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The Longest Yard

How Benny Friedman made football a quarterback’s game

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A star quarterback on the New York Giants from 1929 to 1931, when the National Football League was in its infancy, Benjamin Benny” Friedman started out as the son of working-class Orthodox immigrants from Russia. In 1923, at age 18, he left his family behind in Glenville, Cleveland’s Jewish neighborhood, for the University of Michigan, where he became a national star. A daring, accurate passer at a time when football teams primarily ran the ball on offense, Friedman made All-American in 1926; in his junior and senior seasons, the Wolverines lost only twice. In Benny Friedman, I have one of the greatest passers and smartest quarterbacks in history,” said Fielding Yost, his legendary coach. He never makes a mistake, and as for football brains, it’s like having a coach on the field when Benny is out there calling signals.”

After graduation Friedman joined the hometown Cleveland Bulldogs at a time when few Jewish college football players turned professional. The fledgling NFL was struggling to find its niche in the sports landscape. Pro football ranked far behind baseball, horse racing, and boxing; so few spectators followed the Bulldogs that the team was forced to fold after Freidman’s inaugural season. Friedman played one season with the Detroit Wolverines, in 1928, before the New York Giants bought that franchise, just so that they could acquire him. Friedman soon became one of the NFL’s top draws, earning $10,000 annually (a fortune for an athlete at the time) during the Depression, and helped solidify the Giants’ presence in New York. Friedman’s innovative passing style was soon adapted league-wide.

In an incisive and, at times, inspirational new book, Passing Game: Benny Friedman and the Transformation of Football (PublicAffairs), Murray Greenberg argues that Friedman was as revolutionary a figure in football as Babe Ruth was in baseball and Bobby Orr in hockey. Nextbook spoke with Greenberg about Friedman’s career.

How exactly did Benny Friedman transform college football?

It’s hard to visualize now, when we see this very refined and flashy product on television, but in the 1920s the emphasis in football was with the running game. It was a rough-and-tumble, plodding, grinding kind of sport, and the forward pass was almost never used. Back then, they played with a big, fat, round ball that was hard to throw downfield. And, the rules of the game severely discouraged passing, so that the pass was used only in desperate situations.

Benny Friedman, 1929
Benny Friedman, 1929

In the mid-1920s, at the University of Michigan, along comes Benny Friedman. He had a unique ability to grip the football and throw it down the field with accuracy. As a kid, he had ambitions to become a strongman, so he’d done a series of exercises designed to stretch and strengthen his wrists and arms: lifting heavy chairs and tossing them from hand to hand, things like that. Combined with his physical strength, he had nerve. He was completely unintimidated and uninhibited. He’d throw the ball on any down, from anywhere on the field, when that was practically a mortal sin.

In 1927, he joined the NFL with the Cleveland Bulldogs. Before long, Friedman changed professional football too. How?

When Friedman turned pro in 1927, the nascent National Football League was teetering on the edge because of lack of fan interest. When the [NFL] owners saw Friedman bring thousands of fans into the stadium to see him pass the ball down the field, they decided to change their approach and open up the game to the forward pass. They went to a slimmer football, to make it easier to throw, and they changed the rules so that incomplete passes and interceptions weren’t penalized so severely. So, what Friedman did was to propel the action toward the passing-dominated game that football has become. He paved the way for quarterbacks like Sammy Baugh and Sid Luckman and Otto Graham and, later on, Johnny Unitas and all the other great passers that followed.

Because of his role with the Giants, a flagship franchise, he was crucial in the league’s ongoing struggle to survive. In the 1920s, the Giants were in serious trouble. They couldn’t give tickets away—literally. That’s why [Giants owner] Tim Mara bought the entire Detroit Wolverines franchise in 1928: to bring Benny Friedman to New York. In the course of Friedman’s first season in New York, the Giants became profitable. By keeping the Giants afloat, Friedman went a long way in keeping the league afloat.

Benny Friedman is pretty obscure today. If he was so instrumental in changing football, why is that the case?

Frankly, I’m not sure there’s a ready answer to that. Of course, a lot of time has passed. And, the sport that Benny Friedman played at the time—football—was not nearly as popular as baseball back then. What most people don’t remember—including serious sports fans and students of Jewish history and culture—is that roughly 10 years before Hank Greenberg came along, there was Benny Friedman. He was very much the same type of heroic figure to the Jewish community as Greenberg was. That’s gotten lost.

Was Friedman part of a large Jewish contingent in football or an anomaly?

It’s sort of both. The distinction lies in college versus the pros. There were a fair number of Jewish college football players in Friedman’s day, sometimes three or four on a team at a time when each roster had about 20 or 30 players. At Michigan, he had a couple of Jewish teammates. On the other hand, very few college players ended up turning pro because professional football in those days was a struggling enterprise. The money just wasn’t there to make a career.

What did Benny Friedman represent to his own community?

In the 1920s, Jewish immigrants and children of immigrants—and, in particular, males—were looking for ways to become part of mainstream American culture. One way to do this was through sports and, of all the sports, with the possible exception of boxing, football may have offered the best opportunity for that. Football was a rough sport. Football was a way that a young Jewish guy could say, I’m tough, I’m athletic. I’m not that old stereotype of the academically and intellectually inclined Jew.”

Freidman was proud of his heritage. Having said that, he preferred being thought of as a great football player who happened to be a Jew, rather than being thought of as a great Jewish football player. I don’t think that he was primarily motivated by, or concerned with, being a role model to the Jewish community. He didn’t set out to become that. But I don’t think he shied away from the fact that he was considered a hero in the community.

In the book, you point out that Friedman played at the University of Michigan while Henry Ford was promoting anti-Semitism in nearby Dearborn. How did the anti-Semitism of the day affect colleges and college football?

The Jewish college football players of Friedman’s time walked an interesting tightrope. On the one hand, if they were good enough, they were welcomed onto the teams. On the other hand, they knew that schools had Jewish quotas and that, if they weren’t football players, they wouldn’t be welcome.

Friedman felt very strongly that George Little, his first head coach at Michigan, was anti-Semitic. He gave Benny such a difficult time, almost daring him to quit the sport, that Benny was on the verge of transferring from Michigan. Thankfully, the next coach, Fielding Yost, recognized Benny’s skills and enabled him to become the star attraction.

After his retirement as a player, Friedman coached football at both City College of New York and Brandeis. Both schools eventually dropped football. Why?

He had the deck stacked against him at City College. He arrived there in 1934 and managed to put together competitive teams until he left the school in 1942 for the war effort. They dropped football, ultimately, because they felt like it wasn’t within the mission of the school.

Brandeis was a new university when Benny became the football coach and athletic director there in 1949. It was the first Jewish-sponsored, non-sectarian university in the United States. [Brandeis president] Abram Sachar thought that Benny could provide Brandeis with instant football credibility and offset any notion that the school was simply intellectually-bound and -driven, that it was, in effect, a yeshiva. Benny did provide that balance and he produced very competitive teams.

As the 1950s wore on, there was a re-evaluation of the role of football in Brandeis’ mission. The sentiment began to gain momentum that football had served its purpose, that it had accomplished its mission of presenting the university as well-rounded. The primary mission of the school, academics, became paramount, and the football program was seen as dispensable. After the 1959 season, football was discontinued over Friedman’s vehement objections. It was a great disappointment to him.

Friedman wasn’t elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame until 2005, on the 100th anniversary of his birth and 23 years after his death. Why was he overlooked for so long?

It’s a difficult thing to understand. The players who were inducted in 1963, the first class of the Hall of Fame, included Red Grange, Sammy Baugh, Bronco Nagurski. Those players were all completely worthy of enshrinement. The problem was, Friedman was every bit as deserving and every bit the outstanding the player they were, but he was overlooked. As the years went by, he continued to be overlooked until, finally, he began to campaign for himself. He couldn’t help himself: he was just prideful and self-confident about his ability. But a lot of people didn’t like that, and it may have hurt his chances. It became a vicious cycle: the more he campaigned, the more he shot himself in the foot. So, it took many years—way too long, really—before he was inducted.

David Davis is a contributing writer at Los Angeles magazine.

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The Longest Yard

How Benny Friedman made football a quarterback’s game

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