The Jew Who Changed Football Forever
There would have been no Tom Brady or Johnny Unitas if it hadn’t been for one determined son of Orthodox Jews from Cleveland, Ohio.
Originally, football was all scrimmage in a no-pass zone, with rules and machismo sensibilities dismissing passing as wimpy. The game was a grinding ground war, a smash-up derby for big galoots, with occasional breakaway survivors fleeing the pack.
The revolutionary who gave football an air war, who freed it from being all-Blitz-all-the-time, the disruptor who spawned the Hail Mary Pass and the Bomb, Joe Namath and Johnny Unitas, John Elway and Tom Brady, was a now-forgotten all-American with the body of a Greek God but the name of a Jewish accountant: Benny Friedman.
Back in the twenties and thirties, Friedman was the game’s Babe Ruth and Nelson Mandela, its Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey: he was top performer and freedom fighter, edgy innovator and huge celebrity. Friedman was so good that Tim Mara bought the Detroit Wolverines outright just to get Friedman’s services —and Mara’s New York Giants turned profitable within a year.
Back then, watching Friedman play was like watching Apollo come to life. He was a strapping, beautifully-proportioned five-foot, ten-inch, 175-pounder. His hands were sculpted by the kind of exercises baseball pitchers use to refine their grip and turbo-power their release. His muscles rippled with the grace of yesteryear rather than bulging in the brute show-off-man-ship of today.
Friedman served America honorably in World War II, although America’s limitations prevented a suitably honorable reciprocity. Part of the reason why this pioneer is forgotten, part of the reason why he failed to get selected for Football’s Hall of Fame before killing himself in despair, is because Benny Friedman was a Jew. Ultimately, he was more successful at freeing the game he loved from its heavy-handed tactics than the country he loved from one of its prejudices.
Born to Orthodox Jewish immigrants in Cleveland on March 18, 1905, Friedman was as bookish as his peers—but wanted to prove himself as brawny too. He starred as University of Michigan’s All American quarterback from 1924 to 1926, throwing five touchdowns in one game and winning the Big Ten’s 1926 Most Valuable Player award. Going pro but staying local, he joined the Cleveland Bull Dogs in 1927, throwing a record-setting 11 touchdown passes as a rookie. He followed the team to Detroit when they became the Wolverines in 1928, and became the New York Giants’ quarterback for two years after Tim Mara bought the Wolverines to get him. In 1928, Friedman became the only NFL player thus far to lead in rushing touchdowns and touchdown passes. When some players earned $50 a game, he earned $22,000 annually. He still helped the Giants become profitable—after losing $54,000 in 1928, they made $35,000 in 1931.
Paul Gallico, a Daily News sportswriter, called Friedman “the greatest forward passer in the history of the game,” football’s “Dead-shot Dick.”
Friedman ended his pro-career with the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1932 to 1934, having been named All-NFL four times and having led the league in touchdown passes from 1927 to 1930. He completed about half his passes when other quarterbacks barely hit a third. Eventually, the NFL changed the rules and the ball to make the game fly.
Friedman started coaching, at Yale then at CCNY. He joined the Navy in 1941 then spent the 1950s building an athletic program for men and women at a new university, Brandeis.
Friedman lived a culture clash: football wasn’t the usual career path for a good Jewish boy. He would recall watching his mother say a prayer and put 18 cents into her charity box for him each game—the numeric value of the two Hebrew letters that become eighteen form the word “chai,” meaning life. “I never questioned whether it was my ability that kept me aloof from injury. I let it go that chai was working for me,” he said. His father never saw Benny play football until he joined 100,000 others at the Michigan versus Ohio State match in 1926. Watching his son get mauled, the elder Mr. Friedman didn’t understand why the players “get nothing.” Perpetuating stereotypes which often are rooted in reality, he exclaimed: “For this my Benny went to college?”
Undoubtedly, Benny Friedman’s is a great American story, glittering with honors earned, money made, glory gained. Nevertheless, some sportswriters and fans called Friedman “Jew boy,” and a “descendant of Palestine.” More upsetting, his dream of entering the Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio was thwarted—until it was too late. Some blame anti-Semitism, others say his own pushiness didn’t help, although after his death grateful former students at Brandeis campaigned for his election.
Just like the extent of the anti-Semitism he encountered shouldn’t be exaggerated, the story of his suicide shouldn’t be oversimplified. It’s too easy to reduce such a complex, overwhelmingly personal, ultimately unfathomable act to a punchline. But the frustrations built, the psychological strains intensified, as did the infirmities. Seeing Brandeis eliminate its football program had to sting. Watching the NFL grant pensions to those who played only after 1958 had to smart. Waiting, year after year, for that Hall of Fame honor had to wound.
Then diabetes and a leg amputation hit. Who can imagine the anguish involved in aging from perfect specimen to cripple, from adored Greek god cheered by multitudes to one of those discarded, forgotten, broken statues? On November 23, 1982, Benny Friedman shot himself in the head, saying he refused to be “the old man on the park bench.” Twenty-three years later, in 2005, the Hall of Fame’s veterans committee finally selected him.
Not all hatreds are alike. American anti-Semitism is not like the lethal traditional European or modern Islamist varieties, nor has it ever been as destructive as American racism. The bigotry Friedman faced paled in comparison to what his people endured in Eastern Europe’s Pale of the Settlement.
Without absolving the haters for what he endured, it helps to put it in proportion. Being jeered too much and honored too little didn’t stop him—or many peers—from making it in America or transforming America. The American Jewish story consists of many more successes than failures. We can add football’s passing game to the list of American Jewish accomplishments. We honor Benny Friedman in the all-American pantheon, celebrating all he did, and all America welcomed him to do.
But it’s a crying shame that the man who invented the passing game felt passed over. So we add that metaphoric asterisk, knowing he had to work that much harder, endure that much more static, and ultimately, cope with that much more despair—all of which was unnecessary, unfair, and, we hope, as doomed to disappear as the sluggish football game Friedman first encountered in the NFL.
Murray Greenberg Passing Game—Benny Friedman and the Transformation of Football
Willard Manus, Battlin’ Benny: The Man Who Invented the Passing Game