When listing the accomplishments of Jews throughout history, it is usually athletics, as a category, that is last in the conversation. Sure, we’ve had our Mark Spitz (Olympic gold-medal swimming champion) and baseball Hall of Fame players, pitcher Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers and slugging first baseman, Hank Greenberg of the Detroit Tigers but did any of those fantastic athletes make a huge impact on revolutionizing the sport and changing it for future generations?
It turns out that there were three seminal figures who were responsible for the success of the NFL in its nascent period of development. Two of these men were quarterbacks, Benny Friedman of the New York Giants, who played in the 1920s, and Sid Luckman, who manned the offense for the Chicago Bears during the 1940s. The third was a coach whom many consider the most influential football mind in both the college and professional ranks, Sid Gillman, who had been credited with inventing the West Coast offense.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Friedman was a star player for Fielding Yost’s University of Michigan. Under Yost’s tutelage, Friedman led the Wolverines to a national championship with his incredible throwing accuracy. A rarity as Freidman’s biographer, Murray Greenberg noted, “Back then they played with a big, fat ball that was hard to throw downfield.” What also hurt many a quarterback during that period, particularly in the NFL when throwing the ball was only used in desperate situations.
Friedman’s uncanny ability to control the ball stemmed from his desire in his youth to become “the world’s champion strongman.” Friedman lifted heavy chairs and tossed them from hand to hand. Friedman’s goal to become a strongman fell short but he directed his energies to football when he attended high school.
While Benny’s achievements as a college player were massive, his role in the NFL, were really his forgotten achievements in a league which lived in the shadow of baseball and college football. When Friedman decided to become a professional football player (which in some circles was considered sacrilege) he decided against going to law school but with his father taking ill, Benny went professional to support his family.
In his first year, Friedman played for his hometown Cleveland Bulldogs of the NFL and led them to an 8-4-1 record. In his debut against the New York Giants, at the Polo Grounds, Friedman completed 11 of 17 passes and led Cleveland to a 6-0 win.
At the time he went professional, there were only 17 players to a team. Friedman not only had to run an offense, he would have to tackle players like Bronko Nagurski and Red Grange. Players were paid $100 to $150 per game. The league, however, attracted little interest as college football remained more popular, but Friedman became one of the NFL’s biggest stars.
After playing one year with the Bulldogs, the Cleveland franchise folded. Freidman then went on to play for the Detroit Wolverines, a team he helped to found. Friedman organized and brought together 20 guys to put up $500 a piece.
“To start a franchise, you had to put up [at least] $2500,” Friedman recalled. Unfortunately, after one season, the Detroit franchise failed, as well. The owner for the New York Giants, Tim Mara, was so enamored with Friedman that he bought the entire team just to get the Jewish quarterback. Friedman was paid $10,000 per season and helped New York to 13-1-1 record, and an $8,500 franchise profit (after having lost $40,000 the previous year).
Also, Friedman led the Giants to the championship game against the Green Bay Packers, losing in an upset. The game drew 25,000 fans to the Polo Grounds. Despite the loss, Friedman had single handedly saved the franchise and perhaps even the NFL.
In his first year with the Giants, Friedman threw an incredible 20 touchdowns, a record that stood until 1942. An amazing statistic for the times since the runner up, future hall of fame fullback, Ernie Nevers of the Chicago Cardinals, had just 6 touchdowns. In addition, quarterbacks were restricted by rules that did not encourage passing. For instance, quarterbacks were not allowed to throw the ball “unless they were five yards behind the line of scrimmage.” If a quarterback threw “an incomplete pass into the end zone, it was considered a turnover,” with the opposing team getting the ball at the 20-yard line.
Two straight incompletions resulted in a penalty. And lastly, if the offense had one incomplete pass in a set of four downs, subsequent incomplete passes, in that possession, were penalized five yards. Given all of the restrictions, 20 touchdowns simply was a remarkable feat.
In his first four seasons, Friedman led the league in passing, throwing touchdowns, and was All-Pro every year. Considered an aggressive quarterback, he often threw on first down, a rarity for the run-heavy league. In 1928, he accomplished something unheard of in today’s NFL by leading the league in scoring, extra points and rushing.
He is still the only player in NFL history to lead the league in “both passing and rushing in a single season.” The most important thing that Friedman did, through his outstanding contributions to the league, was that he saved the NFL by saving its most important franchise, the New York Giants from folding.
Incredibly, perhaps because Friedman’s career was so short, it took the Pro Football Hall of Fame fifty years to induct him, receiving the honor posthumously in 2005, twenty-three years after Friedman passed away.
Another great Jewish figure that was featured prominently in the NFL, Sid Luckman, from Brooklyn, New York. A graduate of Columbia University, Luckman, of German Jewish descent, starred for one of the most dominant teams, the Chicago Bears, of the 1940s. Luckman was considered, along with the Washington Redskins’ Sammy Baugh, the best quarterback of his era.
Though he had an outstanding college career, Luckman initially didn’t have plans to turn pro. But then George Halas, Chicago’s owner and coach drafted Luckman in the first round. Luckman wasn’t a quarterback in college but threw a lot of passes. At that time, before the T-formation, the formation that is used today in football with the quarterback under center, other positions could throw. Halas wanted to use Luckman at quarterback believing he could adapt to the position and formation.
Halas convinced Luckman to turn pro and inked him to a $5,000 a year contract. Luckman, though, did not adjust very quickly to the new position and the new formation. He fumbled many snaps and had trouble with handoffs.
However, toward the end of the season, Halas put Luckman back at quarterback where he threw the winning touchdown pass in a 30-27 victory over the archrival Green Bay Packers. Though having mixed results, Halas was impressed by Luckman’s work ethic saying that in “all my years in football, I’ve never seen a player who worked as hard as Luckman. When everybody else left the practice field, he stayed on.”
By 1940, Luckman had finally mastered the T-formation leading the Bears to the championship game against the powerful Washington Redskins, who had defeated Chicago earlier in the season by the score of 7-3. This time, the Bears were ready with a ferocious attack as they destroyed the Redskins, 73-0, still the most lopsided game in a championship in the history of the NFL. Luckman was now considered the greatest strategist of the game, even exceeding the great Redskins’ quarterback “slingin’” Sammy Baugh, who had popularized the forward pass.
After winning several championships in the early 1940s, Luckman, in 1943, threw seven touchdown passes against the New York Giants in a 56-7 romp breaking Sammy Baugh’s record who had thrown six touchdowns. He also established a record with 23 completions in 30 attempts for 443 yards and a new season record with 28 touchdowns in ten games for 2,194 yards.
Luckman’s mastery of the T-formation was so impressive that he started to visit colleges, like Notre Dame, Holy Cross and Columbia to help their coaches to implement the system.
After his retirement in the 1950s, Luckman continued to teach the T-formation to colleges who were keen to adapt it to their offenses.
Luckman who proved to be an innovative and forward thinking figure in the NFL is regarded as one of the greatest quarterbacks in league history.
Sid Gillman, the Jewish offensive mind, transformed professional and college football alike with his love of the passing game. He is the only coach to have been elected to both the College Football Hall of Fame and the Pro-Football Hall of Fame. He also intergrated black and white players as roommates; another groundbreaking accomplishment by the great master coach.
Gillman was the first to cover the field with pass receivers from sideline to sideline and the first to use film to study the nuances of the gridiron game as preparation for an upcoming opponent.
No coach, including the great Vince Lombardi, holds the kind of pedigree, which includes 4-time Super Bowl winner Chuck Knoll of the Pittsburgh Steelers, 3-time Super Bowl winners Bill Walsh of the San Francisco 49ers and Joe Gibbs of the Washington Redskins, other successful coaches like Dick Vermeil, Al Davis and John Madden. As a college coach, he tutored Ara Paresegian of Notre Dame and Bo Schembechler of Michigan.
Gillman journey began in his hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota where he was born in 1911 to David and Sarah Gillman. Gillman had several jobs; one being a movie theater owner which had an enormous influence on Sid’s innovative usage of film to instruct his team while coaching at his various football jobs.
Gillman attended Ohio State and played football for the Buckeyes and led them to an upset over rival Michigan (Benny Friedman’s Alma Mater). Ohio State’s win was a massive upset and to top it all, Gillman’s play on defense was sublime and was responsible for stopping Michigan’s defense
But when he graduated Ohio State, rather than going to law school, Gillman decided to go into coaching. In 1935, Gillman moonlighted as an assistant coach with Ohio’s Denison University while also playing professionally with the NFL’s Cleveland Rams. It was at Denison where he came up with the idea of using film to prepare for his opponents.
Later, when he became head coach at the University of Cincinnati, he was even watching film at half time, though it later became illegal to do so. Gillman became so popular at the University, the male students around campus began wearing Gillman’s signature bow-tie to emulate the great Jewish master.
As time went on, Gillman attracted the attention of the NFL and worked as a consultant for a variety of teams. Then in 1955, the Los Angeles Rams, who had just moved to the west coast from Cleveland, hired him to coach the team. In his first season, he remarkably led the Rams to the NFL title game where they were crushed by the Cleveland Browns led by their great innovator, Paul Brown, 38-14.
In 1960, Gillman remained in Los Angeles, but switched to the new American Football League by becoming the head coach of the Chargers. A couple of years later, the Chargers moved to San Diego and the AFL, led by the likes of Sid Gillman and Hank Stram of the Kansas City Chiefs, became recognized as a wide-open, passing league.
Under Gillman, the Chargers and won a total of five AFL Western titles and won the AFL championship in 1963 with a 51-10 rout of the Boston Patriots. That game demonstrated Gillman’s wizadry as an offensive genius.
When he took over the Chargers he made a number of innovations but one in particular changed the way professional football offenses approached their opponents. Gillman wanted to use the entire football field not just for running the football but for passing. Stretching the field, he threw deep and horizontal by placing the receivers far off the offensive line.
One of Gillman’s disciples, the brilliant head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, said that Gillman “was so far ahead of his time [that] people couldn’t totally understand what he was doing.”
Gillman built on what the Bears did under Sid Luckman and his offensive coordinator Clark Shaughnessy and head coach George Halas. Gillman started using the T-formation beginning in 1946 at the University of Miami of Ohio during the heyday of the rebirth of the T-formation that had already been in use by the Bears and their Jewish quarterback.
For Sid Gillman, it was just the start of building offensive plays for the formation which was to become a staple in both college and professional football.
When he became coach of the Los Angeles Rams in the 1950s, he invented the Spin-T formation. According to Sid Gillman biographer Josh Katzowitz, the offense functioned “in which the quarterback spun away from the line-which then allowed him to throw back across the field.” Also, Gillman invented the use of “X, Y and Z” receivers, terminology still used today, by placing the wideouts three to six yards outside the offensive tackle instead of the common use of placing them five feet away from the line.
It was really when Gilman switched to the American Football League with the Los Angeles, and later the San Diego Chargers where Gillman really pushed the envelope of how offenses could pass the ball and gain a huge advantage over opposing defenses. Gilman used the long pass, to set up the short pass and then used the tight end to catch passes between the hash marks.
Gillman continued to innovate and teach others his philosophy and ideas.
In summation, the three greatest Jewish figures in professional football history, two quarterbacks, Friedman and Luckman, and coach Sid Gillman revolutionized the strategy and philosophy of football and thusly, the game owes them a great debt of gratitude for showing the infinite possibilities of the forward pass.
By: Andrew Schiff
Andrew Schiff is a noted sports historian and educator. He is the author of the 2008 book, “The Father of Baseball: A Biography of Henry Chadwick.”