friedman took another hard blow when the Board of
Trustees voted to end Brandeis' participation in intercollegiate football. "Benny strenuously resisted the decision, but to no avail," says Farber. "He stayed on as athletic director for two more years, but it is safe to conclude that after Harry Stein's untimely death in late 1959 and with no more opportunity to impart his wealth of knowledge and competitive ethic to another generation of athletes, his heart was no longer in the job. He resigned from Brandeis in 1963."

Seven years later, Friedman fought and lost another bitter battle, this one with the NFL. The league, which had been revolutionized by his passing game--in 1932 it not only tossed out all its restrictions against passing but changed the shape of the ball itself to make passing easier and more accurate--refused to include pre-1958 players in thepension benefits negotiated with team owners.

Accusing the league and its players of "brashness and arrogance beyond
belief," Friedman argued that "there's no reason why we pioneersshouldn't benefit too."

The NFL paid Friedman back by refusing to elect him to the Pro Football
Hall of Fame. Friedman, a two-time All-American, a member of the College
Football Hall of Fame, the man Paul Gallico called "the Babe Ruth of
football," was denied its highest honor by the game he helped make what
it is today. Nor was he ever offered a coaching job.

A depressed Benny Friedman committed suicide in 1982, at the age of 76.
Suffering from diabetes, he'd had a leg amputated four years earlier. In the note he left behind, he said he didn't want to end up as "the old man on the park bench."