Bradbury Robinson’s name may not be recognizable to casual or even hardcore football fans today, but his influence on the sport has made the game what it continues to be today. In an era where passing rules are amended to protect the quarterback and make things easier for wide receivers it can be difficult to remember that the game once rarely featured a single pass in the game. In fact, it was illegal until Robinson suggested to that be changed.
Robinson, born in Ohio and raised in St. Louis, attended the University of Wisconsin in 1903, with his arrival to the football team was reported to be a sigh of relief. As one unidentified reporter explained at the time, Robinson’s unique athleticism would help the “football eleven” fill a void after losing one of their star players from the year before who had accepted a job as a high school coach for a sum of $500. Wisconsin’s “Cardinal team” (Wisconsin fielded two separate football teams, reminiscent to Varsity and JV or freshmen squads) finished the season with a 6-3-1 record, finishing sixth in the Western Conference (today’s Big Ten). Robinson became a rising figure in the sport with two touchdowns in an 87-0 victory over Beloit (a Division 3 school in Wisconsin today).
“Robinson’s star work seems to show [the] second eleven is not far behind the first,” a newspaper report on the game described. Robinson’s influence on the game was about to change in a much greater way though when President Theodore Roosevelt sought suggestions on how to make the sport of football safer and more enjoyable.
Robinson’s suggestion? The forward pass.
It was not Robinson that Roosevelt directly reached out to actually. In the spring of 1904 Robinson was invited to Governor Belle Case La Follette’s executive mansion, a short walk form the campus of the University of Wisconsin. The two had become familiar with each other during the football season, with the governor’s wife hailing from the same home town as Robinson providing some similar topics of conversation to branch off from. The governor apparently took in football practices in person frequently. During his meeting at the mansion that spring La Follette shared with Robinson a letter from President Roosevelt, discussing the future of the sport of football, which was endangered at the time due to safety reasons.
Not unlike today’s football, safety of the players had become a growing concern in the country.Injuries were mounting left and right with players colliding and becoming more violent as the game expanded its reach. Keep in mind that at this time the rules for football were quite different from today’s game that protects players from specific blows to the head, blind-sided hits and horse-collar tackles. Compared to the game we watch today, in 1904 just about anything appeared to be fair game. Because of this, there were calls to end football becoming more and more vocal. Roosevelt, believing that the sport was a solid test of character and was fundamental in principle fought to bring changes that would allow the sport to continue in a safer way. He wrote to La Follette expressing his concerns and request for ideas, which the governor called on Robinson for insider and expert advice.
La Follette asked Robinson “What do you think can be done to spread the game out and soften it up a bit,” as he recalled in an interview in 1946. Robsinon later wrote he remembered suggesting “increasing the distance to be gained in a set number of downs, to develop the kicking angle and introducing some of the elements of basketball and English Rugby; with perhaps allowing the throwing of the ball forward.” La Follette asked Robinson to work on the method that would later become commonly known as the forward pass.
Ironically, it was Robinson’s kicking that led to the discovery and implementation of the forward pass. Wisconsin wanted to move Robinson to handle the kicking duties for the team, and in practice he noticed that H.P. Savage, who had been assigned to catch his punts in practice, was able to throw the football back to him about the same distance Robinson was kicking. A light bulb went off in Robinson’s head as he asked Savage to teach him his throwing techniques.
“From then on,” Robinson wrote in his memoirs, “my football hobby became forward passing or anyway passing the ball.”
Unfortunately for Wisconsin, Robinson’s game-changing techniques would have to be put on display elsewhere. Robsinon was kicked out of the university following a fight and enrolled at St. Louis, where he pursued a medical degree and continued to play football. Upon arriving at St. Louis Robinson was quick to discuss his new techniques and ideas with his new coaches and instructors, who were open to new ideas as they attempted to build up the St. Louis football program. It take a little bit more time before the forward pass became a legal play in the sport, which gave Robinson and St. Louis time to work on the new concept and figure out how to best utilize it. That required finding the right personnel.
Robinson, who worked out in the off-season with Wisconsin’s football team due to strong ties and close relationships still within the program, became a fan of Badgers assistant coach Eddie Cochems. After being invited back to play for Wisconsin by head coach Phil King, Robinson stayed true to his loyalty to St. Louis, and St. Louis ended up bringing Cochems to their football program. Cochems brought with him a small handful of talented players Robinson could play and work with as the Rules Committee prepared to legalize the forward pass. The play was approved and implemented officially before the 1906 season, and St. Louis was among the first to embrace the new offensive philosophy.
“I think the forward pass is sensational,” Cochems said in a newspaper interview in 1906. “My men never think of throwing the ball underhand. They throw it overhand as hard as they can.”
The rules of the forward pass, as you might expect, were quite different from what they are today. When first legalized the quarterback was required to move five yards to the left or right before attempting a pass, which is the reason the field was painted like a checkerboard (so officials could judge if a quarterback had moved five yards or not). Just try to imagine if that rule was unchanged, and what Boise State’s blue field would look like then! Or imagine what Oregon would do with that…
The forward pass was a bit scary for most teams, largely in part due to the rules treating an incomplet pass like a punt. At the time an incomplete pass resulted in an automatic change of possession at the spot the ball touched the ground. This meant the forward pass was more of a gamble than anything else, and ensured the game remained heavy on the running game. This also meant St. Louis groomed two quarterbacks to run the offense, with Robinson used to fire long passes down field and Wisconsin-transfer William Schneider used to throw short quick passes with better accuracy and precision. Yes, not only was the forward pass introduced, but so was the dual-quarterback system years before Steve Spurrier was born.
The First Pass and Catch
On September 5, 1906, in a game between St. Louis and Carroll College, Robinson dropped back, moved five yards and attempted the first legal forward pass in collegiate football history to St. Louis receiver Jack Schneider. It fell incomplete, but history had been made. Determined to succeed using the forward pass, Robinson connected with Schneider on an ensuing possession for a 20-yard touchdown, the first recorded touchdown pass in football history. St. Louis ended the season with a perfect 11-0 record, outscoring their opponents by a combined total of 407-11. Imagine that; a passing offense that could play defense.
This was the beginning of a new era, although it was slow to catch on. The dominant programs at the time on the east coast were still reluctant to adapt to the new rules and focused their offense on the power running game that had been the standard. St. Louis opted to build their offense around the pass, creating the first “air raid” offense, at least compared to the era. While others would later try to find a successful formula with the new passing rules, Robinson’s years of practicing and perfecting the techniques put St. Louis ahead of the game, able to connect with receivers in stride rather than lobbing the football to players who would be brought down immediately.
“It’s really a puzzle to me why the other teams are not given new style plays by their coaches,” Cochems once said in an interview. “Eastern elevens are using nothing but the old-style formations… It will be a matter of a season or two until the coaches throughout the country come around to my way of thinking or I will be badly mistaken.”
Notre Dame would eventually make the forward pass more relevant in the sport when they used the play to topple Army. Knute Rockne and the Irish gave the forward pass fame when using the style to defeat the Cadets in 1913 in one of the most famous games in college football history.
“Eddie Cochems, coach at St. Louis University circa 1907 (1906), enrolled a few boys with hands like steam shovels who could toss a football just as easily and almost as far as they could throw a baseball,” Rockne would later write in a story for Collier’s Magazine in 1930. “St. Louis played and defeated several big teams — using the forward pass. One would have thought that so effective a play would be instantly copied and become the vogue. The East, however, had not learned much or cared much about Mid-West and Western football; indeed, the East hardly knew that football existed beyond the Alleghenies.”
Years and decades later, the forward pass has provided us with many of the best highlights in the game’s history. If not for the forward pass we never would have seen this or this or hundreds and thousands of other highlights.
Here’s to you Mr. Robinson.
So what ever happened to football at St. Louis?
It is a shame when football programs who play such a key role in the foundation and roots of the game fall in to oblivion. Such is the case for St. Louis.
St. Louis is credited for fielding the first college football program west of the Mississippi River and once shared a conference home with the likes of Nebraska, Missouri, Iowa and Illinois. From 1899 through 1942, St. Louis had fielded a team capable of winning seasons more often than not but lacked the kind of support other, larger programs were starting to yield. After putting the football program on hiatus for the 1943 and 1944 seasons due to World War II, St. Louis returned to the football field in 1945 for five more seasons.
As time passed the funding needed to support a competitive football program escalated. Those were financial demands St. Louis just was not able to keep up with as other programs were starting to pull away from them in terms of support and finances. As a result, St. Louis folded up their football program following the 1949 season, the fourth consecutive losing season since World War II.
St. Louis attempted to field a club team in the late 1960s and early 1970s but there has been no affiliated football team since 1974 on record. It looks as though football may be just a part of history at St. Louis, but the sport is thankful for the role it played.