Benny To Bennie: The Connection That Changed College Football

jordan krumreyAnalyst IMarch 22, 2009

The "Golden Era" of sports ushered in a new beginning for all sports in America, especially college football.

Sports found a new place in the world as a legit source of entertainment. Attendances soared and stars were born.

It was the 1920's when the first batch of sports stars were brought to form. Athletes such as Babe Ruth, Red Grange, and Bobby Jones took their respective sports to a whole new level.

College football was Red Grange's sport in the early to mid 1920's. He was considered by most as the first superstar at the collegiate level.

Even though Grange was considered the first superstar of the new era of college sports, he wasn't the only one...there was another, well two others.

The year was 1924, legendary Michigan football coach Fielding Yost had just won his sixth and final national championship when he decided to retire...or so everyone thought.

At the time of Yost retirement Michigan was a dominant power in college football. But their impact on the game was just in the beginning phases. Little did Yost know what he had left behind.

What he left behind was a young nobody of a freshman. That nobody was Benny Friedman, a young Jewish quarterback from Cleveland, Ohio.

Jewish athletes were a rarity in that time in American sports due to anti-Semitic and anti-immigration issues in the game. It was just a quality that further added to the mystique that would come to the young freshman in future years.

Freidman didn't play varsity his freshman year and he didn't take over the quarterback position until half way through his sophomore season. But when he took over everyone knew Michigan had someone special in their hands...

Someone so special as a freshman on the freshman squad in 1924, he convinced the legendary Fielding Yost to come out of retirement for the 1925 and 1926 seasons through use of his skill alone. His skills as a passer for that time far surpassed anyone that had ever played up to that point.

In a game versus Indiana in 1925, Friedman accounted for five passing touchdowns.

As a sophomore in 1925, Benny would be joined by another sophomore teammate that would go down in history as the first of his kind. 

That teammate was split end Bennie Oosterbaan. With Benny Friedman at quarterback, Oosterbaan flourished as a receiver. By the end of his career Oosterbaan was a three-time All-American wide receiver for Michigan, first three timer in school history.

In 1925 and 1926, these two teammates turned to nightmares for opposing defenses. They together formed the first quarterback/wide receiver tandem in NCAA history.

Together they ruled the skies of college football. Both years they played together ('25 and '26), Michigan went 7-1 and finished first in the Big 10.

Many historians credit Friedman as one of the first true quarterbacks the game had ever seen.

Oosterbaan himself would go down, without argument, as the first legit down field threat at wide receiver. Oosterbaan changed the way the receiver position was played. He brought forth a more finesse type receiver, similar to that seen today. Sports Illustrated in a recent magazine celebrating the top five players for each position through the decades, had Oosterbaan as the No. 1 receiver of all-time.

These two men together, along with Yost, brought college football to a new era. They revolutionized the game of football by making the forward pass more than just a desperation play in an era where the pass was just beginning to start its evolution.

They sped up the evolution process by several years, enhancing the game as helped give it life.

Making the pass a legit form of moving the ball made the game more exciting and as a result attendances rose even higher as the game gained greater interest.

Friedman's and Oosterbaan's revolutionary ways are what got them to where they sit now...The Hall of Fame.

Friedman was inducted to the NFL Hall of Fame in 2005 but was already a member of the College Football Hall of Fame and the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. He became known as one of the first great passer in professional football history.

By Friedman's rookie year in the NFL in 1927, the sport was considered minor compared to the college game. In his second year, Friedman was so impressive for the Detroit Wolverines that New York Giants owner Tim Mara bought the team just so he would have rights to Friedman.

Oosterbaan, being the religious man he was, skipped his chances at going pro in football or baseball. His values kept him from signing with any pro team. However, had he signed for a pro football team who knows what may have come of him. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1954.

Oosterbaan's number 47 was the first to be retired by the University of Michigan.

Since he skipped the pros, Oosterbaan returned to Michigan post-graduation as an assistant coach. When Fritz Crisler retired after the 1947 season Oosterbaan took over as head coach. In his first year he and the Wolverines took home the national title.

It has been well over a quarter century since these two controlled the skies of college football but their lasting impact still lives in the game today. While many are unaware of what these two men did, it should not be forgotten of their lasting impact.

To think Friedman didn't come back for his senior year, what would have he and Oosterbaan done had they had one more year together? Sadly football fans will never know.

Hail! Hail! To the revolutionaries of the forward pass and the first tandem in football history.

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