Monday, January 5, 2009

Passed Over: The Lost Legacy of Benny Friedman

In 2005, a century after his birth, Benny Friedman was enshrined in Canton alongside legendary modern quarterbacks Dan Marino and Steve Young, and fellow-pioneer, Fritz Pollard. Friedman, widely acclaimed as football's first great passer, was a two-time All-American, the University of Michigan's first Jewish captain, and one of the NFL's first multi-threat superstars when the league was but an afterthought to the premier sports of the day - college football, baseball and boxing.

To many, including Friendman himself, who took his own life in 1982 after a battle with severe diabetes, the recognition was long-overdue.

In the 1920's and 1930's pro football was nowhere near the commercial and cultural juggernaut that it is today. Teams like the Duluth Eskimos, Providence Steam Roller and Newark Tornadoes hardly register in the minds of today's NFL die-hards.

Few gave the league a chance at survival. Most college superstars, with few exceptions, floundered in the pro game on teams likely to close shop given their lack of interest.

The over-sized pigskin, described as the "mellon ball," was hardly conducive to anything other than a smash-mouth style that more resembled rugby than the fast-paced action we know as today's NFL.

Then, along came Benny Friedman, born in Cleveland of Jewish immigrants from Russia. His unique workout regimine afforded him something few athletes at the time were capable of - accurately throwing a football.

After scraping and clawing to secure a spot on the Michigan Wolverines team in the early 20's, he was overlooked until his throwing ability was recognized and utilized by legendary coach Fielding Yost.

Under Yost's tutelage, Friedman went on to not only star at Ann Arbor and in the pro game, and become recognized as football's first great passer, but developed the a unique leadership perspective and understanding of the game few exhibited.

A perennial All-American, All-NFL and box office draw, Friedman's services were widely coveted, especially in the NFL's infancy. Along with legendary runner Red Grange, Benny was among the only college standouts who starred in the pro game, and more importantly at the time, filled seats.

In 1928, after previously being unable to secure Benny's services, New York Giants founder Tim Mara bought the entire Benny-lead NFL Detroit Wolverines, merely to acquire Friedman and his play and drawing power. In 1930, Benny and the Giants defeated a Knute Rockne assembled Notre Dame All-Star team in an exhibition that finally gave the pro game credence.

Yet, despite his contributions to the game and desires to coach at a big name program, Benny's post-playing services were overlooked, and he instead spent those years building programs at CCNY at the request of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and the newly-established Jewish institution Brandeis.

Similarly, as contemporaries with resumes equal or inferior to Friedman's became recognized as pioneers of the game, many of whom adorned the inaugural and early classes at Canton, Benny became forgotten, despite intensive self-promotion.

Last month, Public Affairs Books released Passing Game: Benny Friedman and the Transformation of Football by Murray Greenberg. Still, questions about the reason for Friedman's historical obscurity remain unanswered.

We were hoping to be able to have Greenberg elaborate a bit to help clarify some of the questions surrounding Benny's plight. But, unfortunately, the author isn't a big fan of "online media."

Regardless, I think Benny's life is one worth learning about and the book's a good read for any college or pro football fan or historian.

No comments: