Fall 2003

First and Ten, First at Night

1905 Fairmount College football team
Pioneers of Pigskin: Fairmount College's 1905 Wheatshockers played
one football game that can best be described as "experimental" —
yielding the first legal forward pass in the sport's history. So we hear.

Back in 1905, steaks were six cents a pound in Wichita, the Chicago Cubs easily made it to the World Series — and college football was an entirely different sport.

To begin with, the college had very little to do with it. It was the students themselves who supplied the funds to equip the team, and even volunteered their time to manage the team.

Fairmount College’s ’05 right tackle Bliss Isely recalled later that “I put my overcoat money into the team and … had to wear the same old overcoat I had been wearing for six years.” (Overcoats, by the way, could be procured for $8.85 at the time.)

More surprising than the lack of official support, perhaps, was the lack of official officials. During one notable game in December 1905, the three referees were the coaches from both teams and one Theodore H. Morrison, Fairmount College’s librarian. Isely said of this trusting arrangement, “We could not afford to employ officials in that era, except on occasions when we were playing very bitter enemies.”

The most striking difference of all, however, was the sheer brutality of the sport. In 1905 alone, no fewer than 18 college football players died of injuries incurred on the gridiron. These tragedies were partly the fault of equipment — no face guards or mouthpieces at all, and only rudimentary padding — but were also the result of the era’s rules, which had evolved from rugby.

To get “first and five” in three plays, players mostly rushed each other in a pack, using brute force to knock down and run over their opponents.

This dangerous state of affairs concerned no less than then-President Theodore Roosevelt. An advocate of the sporting life, Roosevelt enlisted experts Paul J. Dashiell of the Naval Academy and Yale’s Walter Camp to revise the rules and make the game safer.

On Christmas Day 1905 two teams reluctantly tried out the new, modified code: the Washburn College Ichabods and the Fairmount College Wheatshockers.

This wasn’t the first time the Wheatshockers had become sports pioneers. Only 10 weeks earlier, they had beaten Cooper (now Sterling) College 24-0 after dark in the first night game in football history. The Coleman Co., then called the Hydro-Carbon Co., provided 32 gas lanterns — 28 along the sidelines and two at each end of the gridiron.

The ball was painted white in an effort to make punts more visible. While the experiment was not a crowd-pleaser, this game played out under swinging lamps was the forerunner of Monday Night Football’s bright lights.

But the Wheatshockers weren’t satisfied with that achievement; soon, their manager, Roy J. Kirk ’07 (also the team’s left guard), talked Washburn into a specimen game featuring Roosevelt’s new rules. Most important among these were the change of “first and five” to “first and ten” (but still only in three); three different point values for field goals (4 if within the 25-yard line, 5 from between the 25 and 35, and 6 from beyond the 35); and the humble, everyday forward pass, legal for the first time. Made illegal for the first time was slugging one’s opponent.

The new rules, like Coleman’s gas lights, didn’t work out so well. Three tries was not enough to make 10 yards by brute force, and the forward pass, since it cost the ball if incomplete, wasn’t an attractive option. Also, since the game was played in two 20-minute halves instead of the modern quarter system, neither team ever had the time to get into scoring position. The game ended in a 0-0 tie.

But, just like the night game, this rather unexciting game of football made history when Fairmount’s Bill Davis ’07, playing center, threw the first forward pass ever to right end Art Solter ’07, who caught it neatly. While other colleges may claim the title (see Pass Interference below), this milestone is proudly attested by many Shockers who were there — and by their great-grandchildren.

Both Shocker innovations took a while to catch on. The night game didn’t become practical for another 20 years, when electric lights became commonplace. Though “first and ten” passed into the rules immediately (with the change of adding a down), other parts of Roosevelt’s code required heavy modification before they were actually playable.

The field goal was given its modern score of three points in 1909. The penalty on an incomplete forward pass was reduced to 15 yards between 1907 and 1909; later, two in a row drew a 10-yard penalty. Notre Dame’s famous Gus Dorais-Knute Rockne combination is usually credited with learning the true force of the forward pass, and now, of course, it is bread and butter for both professional and college football.

But if it weren’t for a bunch of scrappy Wheatshockers willing to blunder about under gaslight and try out revolutionary new rules commissioned by a president, football might still be more painful than popular.


It seems many football fans aren’t willing to admit that a town in Kansas revolutionized their sport. Here’s a listing of some other “first” passes:

• 5th century C.E.: Attila the Hun. The ball was a skull; the pass was called foul. (You can believe everything you read on the Internet, right?)

• Thanksgiving Day, 1876, Yale vs. Princeton: Walter Camp to Oliver Thompson for a touchdown.

• Oct. 26, 1895, University of North Carolina vs. Georgia: either caught or thrown by George Stephens. Played in Atlanta, Ga.

• 1904, Sept. 5 or Oct. 2, 1906, St. Louis University vs. Carroll College: Brad Robinson to Jack Schneider, incomplete. Played in Waukesha, Wis. SLU won 22-0. This is the most widely held claim (outside of Wichita, that is).

• 1906: Wesleyan vs. Yale.

• 1910: College of Emporia vs. Washburn: Arthur A. Schabinger. Emporia won 17-0.

• 1913: By George Angell of Tufts University.

• 1913: Notre Dame vs. Army: Gus Dorais to Knute Rockne. Notre Dame won 35-13.