Fumbling Out of Bounds

While reviewing the chapter on the 1906 season from my upcoming book on the complete history of the Carlisle Indian School football team, my wife noticed something she thought was odd from the newspaper coverage of that year’s Penn State game: “Mt. Pleasant received the ball and ran it back to the 35-yard line where he was tackled by Maxwell. The ball flew from his grasp and McCleary secured it out of bounds.”

Teams gaining possession of an out-of-bounds ball seems odd to a modern reader, so I contacted Timothy Brown, author of How Football Became Football: 150 Years of the Game’s Evolution for some insight into out-of-bounds rules in early football. He responded with a paragraph from his book:

“Early football also differed substantially from today in the way it handled the ball going out of bounds as well as in spotting the ball for runners tackled near the sideline. Balls fumbled “in touch” or out of bounds remained live, leading offensive and defensive players to scramble over benches, water jugs, band members, cinder tracks, and all manner of obstacles to grab the ball. An example of such a play occurred when Chicago traveled to Stanford in 1894, the first game between teams east and west of the Rockies. When the ball went “in touch” during a game in San Francisco, Chicago’s Ad Ewing, a hurdler on the track team, used his hurdling skills to leap a picket fence surrounding the Haight Street Grounds and recover the ball while Stanford’s men scaled the fence the old-fashioned way. Such out-of-bounds scrambles continued until a 1926 rule awarded possession to the player last touching the ball before it went out of bounds.”

One can only imagine the melees that resulted on occasions when Stanford’s band stood close to the sidelines and an errant fumble flew or rolled into their midst.

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