The Native American Team That Revolutionized Football

“The business changes. The technology changes. The team changes. The team members change. The problem isn’t change, per se, because change is going to happen; the problem, rather, is the inability to cope with change when it comes.” —Kent Beck

In A Nutshell

Lt. Col. Richard Henry Pratt founded the Carlisle Indian School in 1879 to “civilize” Native Americans. But the school also introduced scores of young students to the game of football. Under the tutelage of Glenn “Pop” Warner, the Carlisle Indians rocked the football world with numerous trick plays and popularized the forward pass.

The Whole Bushel

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Ivy League schools like Harvard and Yale dominated football. However, there was one little school in Pennsylvania that stood apart from its peers. This was the Carlisle Indian School, founded in 1879 by Lt. Col. Richard Henry Pratt. Pratt was a military man and an abolitionist. He was also concerned about the future of the Native American people.

Pratt knew that nothing could stop the westward expansion of whites, and he knew the Native American way of life was coming to an end. Fearing that Native Americans might actually die out, Pratt opened the Carlisle School to save them from extinction. The idea was to teach Native American youth how to survive in this strange new world.

Of course, Pratt wasn’t interested in preserving their culture. After convincing parents to send their children to Pennsylvania, Pratt gave his students haircuts, instructed them in English, and ordered them to dress as white people. After all, his motto was, “Kill the Indian, save the man.”

Part of his plan to “save the man” involved the game of football. Tragically, around 200 students died at Carlisle, largely thanks to homesickness, new diets, and an insane amount of culture shock. Hoping to strengthen his students, Pratt encouraged them to play sports, and that’s how the boys fell in love with football. At first, Pratt was opposed to the brutal game but eventually gave his okay as long as the boys behaved like gentlemen. They also had to beat the best teams in the world.

Obviously, there was one little problem. The players at Harvard and Yale were, on average, 15 kilograms (30 lb) heavier than the Carlisle kids. And that’s where Glenn “Pop” Warner came in. As the Carlisle football coach, Warner knew his players couldn’t physically beat the Ivy League teams. They would have to get tricky—really tricky. One time, when Carlisle played Harvard, Pop Warner sewed football-shaped patches on every single jersey. That way, Harvard was never sure who really had the ball.

At another Carlisle vs. Harvard game, Warner sewed elastic bands inside the jerseys, creating something of a pocket. During the game, one of the boys tucked the football into that elastic band and ran down the field with the ball under his jersey. As he sprinted down the field, the Harvard team was completely lost, unsure of who had the ball until it was too late. Furious, the Ivy League teams were constantly changing the rules to stop Pop Warner’s trick plays which, oddly enough, essentially gave us the rules of modern-day football.

But perhaps most importantly, the Carlisle team changed the way people played football. On November 23, 1907, Carlisle was playing the University of Chicago when one of the players reared back and threw the ball across the field.

Now, this wasn’t the first time someone had ever used the forward pass. The move was legalized in 1905 after all, although it didn’t see much use for nearly two years. However, Carlisle popularized the move and used it to such effect that soon every other team was following their lead.

Show Me The Proof

Featured image credit: John N. Choate
RadioLab: Ghosts of Football Past
Smithsonian: The Early History of Football’s Forward Pass
NPR: Gridiron Guts: The Story of Football’s Carlisle Indians