- The Washington Times - Monday, November 7, 2005

“The yellow leather egg was in the air half the time, with the Notre Dame team spread out in all directions waiting for it. The Army players were hopelessly confused and chagrined

New York Times,

Nov. 2, 1913

In one sense, all of football’s greatest passers — Baugh, Unitas, Jurgensen, Marino, the Mannings, et al — were born on the Plains of West Point 92 years ago this month.

On the same bleak, chilly day, Knute Rockne — the most lionized coach of all time — made perhaps his most significant contribution to the sport as a mere player.

And the University of Notre Dame — a little-known Catholic school from a small town in Indiana — started its journey toward becoming the most renowned school in college football.

On Nov. 1, 1913, left end Rockne and single-wing quarterback Charles “Gus” Dorais passed Army dizzy as the underrated Fighting Irish stunned the Cadets 35-13 and changed the sport forever. For one of the first times, the forward pass was being showcased as a deadly offensive tactic rather than a trick play and as a weapon that could allow a small team to defeat a much bigger one.

Dorais, a 5-foot-7, 145-pound senior, completed his first 12 passes and 14 of 17 overall for 243 yards, threw two touchdowns and set up the others as spectators and opposing players gaped. And he was doing it with a fat, misshapen leather sphere that resembled a basketball more than today’s sleek pigskin.

“The little quarterback displayed great judgment at all times,” the New York Times reported. “He got around as if on springs and was as cool as a cucumber on ice when shooting the forward pass. … He tossed the football on a straight line for 30 yards time after time.”

Though the pass had been legalized in 1906 to open up the game after President Theodore Roosevelt threatened to banish the sport because of numerous deaths and injuries, few Eastern teams used it. Before 1913, the rules dictated that passes must be caught within 5 yards to the left or right of the center and no pass could go more than 20 yards downfield. When these restraints were abolished, Dorais cranked up his arm and everybody took astonished notice.

“Notre Dame Shows the Most Sensational Football the Nation Has Ever Seen,” screamed a six-column headline in the next day’s Baltimore Sun.

And this in the New York Evening Telegraph: “[Notre Dame displayed] an attack so versatile and dazzling that it may revolutionize the style of offensive play throughout this section of the country.”

The Irish onslaught was no accident. Notre Dame had been unbeaten in 1911 and 1912, but first-year coach Jess Harper knew the ‘13 season would be tough for his undersized squad with Army on the schedule. Before school ended in the spring, he handed roommates Dorais and Rockne a football and issued the equivalent of a terse command: “Practice, practice, practice.” And the two pals did so all summer as they worked as lifeguards at a beach resort on Lake Erie.

“I’d run along the beach, [and] Dorais would throw from all angles,” Rockne was quoted in “Wake Up the Echoes,” Ken Rappoport’s history of Notre Dame football. “People … probably thought we were crazy. Once a bearded old gentleman took off his shoes to get in on the fun, seizing the ball and kicking it merrily with bare feet.”

Dorais’ version: “Rockne continued to develop his deceptive, stop-and-go style of going downfield for a pass, a style [later] used by all good receivers. I worked hard to increase the accuracy and length of my passes.”

When the season started, the Irish outscored their first three opponents 169-7 while employing the pass selectively. Obviously, Army had not scouted Notre Dame. Two days before the game, Army mascot Willet Baird recalled, none of its players (including a reserve named Dwight Eisenhower) seemed to know anything about the tiny school from the Midwest.

Notre Dame received $1,000 expenses from the U.S. Military Academy to transport 18 players and one coach to West Point. Each man carried his own gear and sandwiches from the school cafeteria aboard the train. Harper was able to locate only 14 pairs of cleats, so when the only substitute he used ran onto the field, he had to attach those of the man he was replacing.

Some 3,000 Cadets and other nonpaying spectators filled the stands as the game began. After the Irish lost a fumble on the first series and then halted an Army scoring threat, Dorais barked in the huddle, “Let’s open up.” And he did, completing three consecutive passes to halfback Joe Pliska to move the ball downfield and set up a short touchdown run.

In addition to befuddling defenders, the Irish resorted to trickery. Recalled Rockne: “After one play, I emerged limping as if I were hurt. The Army halfback covering me figured I wasn’t worth watching. I limped down the field, and he almost yawned in my face. Suddenly, I put on full speed and left him standing there flat-footed. … At the moment I [caught] the ball, life for me was complete.”

That 35-yard touchdown gave Notre Dame a 14-13 halftime lead. When Army began spreading its defenders wide in the second half, Dorais cleverly sent 215-pound fullback Ray Eichenlaub into the middle for two touchdown runs. Then he began throwing again, hitting for another score. Notre Dame dominated the second half 21-0, turning the game into a rout.

Five seasons after that landmark game, Rockne became coach at Notre Dame and compiled a 105-12-5 record while becoming a college football icon before his death in a plane crash in 1931.

Dorais played for several professional teams after graduation. Later he coached as an assistant under Rockne for several seasons, then spent 17 seasons as head coach at the University of Detroit and five more (1943-47) as head coach of the Detroit Lions. In 1954, he was elected posthumously to the College Football Hall of Fame, joining his former roommate.

Notre Dame finished the 1913 season with a 7-0 record for its third straight unbeaten season, but none of the other victories matched the one over Army.

“When we got off our train at the South Bend railroad station, we found most of the town waiting for us,” Dorais said many years later. “Of course, captain Rockne was called on for a speech. … He was so nervous and embarrassed that he twisted most of the buttons off his coat while he was doing it, and no one could understand a word he said.”

Didn’t matter. Dorais, Rockne and the forward pass had sent a clear message.

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