Library of Congress
Gus Lookaround, football player at Carlisle Indian Industrial School, photographed in 1910. (Library of Congress)

How American Indians Saved the Sport of Football


Last Sunday, we looked at an interesting perspective on the rise of football in the late 19th century: "Was American Football Invented Because of The End of The Indian Wars?" The theory was a component of a podcast about football by RadioLab, a WNYC radio program distributed by NPR.

Unsurprisingly, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School plays a major role in the RadioLab show. But even those with a general sense that Carlisle was "good" at football might be surprised to learn that the Carlisle Indians weren't just good at football—they may very well have saved the game from extinction. As a sequel to our previous post, but here's another fascinating lesson, courtesy the RadioLab hosts and their guest Sally Jenkins, author of The Real All Americans:

In 1905, the nature of the sport of football was still being defined, and two of the forces attempting to figure out how this game ought to be played were, on the one hand, the teams from the Carlisle School, and on the other hand, Ivy League teams such as Harvard and Yale. The Ivy League players were bigger and stronger than the Carlisle players; Carlisle had to innovate and outwit to stay competitive. Carlisle pushed for a measure of finesse in the game, whereas the Ivies wanted the sport to be about brute force and grinding it out.

LISTEN TO THE PODCAST: "American Football" at

There was a big problem with playing the Ivies' brand of football: It was dangerously, unacceptably violent. In 1905, 19 people died playing the sport. Colleges became scared. Columbia University canceled its football program, and Harvard is said to have considered following suit. President Theodore Roosevelt, a football fan, met with the colleges and indicated that steps needed to be taken to loosen this game up or it would cease to exist.

The revised rules made it clear to Carlisle's coach, Pop Warner, that a team like his would have a shot at beating anyone if they could master the forward pass. Warner had a breakthrough: Rather than chucking the ball end-over-end, perhaps a ball thrown with a spiral motion would yield superior distance, accuracy, and catchability. 

Marshall Field, Chicago, Carlisle vs. Chicago, Nov. 23, 1907. (Geo. R. Lawrence Co./Library of Congress)

The climactic moment, as presented by the RadioLab show, came on November 23, 1907. Twenty-seven thousand had gathered to watch the University of Chicago, the best team in the country, play a home game against the Carlisle Indians. Chicago's defensive strategy was clear, and effective: Every time the ball was snapped, clobber the Carlisle receivers, often knocking them out of bounds. On the game's key play, Albert Exendine, one of the greatest receivers of the era, having been knocked over the sideline, continued running and came back in bounds down the field, where he cought a beautifully-thrown spiral pass. Exendine scored easily on that play, and the Carlisle Indians won the game 18-4.

Sally Jenkins puts the moment in perspective: Carlisle's triumph in 1907 "is when American football becomes the sport that you watch today."

The first half of the RadioLab broadcast/podcast is devoted to football history, i.e., the past. The second half is about the sport's future—in 2015, 110 years after Teddy Roosevelt advocated less violence in football, there's a lot of concern that the sport is too dangerous.

The RadioLab website includes two blog posts that are also fascinating to fans of football and history: Photos: Carlisle Football and Photos: Before and After Carlisle.

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Wabeekwe's picture
Submitted by Wabeekwe on
Hey, interesting. Very rare and interesting little story. Is the writer telling us that the Carlisle Indian School was the first to use spiral passing in a big game? My father attended Carlisle, but some years later, against his will, he was more or less forced to go from Ojibwe lands, along with many kids in his community. He almost never talked about that experience, ever. He would just get this strange angry face up if he was asked about it and never said a word. This story is the first I have heard that the school fielded a real football team and competed with Ivy League schools, that is really unknown to almost everyone I know. Thanks for this little story.