American Jewish football player revolutionized the game

In the early days of college football in the United States, the forward pass was discouraged by coaches, perhaps because the melon-shaped ball was so large that the majority of quarterbacks could not throw it.

Traditionalists argued that the for­ward pass would sissify the game, but others maintained that it would open up the sport, make it more exciting and re­duce some of its gratuitous violence.

As this debate raged, a number of coaches began experimenting with the forward pass. One of them was Field­ing Yost of the University of Mich­igan. Yost’s Jewish quarterback, Benny Friedman, helped revolutionize football by pro­moting the now familiar passing game.

As Murray Greenberg writes in Passing Game: Benny Friedman and the Trans­formation of Football (Public Af­fairs), an informative account of his illustrious career, Friedman revolutionized one of America’s favourite pastimes, much as Babe Ruth changed  baseball with his home runs and Bobby Orr altered hockey by pop­ularizing the “offensive defenceman.”

Friedman (1905-1982), the son of Russian immigrants from Cleveland, played for the University of Michigan from 1924 to 1926 and then turned pro, playing for the Cleveland Bulldogs, De­troit Wolverines, New York Giants and Brooklyn Dod­gers in the National Football League.

In recognition of his contributions, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Hugely popular in his prime and the highest-paid player of his day, Friedman, standing five-foot-six and weighing 150 pounds, learned the game in high school in Cleveland.

As the author points out, Friedman was but the latest in a line of Jews who distinguished themselves on the gridiron. Phil King was a star at Princeton in 1893 and 1894. Sigmund Harris was an All-American at the University of Minnesota in 1903 and 1904. Joseph Alexander was an All-American at Syracuse University in 1917, 1918 and 1919.

Whether Friedman was inspired by these figures is impossible to say, but what is certain is that he was every bit as good, if not better, than them.

Friedman, who earned a spot as starting quarterback in his sophomore year,  led the University of Michigan to great seasons in the Big Ten Conference lea­gue. Greenberg charts his career in such voluminous detail that only a diehard sports fan will value his meticulousness.

Like the lightweight boxing champion Benny Leonard, he was the embodiment of the “tough” Jew.

One publication cited by Greenberg, the American Jewish World, noted that Friedman’s stardom helped challenge the stereotype of the Jew as a physical weakling.

As he puts it, “At a time when quotas limiting Jewish enrolment in universities were one stark manifestation of  rising anti-Semitism, Benny’s ascendancy offered the Jewish community some hope, if not assurance, that there was room for them after all.”

By the time Friedman hung up his cleats at the University of Michigan, he was known far and wide and universally respected and admired.

“For all-around football smartness and football ability,” the legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote, “it is impossible to find a better man than Benny Friedman.”

Friedman’s coach was as effusive. “You were a bulwark to Michigan,” he observed in a letter. “You were a great strategist, a thinker, a doer. You inspired, you calmed.”

Buoyed by such glowing reviews, Friedman accepted an offer from the Cleveland Bulldogs – the 1924 NFL champion – to be their quarterback in  1927. The team’s proprietor, Sammy Deutsch, figuring that Friedman would be a hit in his home­town, paid him a  handsome salary.

He earned his keep.

Friedman had a successful season, not just in Cleveland, but in the other cities in which he played.

In one memorable game, he led the New York Giants to a 22-0 victory over a college all-star squad coached by none other than Knute Rockne, the coach of Notre Dame University.

Shortly afterward, he wrote The Passing Game, a book laced with football philosophy and personal recollections.

Friedman’s days as a player were cut short by a knee injury in 1931. After his retirement, he coached the City College of New York football team, but since he had so little talent on hand, his teams could muster no more than me­diocre records.

Leaving City College in 1941, he join­ed the U.S. Navy after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He was posted to a training base near Chicago and then to a battleship as a gunnery and deck of­ficer in the Pacific theatre.

Discharged from the navy after World War II, Friedman bought a Jeep dealership.

In 1949, newly formed Brandeis University asked him to head up its athletic program. Eager to get back into sports, he accepted the offer from its president, Abram Sachar, who felt that the university needed someone like him.

He had his work cut out for him. Since Brandeis had no real athletic facilities, Friedman spent much of his time on fundraising trips.

When the university ended its football program in 1960, citing prohibitive costs, he knew he had to leave. He resigned two years later.

After Brandeis, Friedman focused on a co-educational summer camp in Maine he had owned and operated since the mid-1950s and on his job as an insurance executive and occasional television colour commentator for the New York Jets and other NFL teams.

During the last decade of his life, Friedman’s health failed him, says Green­berg.

He submitted to spinal and back surgery, had heart trouble and came down with diabetes.

Disheartened by his rapidly declining physical vigour, he committed suicide, 57 years to the day that he had been el­ec­t­ed as the University of Michigan’s first Jewish football captain.

At his death, astonishingly enough, he had still not made it into the Hall of Fame.

According to Greenberg, Friedman’s egotistic personality had something to do with his exclusion.

But even his detractors could not deny that Friedman was one of the stel­lar figures in the pantheon of American college and pro football.