THE MAN WHO INVENTED THE PASSING GAME
by Willard Manus
What would the modern
game of pro football be like without its dynamic
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.
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.
all that. As he said in his 1931 book The Passing
"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
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
Friedman, who was
never knocked out of a game, also attributed his good
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
"The players, they get nothing?" Mr Friedman asked. Not a dime, he was told.
"For this my Benny went to college," Mr Friedman sighed.
teams wanted the talented Benny Friedman--"he was
A year later, the
team transferred to Detroit, changing its name to the
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.'"
One of his best games
was against the New York Giants. As retold in
Tim Mara, owner of
the Giants (and a bookmaker), knew a good thing when
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
a man who knew his worth (there are some, like Red
"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
"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
By 1950, Friedman
was able to field a freshman football team that held
Friedman was "admired
and respected by the athletes he coached," Farber
In the spring of
1960 Friedman took another hard blow when the Board of
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
The NFL paid Friedman
back by refusing to elect him to the Pro Football
A depressed Benny
Friedman committed suicide in 1982, at the age of 76.