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The First Forward Pass?

About three weeks ago Dave Poltrock first contacted me asking about what high school threw the first forward pass back when the it became legal in 1906. Yes, the forward pass wasn’t legal until that year (read the section in my book entitled “Father of the Forward Pass” for more details). Dave was helping out at Delafield St. John’s for his friend Mike Fink who is the school’s athletic director and football coach. Since the Milwaukee Public Schools were not playing fall football, Dave, whom is an assistant at Milwaukee Ronald Reagan pitched in to help out at St. John’s. Dave had been trying to learn if St. John’s had thrown the first high school pass as well as getting more information on the Carroll College (now Carroll University) game against St. Louis University in 1906. Why did he ask if St. John’s had been the first school to introduce the forward pass to the state? Well, let’s get into the question.

St. John’s has a rich high school sports history. In 1906 Eddie Cochems, who was born in Sturgeon Bay, was the head coach at St. Louis University. After practicing in St. Louis for a few weeks Cochems brought his players north to play Carroll College in Waukesha on Wednesday, September 5. First, the early date of the game played was unusual. Most colleges didn’t start their season until late September and high schools most often didn’t play until the first Thursday-Sunday in October. Why so late for high schools? Well, the school year for many rural schools didn’t begin until after harvest season, late September or early October. In that game against Carroll College, St. Louis threw the first legal forward pass. It went incomplete and as the rules at that time stated the ball was turned over to Carroll College. The next time St. louis got the ball they tried passing again and it was complete for a first down. Passes that season had to go more than 10-yards to be legal. The passing in the game opened up the St. Louis running game.

St. Louis would win the game 22-0. The team stayed in Wisconsin waiting for their next game against Lawrence College (now Lawrence University) in Appleton which they won 6-0 on Saturday, September 29. Still sticking around in Wisconsin near Lake Glenbeulah, which is near Elkhart Lake, St. Louis prepped for their third contest of the season against Delafield St. John’s. In 1904 St. John’s shared the mythical state title with Eau Claire. Both schools were undefeated, untied and unscored upon. Eau Claire was 6-0-0 and St. John’s was 9-0-0 that year and neither team could agree on a final showdown to determine who was best. In 1905 St. John’s earned the mythical state title by going 7-0-1. Again, they were undefeated, unscored upon and only a 0-0 tie against Morgan Park Academy, a school near Chicago, marred their record. Now, in 1906 they won their first game of the season against Milwaukee West Side High School (Later to become West Division High School), 45-0 for their state record 18th consecutive shutout. The game was played on Wednesday, September 26, an unusually early date to start the season for both schools.

The next Thursday, October 4, 1906, St. Louis beat St. John’s 27-0, thus ending the school’s shutout streak. St. Louis would play Marquette University two days later on October 6 and win 33-0 before heading home to Missouri. St. John’s would beat the second team of Lawrence College the next week, 62-0. The question that Dave posed to me was “Did St. John’s throw any passes against Milwaukee West or St. Louis”? The only answer I can give is that they very well may have tossed the first Wisconsin high school pass against West. The St. John’s yearbook stated that the game was close in the first half but the cadets took control in the second period. No mention of a pass was made in the book but two things happened to lead me to believe they did throw the ball. First, in the game against Carroll College, St. Louis was getting nowhere on the ground and throwing the ball opened the field up. St. John’s would have learned about this development and because the first half against West was close, they may have experimented with the pass. And second, if not in that game they surely would have tried a pass or two against St. Louis in an attempt to come back. No game information is mentioned in the Waukesha newspaper sports pages but there was a brief mention in the Society section about how a festive afternoon to view a game was had that day. In truth we may never officially nail down who threw the first Wisconsin high school forward pass or the player who tossed the ball but my money is on a player from St. John’s.

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