Hidden Ball Play Mystery

Pop Warner told a different story on page 104 of his autobiography:

“When I was coaching at Cornell in 1897, I had the scrub team work the hidden ball play against the varsity in a practice game. The later in the season against Penn State, the hidden ball play was used for the first time in a game. In those days, Penn State was not as strong on the gridiron as they would later become and this game was merely a workout for Cornell.

“This play was used only once in the game and this was late in the fourth quarter after Cornell had already secured a big lead on the scoreboard….And the play worked like a charm. The Cornell ballcarrier untouched and scored a touchdown.”

Warner also wrote about how he had elastic installed in the hem of Charles Dillon’s jersey sometime before the 1903 Carlisle-Harvard game and how James Johnson placed the ball up the back of Dillon’s jersey after receiving the kickoff that opened the second half of the game. After Dillon crossed the goal line, another player (probably Johnson) removed the ball from his jersey and touched it down as was required by the rules at that time.

Determining the accuracy of Warner’s claim that his first use of the hidden ball play was in the 1897 Cornell-Penn State game could easily be verified by asking Joe Paterno as it would have happened early in his tenure in Happy Valley. Determining the accuracy of Heisman’s claim will be more difficult. It will likely require the perusal of newspaper coverage of the game by at least the Atlanta Constitution and the two schools involved. However, lack of mention in newspaper coverage doesn’t necessarily mean it didn’t happen because sportswriters often get things wrong.

I guess we will have to wait for Jeff Miller’s biography of Pop Warner to know who first used the hidden ball play.

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2 Responses to “Hidden Ball Play Mystery”

  1. Jeff Miller Says:

    Sure Tom, leave it up to me! You know as well as I that no matter what I conclude, someone else will take issue with it.

    The lack of a newspaper account makes it almost impossible to solve with conclusivity. I found another article in which Allen Whiting (captain of the 1898 Cornell eleven) states Warner used the hidden ball play against Penn in 1898!

    Reynolds Tichenor claims it was used by Heisman in 1895. But if it was used against a team other than the University of Georgia, would Warner have even known about it?


  2. tombenjey Says:

    Jeff, I just found something that will made your job easier. Page 229 of the December 1897 issue of Penn State’s school newspaper, “The Free Lance,” included coverage of the 1895 Penn State-Cornell game. The last paragraph of the article discusses how Warner ran the hidden ball play against Penn State. Whiting was credited with making that touchdown. BTW, Cornell did not play Penn State in 1898.

    All that leaves are the 1896 & 1896 Auburn games with Vanderbilt & Georgia. To make it easier, Auburn did not play Vandy in 1896. If you’re lucky, Auburn’s school newspaper may have covered the game. I couldn’t find the appropriate issue of the Atlanta Constitution for the games with Georgia.

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