Tuesday, October 04, 2011

U-M football history: Benny was the best

If you ask most Michigan football fans which Wolverine was the greatest quarterback to play in Ann Arbor, the list might vary – from Tom Brady to Dennis Franklin to Brian Griese to Chad Henne to Denard Robinson … and all names in between.
My top 10 list reads as follows: 10) Todd Collins, 9) Elvis Grbac, 8) Griese, 7) Henne, 6) Robinson (and rising), 5) Franklin, 4) Bob Chappius (go look in the record books and see what I mean), 3) Jim Harbaugh, 2) Rick Leach, and …
The one probably not mentioned (by almost every other Michigan follower) is the man who REALLY was the best of them all: Benjamin “Benny’ Friedman (Class of ‘27). His place in football history is cemented by earning the Hall of Fame daily double – college and pro.
He went from young benchwarmer in 1924 to legendary status by the time he left Michigan, dubbed the “Babe Ruth of Football,” by legendary sportswriter Paul Gallico, Friedman revolutionized the sport and became its first (and perhaps best) quarterback.
Born on March 18, 1905 in Cleveland, Ohio, Friedman was the fourth of six children to Mamie Atlevonik and Louis Friedman, Orthodox Jews who emigrated from Russia. His father was a furrier and tailor while his mother remained at home to raise her children.
Friedman was a high school standout in football, basketball and baseball, playing for Cleveland’s Glenville High School … but it wasn’t always successful as a youth. He first attended East Tech High School and was cut from the varsity squad in his sophomore year.
The next season, at Glenville, he made the team and as a senior, led Glenville to the 1922 Cleveland city championship, a 13-0 defeat of … East Tech. Glenville then defeated the Chicago suburban powerhouse, Oak Park High School, in what many saw as a national high school title game.
Friedman was recruited by several schools, including Penn State, but his lack of size (5-10, 170) kept many schools away. However, several Michigan boosters suggested a train trip to Ann Arbor; it proved to be successful in convincing Friedman to enroll in 1923.
Like most other students, he found ways to earn needed pocket money, working as a clerk in the university bookstore and as a movie theater ticket-taker.
Midway through his sophomore year (1924), Friedman assumed the starting quarterback job, plus his role as defensive back and placekicker. In his final two seasons, Freidman led the Wolverines to 7-1 records and consecutive Big Ten Conference championships.
In the 1925 Indiana game, Friedman was responsible for 44 points, including five touchdown passes and two field goals and eight extra points. Later that season, he helped avenge the lopsided loss to Illinois, and its star, Red Grange, by blanking the Illini 3-0.
In 1926, he was named as a consensus first-team All-American and MVP for the Big Ten as selected by the Chicago Tribune.
“The Babe Ruth of Football, All-American Friedman was perhaps the first quarterback to step forward in the ‘pocket’ of blocking teammates before throwing,” Gallico wrote. “Charging tackles, bearing down on the passer, come at the original position of the passer, which is the apex of the angle. The passer, if he delivers the ball properly, will escape the tacklers. They will converge behind him.”
Here are some links to actual newsreels of Friedman and the 1926 season (check them out if for no other reason than the way people looked 85 years ago at Michigan; MUCH older than baby-faced teens today).

It was a different era when Friedman played; if you wore the uniform, you played all 60 minutes on BOTH sides of the football. The ball used looked different (much, plumper like a Hygrade’s Ball Park frank, and bigger; it was harder to handle and hold. It was like carrying a medium size watermelon, only lighter.
And the rules were totally different in the 1920s – a passer HAD to stand five yards behind the line of scrimmage and if a team threw two incomplete passes in succession, it drew a penalty on the offense (imagine the length of games today if that rule still existed). An incomplete pass in the opposing end zone was a touchback and the ball was turned over on downs. Defensive players could smash, brutalize and “rough” the passer to their heart’s content.
At times, football resembled a day-long rugby scrum, but the nam who changed the perception was Friedman.
“If Michigan were to succeed in football, she would have to depend on the forward pass,” Friedman wrote in his 1931 book, “The Passing Game.”
So the kid from Cleveland developed his own training regimen – to strengthen his hands, wrists and fingers. He carried a tennis ball or handball, constantly squeezing it in his hands; he also stretched his hand muscles over railings, armrests and tried to squeeze them like Superman, and then at night, he actually pulled each of his fingers to increase them – even by millimeters – to better hold the football.
“It all helped,” he added. “Before I finished my freshman term, I was able to wrap my hand around a football and grip it as firmly as a pitcher grips a baseball.”
Friedman also followed another activity from his youth – weight lifting – making his upper body stronger than other offensive backs of the day, despite a relative lack of size.
“To be a successful forward passer, you must have sturdy forearms and shoulders,” he added “To stand the physical gaff of four periods of football, you must be in tip top physical condition and your legs, above everything else, must be strong.”
Consequently, he improved as a thrower (not unlike what is expected of a quarterback today) – hard, powerful short passes, but also long, lofty deep balls to achieve the best arc into a receiver’s waiting hands.
“When a Friedman pass reaches the receiver, it has gone its route,” Gallico wrote. “The ball is practically dead; the receiver has merely to reach up and take hold of it like picking a grapefruit off a tree. That is Benny’s secret, and that is why so many of his passes are completed. He is the greatest forward passer in the history of the game.”
“He was the complete player as a passer, kicker, runner and blocker,” added sportswriter Grantland Rice.
After graduating with a BA in literature, Friedman wanted to study law, but his father fell ill and could not work. So Friedman decided to earn some money by turning professional, and did so with his hometown Bulldogs of the National Football League in 1927.
In 1928, as a member of the Detroit Wolverines, Friedman led the NFL in passing touchdowns, rushing TDs and scoring plus extra points. Who knows what else he would have been best, but the NFL didn’t kept things like yardage statistics back then.
His most successful years took place as a member of the New York Giants (1929-1931) when Giants owner Tim Mara purchased the entire Wolverine team merely to obtain Friedman’s services. Benny then firmly established himself as the first great passer of the modern pro era. In 1929, Friedman led the league with 20 touchdown passes – in a time when most teams never put the ball in the air. But Friedman didn’t care; he might have been the first QB to audible at the line of scrimmage on first and second down in order to call a pass play (most teams waited until third down to throw … out of necessity).
By the way, no other NFL team would even exceed 20 passing touchdowns in a season until … 1942.
“Benny revolutionized football; he forced the defenses out of the dark ages,” legendary Bears owner-coach George Halas later said.
Unfortunately, Friedman suffered a knee injury in 1931 and was forced to play in pain for the rest of his pro career.  He played for the football Brooklyn Dodgers from 1932-34, as a player-coach until his retirement. Friedman was ALSO serving as an assistant coach at Yale (in New Haven, Conn.) during those Brooklyn years. It led him to a post-professional career in coaching, first at City College of New York (where the mascot, for decades, was known as “Benny the Beaver”) and then at Waltham, Mass.-based Brandeis University, as athletic director from 1949-61 and head football coach from 1951 until 1959, when the school disbanded the football team as a part of cost-cutting measures.
In between, Friedman served in the U.S. Navy during World War II as a lieutenant commander. He served aboard an aircraft carrier and then was backfield coach at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station (its team played all the major universities, including those in the Big 10).
Friedman was a fighter all of his life – he fought to build the Brandeis program from scratch; and he fought against the prejudice of the day because of his religion, being called “Jew boy” and “descendant of Palestine” in the press.
But the battle he fought the hardest was the one he couldn’t win in his lifetime – induction into the NFL Hall of Fame. Despite the numbers and the accolades, the powers-that-be kept him out of the Hall. Many saw it as a reaction to Friedman’s self-promotion (not considered “sporting” back in the day) and others said it was due to his religion. For whatever reason, he saw other players of equal or lesser caliber, honors by their inclusion while he watched from the outside looking in.
In reality, he was fighting the NFL for the same cause many retired players are still battling – pension benefits for those former stars.
Friedman actually altered the NFL game; in 1932, the rules that penalized passing were all thrown out. The ball was physically changed to make the aerial game easier to accomplish.
However, in 1958, when the NFL began to offer pension plans to its current players, all those stars of yesterday were left out in the cold. Friedman accused the owners AND players of “brashness and arrogance beyond belief.”
“There’s no reason why we pioneers shouldn’t benefit too,” he claimed.
As his “reward,” he was kept out of the Hall of Fame, year after year after year. He was also back-balled as a coach, despite his success elsewhere.
It left him despondent and broken. Combined with heart disease and diabetes in his later years, it left him literally broken, losing a leg in 1978 to diabetes.
Stating in a note that he didn’t want to wind up as “the old man on the park bench,” Friedman took his own life on Nov. 24, 1982 at the age of 76.
It wasn’t until 2005 that Friedman received his proper due and recognition from the Pro Football Hall of Fame when he was finally inducted (along with Fritz Pollard, one of pro football’s first African-American stars and coaches), thanks to the Veterans Committee.
He also is a member of the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame, College Football Hall of Fame, and the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
My former Daily colleague, Leba Hertz, sent me a story about a chance encounter with Benny Friedman late in his life.
“Marc (another Daily writer) and I met him at a function to honor (playwright and former U-M student) Arthur Miller in New York; we actually were at the same table as Benny.
In his speech, Miller said “a better man representing Michigan is here. Benny Friedman, please stand up.”
“Tears were streaming down Benny’s face. Two years later he killed himself. I’ll never forget Arthur Miller for doing that – what a mensch!”
In Yiddish, mensch means “a real man!” And that’s what Benny Friedman was – a Michigan mensch and the best quarterback in school history!

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