- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 16, 2012

Editor’s Note: Times sports columnist Dan Daly knows the history of the NFL as well as anybody anywhere. The Times will offer an excerpt from his new book every day this week.

Is it possible the longest pass in NFL history was thrown by a lineman? 

Before going any further, let me clarify a few things:

1. By “longest pass,” I mean the farthest a pass has traveled in the air. I’m not necessarily referring to any of the 99-yard touchdown passes listed in the record book.

2. As for “NFL history,” I mean that in its broadest sense. If a pass was thrown in any NFL game — preseason, regular season or postseason — it counts for the purposes of this discussion.

Everybody clear on the rules? OK. Because in a 1935 exhibition between the Chicago Bears and the minor-league Washington Federals, Bears end Fred Crawford heaved the ball from his 2-yard line to the Washington 16. Total distance: 82 yards. In all my searching, I’ve never come across a throw, completed or otherwise, that was longer.

Crawford, a rookie end/tackle out of Duke, hadn’t done much passing, according to accounts, before his Herculean arm was “discovered” in the Bears‘ training camp. On this night, though, with Chicago comfortably ahead in a meaningless preseason game, coach George Halas let him uncork one in the third quarter, just for the fun of it.

The play worked like this: Crawford dropped out of the line and positioned himself 20 yards deep in the backfield. The center then snapped the ball to running back Gene Ronzani, who turned and flipped it to Fred. This gave the receiver time to get downfield — way downfield. It also enabled Fred to get a running start before letting ‘er fly. I’ll let W. Wilson Wingate of the Baltimore News and Post take it from here:

“Uphill, from the distant fringe of the sloping right-field greensward, toward home plate at Oriole Park, and against the wind, that ghostly white pigskin sailed up and out into the night. And, as it cut through the eerie half-glow of the flood lights up there where the dark began, the figure of a man in the Orange and Black of the mighty Bears sped over the turf.

“On and on they flew, ball and man in a mad race for a point on the 16-yard line of the unfortunate Washington Federals.

“This man, would he make it? Would he get there in time?

“A hurried over the shoulder glance a leap into the air a deafening roar from 5,000 throats.

“Ed Kawal, giant end of the Bears, had clutched the ball, even as the discomfited Federal safety clutched the receiver and all tumbled to the ground on the 16-yard line, 82 yards from the 2-yard mark at the other end of the field where the mighty passer stood.

“The grand climax had been reached.

“To the spectators it seemed that nothing else mattered much.

“They had lived.

“They had seen the alpha and omega of the forward pass.”

(Gives you chills, doesn’t it?)

Kawal, by the way, wasn’t even a receiver. He was a center who caught exactly one pass in his NFL career. No, this was the ultimate circus play, the ultimate crowd pleaser. It had been used by the Bears “in similar exhibitions,” the Sun reported, “but never in a league contest.”

Indeed, there’s no indication they ever ran it in a real game that season — Crawford’s one season in the NFL. Their 1935 statistics show 13 different players throwing passes, but not Fred.

Even allowing for a certain amount of exaggeration, though — something newspapers were occasionally guilty of back then — Crawford’s was an epic toss, probably the longest the NFL has ever seen. The next longest I’ve found — and believe me, I’ve looked — was “only” 70 yards.

And let’s not forget, Fred was throwing “uphill” and “against the wind.” There’s no telling how far the ball would have gone under normal conditions.

Excerpted by permission from The National Forgotten League: Entertaining Stories and Observations from Pro Football’s First Fifty Years by Dan Daly. Copyright (c) 2012 by Dan Daly. Published by University of Nebraska Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Available wherever books are sold or via University of Nebraska Press (1-800-848-6224). Follow Dan on Twitter @dandalyonsports.