Chapter 8: Dodges and Deception
Note: Author's footnotes have been omitted.
In 1903, Carlisle fashioned a unique solution to its problems. Other teams continued to plow predictably ahead, carrying the ball upfield with bruising strength. But Warner and the Indians decided to do something totally different that season. They became the first team in history to hide the ball.
As usual, Carlisle lacked the numbers and the poundage to play the game straight up. In late August, just as Warner was about to return from his vacation to start practice, Pratt wrote with typical bad news. "Arthur Bonnicastle, William Hole in the Day, and George Johnson have run away; Felix Highrock has been sent home on account of consumption and Hiram Runnells has been expelled," Pratt informed him.
Warner resignedly went to work with what was left of his squad. Three of the twenty-four men on the Carlisle team had never even played football before. Fully half the members had only played the game for two or three seasons. On hand to assist, however, was Bemus Pierce, who had returned to campus to serve as Warner's assistant coach.
"There is a great scarcity of heavy material, and indications are that the team will be even lighter in weight than last year," reported the school newspaper, the Red Man and Helper, "but there is said to be a good fighting spirit among the candidates and the team may be able to prove the old saying that 'victory is not always to the strong but to the active, the vigilant, and the brave.'"
Carlisle had one great weapon: quarterback and team captain Jimmie Johnson, a team veteran with five years' experience. Johnson was a Stockbridge from Wisconsin who weighed all of 140 pounds, and he looked like a changeling, with a small, triangular, brooding face. He was so slender that his football pants billowed around him. But he had a superb head for strategy, and he not only mastered Warner's schemes and innovations but added to them with his decision making on the field.
The Indians had always favored shifty, quick-firing plays, to neutralize superior force. But now they were more deceptive than ever. Warner installed crisscrosses, feints, and a piece of razzle-dazzle called a double pass: Johnson would turn and toss the ball to a halfback sweeping laterally, who then tossed it back to the quick-footed quarterback. In Johnson's hands, the shifting Carlisle lines looked like a shuffling deck of cards.
As the practices wore on, the Indians strained even Warner's enthusiasm for a ploy. Anything went, so long as there wasn't a rule against it. There was no artifice, con, contrivance, dupe, trap, or double cross the team didn't want to run. Trick plays were what they loved best. "Nothing delighted them more than to outsmart the palefaces," Warner remembered.
One afternoon, just to keep his players interested during a scrimmage, Warner introduced the Indians to a play he had dreamed up as a young Cornell coach. It was called the "hunchback" or "hiddenball" trick, and it was more of a stunt than a play. There was something about it, in fact, that had a touch of irreverence.
The play required every man on the team to fill a role, and it also required a sewing machine. Warner enlisted the help of Carlisle's tailor, Mose Blumenthal, who owned the men's clothing store in town.
Warner had Blumenthal sew elastic bands into the waists of two or three players' jerseys. Among those he selected was that of Charles Dillon, one of their larger players, a Sioux lineman who stood nearly six feet and weighed 190 pounds. Dillon was a perfect choice for the trick play: although he was a guard in the Carlisle line, he had scathing foot speed, able to run the hundred-yard dash in ten seconds.
Once the jersey was doctored, Warner instructed Dillon to wear the shirt untucked, so the opposition would get used to seeing it that way.
The play was designed for a kickoff. As the ball descended into the arms of quarterback Johnson, the other players would huddle around him, facing outward. Hidden from view, Johnson would slip the ball up the back of Dillon's jersey. It was Exendine's job to pull out Dillon's elastic waist. The huddle would then split apart, leaving the opposing team with no idea where the ball had gone.
The Indians were enraptured by the play and wanted to use it right away. But Warner restrained them: the play was risky, and he wasn't even sure it was entirely legal or sporting. He had only tried it once, in an obscure game between Cornell and Penn State. And the truth was, Warner was a little ashamed to rely on tricks instead of the more conventional power game. "Neither the Indian boys nor myself considered the hidden ball play to be strictly legitimate," he said later.
But Warner believed the play was good for one thing: it would punish any team that took the Indians lightly. And there was one team in particular that had a tendency to do so—Harvard.
Carlisle had developed something of a rivalry with Harvard, and though the Indians had never beaten the Crimson, they always gave them a game. The Indians both admired and resented the Crimson, in equal amounts. They loved to sarcastically mimic the Harvard accent; even players who could barely speak English would drawl the broad Harvard a. But Harvard was also the Indians' idea of collegiate perfection, and they labeled any excellent performance, whether on the field or in the classroom, as "Harvard style."
By the time Carlisle checked into the Copley Square Hotel in Boston on October 30, 1902, the team had a 5-1 record and a growing reputation for guile. The Boston correspondent for the New York World reported on the eve of the game, "As usual, the Indians will probably spring some startling trick plays upon the Crimson team. . . . If the Indians once get fairly started . . . there is no telling where they will stop."
But Harvard seemed to view the game as a mere scrimmage. As the Indians lounged in the lobby of the hotel and read the reports in local papers, it was obvious that the Crimson players took a victory for granted. Harvard's committee of graduate coaches seemed far more preoccupied by their next opponents, Columbia and Yale, than by Carlisle, especially a vociferous former Crimson fullback named Percy Haughton, class of '98, who hollered during practice, "Yale will rush you way down the field before you wake up!" What Carlisle might do did not seem to concern him.
On the day of the game, a near-capacity crowd of twelve thousand filled Soldier Field, but the size of the crowd had less to do with Harvard's opponent than it did with the nostalgic occasion: it was the last game scheduled to be played there. The new, thirty-five-thousandseat Harvard Stadium, a steel-reinforced concrete structure that was the first of its kind, and mammoth for its day, was to open two weeks later—just in time for the Yale game. Soldier Field was to be demolished.
As the Indians warmed up, the stadium hummed with anticipation of an easy victory. The Indians were visibly dwarfed by the Crimson. Their heaviest player was the center Shouchuk at 165 pounds, while two Harvard linemen checked in at 215. The Indians' uniforms even seemed too big for them. Tightly cinched belts held up their baggy knee pants. Heavy flannel pads sewn into their sweaters at the shoulders and elbows, and ribbed socks, added only a little substance to their slight figures.
But as the game began, Johnson directed the Indians in lightning line charges, and the Crimson defense ripped like paper. The Indians constantly shifted and realigned, tossing the ball back and forth. Johnson would fake a run to the outside only to hand the ball to Exendine, coming around from the end. The Indians moved all the way to the Harvard eighteen-yard line, where Johnson kicked a field goal that arced straight through the uprights.
Trick plays worried the Crimson throughout the first half. Johnson bluffed them on punt returns, holding his arms out as if he was going to wait for the ball, only to snatch it out of the air on a dead run. Harvard was scoreless as the first half ended.
Warner was emboldened. In the locker room, as he went over second-half strategy, he called the play his team had been waiting for all season. On the kickoff, he said, run the hunchback trick.
Johnson led the Indians back onto the field. The referee, Mike Thompson, raised his arm and asked the Indians if they were ready. Johnson nodded and glanced at Dillon. The two men dropped back a little deeper than usual, to the five-yard line. A Harvard kicker sent the ball into the air.
Johnson and the rest of the Indians gazed upward and followed the long, lazy flight of the ball. It was a perfect kick.
"Instantly we realized the kick was made to order," Exendine recalled. "We raced back to form a wedge for Jimmie and Dillon."
Johnson gathered the ball in, and the Indians formed a wall in front of the quarterback. Ducking behind the cluster of teammates, Exendine pulled out the back of Dillon's jersey. Johnson slipped the ball beneath it.
Johnson yelled, "Go!" The Indians scattered. Each player hugged his stomach, as if he held the ball. The Harvard players bore down on them.
As the Crimson slowed, looking for the ball, Dillon ran straight through them and up the field, his arms swinging freely. After thirty yards, Dillon was alone and in the clear.
Johnson, meanwhile, ran for the sidelines with his arms doubled over his midsection, as if he had the ball. A Harvard man launched himself at Johnson, who tripped. As Johnson went down, another Crimson player fell on top of him, and then another, and then another. "I guess the whole Harvard team hit me," Johnson said later. The crowd roared. But Johnson was empty-handed.
Suddenly, a roar swept the stadium. Dillon continued to lope in a straight line toward the opposite goal. The hump beneath his sweater had become obvious. The roar deepened: Dillon was the ball carrier.
While everyone in the stands knew it, not a single Harvard player seemed to realize what was happening. The Crimson were still chasing the Carlisle backs and slamming them to the turf. Carl Marshall, the Harvard team captain, had been playing safety on the kickoff, and as Dillon came toward him, Marshall, thinking he was a blocker, stepped neatly out of the way and let him go by.
Spectators gasped, screamed, and pointed to Dillon as he galloped closer and closer to the end zone. And as the Harvard players still scuttled around wildly, looking for the ball, the crowd began to shriek with laughter.
Finally, Marshall understood what was happening. The Harvard man wheeled and chased vainly after Dillon for the last several yards.
Dillon tumbled across the end line, exhausted. The rest of the Indians raced to join him. Johnson jerked the ball out of Dillon's sweater and triumphantly placed it on the turf for the touchdown. Soldier Field measured 110 yards, and Dillon had just sprinted 103 yards, untouched.
On the Harvard sideline, the players were fuming. Harvard coach John Cranston violently protested to Thompson, the official. But Warner had taken the precaution of warning Thompson that his team might attempt the play, and the referee had watched carefully as it unfolded. He signaled a touchdown.
A celebration erupted on the Carlisle sideline. The Indians had just outwitted and embarrassed the foremost university in the country— Carlisle style—and taken an 11-0 lead. "I don't think any one thing ever gave them greater joy," Warner said later.
But the game was far from over. The Crimson were incensed, and the game from then on was a mauling. Time after time, the measuring sticks were called for. Harvard's superior depth and size began to tell. The Indians "looked like children against the Harvard giants," Warner remembered.
The Crimson flooded the field with fresh players, while the Indian starters were on the brink of exhaustion. Harvard bulled its way over the line for a touchdown. To Warner, watching helplessly from the sideline, it seemed that "every Indian was out on his feet." Harvard scored again, and went ahead, 12-11.
There was one last chance: Harvard fumbled at its own forty, and Carlisle got the ball. Johnson took over and directed the Indians to the fifteen-yard line, with a few seconds to go. Johnson made one last dash at the center of the line—but he was met by the full force of the Crimson line and fumbled. Harvard took over as time expired, to preserve the 12-11 victory.
"For once however there was no mourning after a loss," Warner remembered. The final score only slightly dampened the Indians' joy over the hidden-ball trick. On the trip home, the players relived the play over and over again.
The Indians had lost again, but the trick made headlines across the country. The New York Times called it "one of the most spectacular, unforeseen and unique expedients ever used against a member of the big four." The New York World ran an exhaustive series of follow-up stories explaining and diagramming the play. "It was decidedly the feature of the game and will undoubtedly give rise to a vast deal of discussion." Which it did—lasting for days. At Harvard, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, class of '04, the president of the Crimson newspaper and former captain of the freshman team, railed at the embarrassment.
For the first time, the Indians were credited with intelligence. The Carlisle school paper excerpted praise for them from all over the country, including this comment from the Norfolk Landmark: "More strategy was displayed by the Indians in this contest than has been displayed by any of the big four teams this year. The standard of education at Harvard and the rest seems to be falling. Think of the reflection on scholarship when a lot of lightweight Indians make monkeys of the great leaders at football!"
The World's leading sportswriter was Charles Chadwick, a former Yale star, who like so many sportswriters had often written patronizingly of the Indians. In 1899 he declared, "The redskins are always easily open to a surprise of any kind." Now a repentant Chadwick joined the admiring chorus: the Indians had not only intellect but wit.
"The poor Indian, so often sized up as deficient in headwork, has at last earned the right to be considered as something more than a tireless, clumsy piece of football mechanism," Chadwick wrote. "He is now to be regarded as a person of craft. He has added his quota to the history of strategic football. But where, outside of the columns of the Harvard Lampoon or the Yale Record, would anyone hope to see such a delightful combination of football with hide and seek, such a burlesque of strategy put forth in all earnestness?"
But the play was controversial, too, and some football experts were disapproving. Coaches discussed whether the play was permissible. At the University of Chicago, Stagg termed it "parlor magic." Camp decided that while it was clever and technically legal—barely—it was a bad precedent. "Its success is sure to result in imitation unless a rule is passed to cover it," the World noted. In fact, it would be outlawed.
As the controversy went on, there was one person at Carlisle for whom the play lost some of its luster: Warner. The head coach became defensive, especially against charges that the play was not real football or somehow not aboveboard. "We have two or three tricks and Dillon's is one," he bridled. "It may not be straight out football but it is strategy that works very well and no rule covers it. . . . There is nothing in the rules to prevent the play."
For Warner, the hidden-ball play was a curiously defining event, one that exposed a fracture in his personality. The trick was the ultimate expression of a rogue and an outsider who took pleasure in mocking Harvard's pretensions. But in the aftermath, a less secure Warner emerged. The gambler in him had an impulse for bending rules, yet the Cornell social climber clearly wanted the regard of the Ivy establishment.
With the hidden-ball trick, Warner struck on a compromised ethic, one that he hoped allowed him to be innovative and respectable at the same time: if a rule didn't exist, then it was impossible to break it. "There is nothing in the rules to prevent it" was his battle cry.
But as the play continued to draw national attention, he grew increasingly self-conscious about it and suggested it was somehow beneath him. "It can hardly be considered varsity football, but I think it is all right for the Indians to use," he said, loftily. "Harvard was caught napping. It's a trick that can only be used every once in a great while and it pleased the Indians to get away with it."
Even thirty years later, Warner was still ambivalent about the play. In a memoir he wrote for Collier's Weekly, he said, "We never considered it a strictly legitimate play and only employed it against Harvard as a good joke on the haughty Crimson players." On another occasion later in his life he remarked, "In a way I'm glad that Harvard was able to come back to win because I never liked to win a game on a fluke, although the hidden ball play was within the rules at that time."
But the trick was a significant breakthrough for the Indians, a group of young men with little hope of social acceptance in white America, and within whom there must have dwelled a complicated mix of ambitions and frustrations. It was difficult if not impossible for the Carlisle players to escape the larger, depressing context of Indian affairs. Even if they wanted to, they couldn't. If there was any doubt of that, a tragic event reminded them of their position on the Monday morning after the game.
Excerpted from The Real All Americans by Sally Jenkins Copyright © 2007 by Sally Jenkins. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.