clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Completely True and Factually Accurate History of Northern Football*

Syracuse Head Coach Scott Shafer was delighted "to take our Northern football down to The South" following SU's Oct 12th road victory over NC State. But then Northern football got absolutely whupped a week later in Atlanta. It got me thinking, "what is Northern football"? "Where are its specific origins"? "Is there a cure"??? Fear not! The TNIAAM Northern Football Preservation Trust and I are here to help.

Fergus Keeley (1853-1927):  Immigrant, American Hero, Forefather of Northern-style Football
Fergus Keeley (1853-1927): Immigrant, American Hero, Forefather of Northern-style Football

* The following is a disclaimer for Clemson fans: This article is in no way true nor remotely factually accurate

Immediately following Syracuse's 24-10 victory over North Carolina State, Head Coach Scott Shafer proudly stated that he was happy "to take our Northern football down to The South". Syracuse's hard-fought, grinding victory in Raleigh featured an aggressive defense, north/south running, and a general inability to throw the downfield pass. A week later however, Shafer kept his Northern football in The South and got completely humiliated by Georgia Tech in a game that featured many of the same characteristics yet led to a completely different and borderline comical result. Baffled by the true essence of Northern football, and desperate to understand why it could be effective one week, and not another, I dove into its origins and history. What I uncovered provides many of the answers to what makes Northern football tick, and highlights some of the more colorful characters who have ever graced the gridiron!

The Roots of Northern Football: A War of Attrition

The roots of Northern-style football are steeped in mid-1800’s military strategy, which relied heavily on ground-based "wars of attrition", adherence to the rules of battle, and a preponderance of insane facial hair. Early Northern-style football strategy was designed to mirror that of the rules of war during the time, with opposing teams facing each other eleven men across in what was called a line of scrimmage.


Northern rules dictated that each team take turns running straight at the other team in what was initially called a "charge-down" given its resemblance to Civil War bayonet charges (the name was later changed to the abbreviated phrase "down"). Early Northern-style tacticians believed that yardage could best be gained through repeatedly sending an attacking team in a straight line toward the defensive line as fast as they could. By physically engaging every defensive player on every play, strategists believed they could wear their opponents down and eventually break through for points as the game entered it's latter stages. Naively believing this approach was the only one that could work, each and every Northern team in this era applied a single play: running all eleven men straight at the defending line, hoping to gradually drive back the defenders and gain ground.


Not surprisingly, this strategy produced a style of football that produced neither positive yardage nor positive plaudits from the era’s journalists. Noted writer and early Northern-style football proponent Will Dot Junior eloquently summed it up best in his post game recap of the 1869 meeting between Columbia and Stevens Tech:

"I will not attempt to excuse myself, but I will only say that I was myself disloyal in my own feelings. When I indicated my blind excitement for the contest between Columbia and Tech I believed that the spectacle would prove to be easy on ones' constitution. Closer intimacy has proved my error. The ebb and flow of the game belied my enthusiasm, and I can only state that both sides failed to honor their contract. This contest was less a battle of just combatants, and more of a voyeuristic display of two bovines dry humping each other while in an opium-induced state of indifference."

Jedediah "Red" Rover – Northern-style Football’s History's Worst Tactician


With public interest in football across the North waning due to simple tactics, limited action and low scores, an agriculture major from Rutgers University attempted the first major innovation to Northern football. Though like many "firsts" the innovation proved to be rather ill advised.

Jedediah Rover, nicknamed "Red" because of the scarlet sweater he and his teammates wore, suggested that rather than send all eleven men at the defensive line, thereby tiring his team out, he would send in a single player on an attempt to break through between two defenders in a move Red Rover ironically called a "forward pass". On September 12th, 1870, Red Rover and his team assembled in Fredricksburg, Virginia to play Washington and Lee College, and showcased his forward pass for the first time.

The results were disastrous. In 47 plays, Red Rover and his Rutgers teammates attempted 47 forward passes, and failed to gain a single yard. The Washington and Lee players and fans, so amused by the stupidity of Rutgers’ strategy, began mocking their opponents, calling out "Red Rover, Red Rover, send another fool over!"

Rutgers lost the game 63-0, and through "Red" Rover’s season-long refusal to change his offensive scheme, The Scarlet Knights finished the 1870 campaign (0-6), having failed to gain a single yard in offense or score in any competition the remainder of the season (Ed. note: Rutgers historians claim that the 1870 team went 4-2 and won the Middle Three Championship, besting Lehigh and Lafayette...even though neither school fielded a team until 1882). Interestingly, it would be one-hundred-and-twenty-five years before Rutgers would actually win a meaningful game. History would forever cement Red Rover’s folly through the creation of the children’s game in his name, which features the iconic phrase mocking the very offensive scheme that failed him so miserably.

Sean Keeley’s Great-Great-Great-Great-Great Grandfather to the Rescue!

With non-innovators threatening to reduce Northern-style football to a coma-like state of straight-ahead attacks and counterattacks, a far more rugged, hard-nosed, and exciting version of the game was developing among the booming immigrant population of the North’s major cities.

In Lower Manhattan’s Five Points neighborhood, the desperation of life for Irish immigrants in the early 1870s led to a portion of the young population looking to football as a way out of the murder, rape and destitution surrounding them. Life was not orderly for these young men, and the style of football mirrored that of their chaotic society. Abandoning the straight line of scrimmage formation, the "Fighting Irish" as they were called, employed a far more aggressive strategy where the team with the ball would send small waves of their biggest men to barbarically break through the line, allowing their runner to advance the ball up the field of play…often a side street littered with garbage and human waste.

Initially, the strategy proved highly effective…particularly when the offensive team illegally employed brickbats to knock back (or knock out) the defensive line. But over time, defenses caught on and established their own set of innovations that are still in use today.


The greatest defensive innovator of the time was a young immigrant from Galway, Ireland, Fergus Keeley. Keeley, a resident of Orange Street (now Baxter Street) in the Five Points neighborhood, devised a cunning approach to combating the onrush of offensive blockers. Instead of the traditional defensive stance of standing upright and prone, Keeley determined that he could deter a rush of players by crouching down on his hands and feet, then launching himself at the midsection of the offenders and protecting his body against any "giving of the business" by the opposing team.

Sure enough, the strategy stunned the upright attackers, and Keeley’s "Orangemen", named after the street he and his team lived on, proceeded to completely dominate the opposition and go undefeated in Five Points conference play. Keeley’s "Five Points Stance" – later changed to four point stance to more accurately depict the visual use of both hands and feet – proved to be a turning point in Northern-style football, and shifted the balance of power squarely to the defensive side of play for the next several decades. Keeley's innovation remains to this day in-use by interior defensive linemen throughout the country and in the far reaches of the world (e.g. English-speaking Canada).

1900-1950: Northern-style Football Evolves...Accidentally


As the new century arrived, Northern-style football showed no signs of changing from it's bare knuckle approach to offense and defense. Still void of any attempts to move the football laterally or down the field through the forward pass, Northern offenses and defenses continued their insistence on running straight at each other, letting the strongest team churn out a low-scoring victory.

Then, on a cold, wet and dreary Central New York day, things suddenly and accidentally changed Northern-style tactics forever. On November 13th, 1903, in front of a freezing crowd of about 450 onlookers, Colgate University took on Lafayette College in Hamilton, NY. Colgate, trailing 6-0, and down to ten healthy players, made an empassioned plea to the men in the crowd asking for one to step forward and help with a final attempt at winning the game.

Stepping forward was Eugene "Two Sheets" Laterra, the son of a Utica haberdasher, and an impressionable college freshman. Laterra got the nickname "Two Sheets" due to his easily-frightened disposition...having literally crapped in his dorm room bed following a roommate's prank during his first week on campus. Desperately seeking to regain his honor, Eugene joined the Colgate offense, who had the ball, 2nd-and-10 from the Lafayette 48-yard line.

Employing the standard straight line formation of the times, Colgate gave the ball to Eugene, shocking all in attendance, most of all Laterra! Clearly shaken, the freshman joined his new teammates in a rush toward the Lafayette line, when at the point of contact, Laterra let out a horrified shreek and flung the football far away to his right side. The ball miraculously landed in the arms of Colgate captain Jack McCullogh who, being at the end of the line and away from the Lafayette tacklers who were bearing down on Laterra, raced freely 48 yards into the end zone for what proved to be the winning touchdown! Laterra was a hero, and his frightened miscue -- initially called a "Laterral" or "lateral" by Colgate's fans -- became a common term in football vernacular. It also served as a precursor to the modern option offense, so effectively used by Northern teams in decades to come.

1950-1970: The Schwartzwalder Era

As America began its golden era of economic and geopolitical expansion, Northern-style football followed many of the cultural norms of the era. Like the citizens of the nation, Northern football remained an honest, straightforward endeavor. Changes were starting to take place that would begin to place greater emphasis on speed, athleticism and the forward pass, yet during this period Northern-style football would have none of that nonsense.


Perhaps no one demonstrated the ethos of that era better than Ben Schwartzwalder. Born in Point Pleasant, WV, Schwartzwalder was a decorated War Hero from WWII (Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, four battle stars, and a Presidential Unit Citation) who despite his 150-pound frame, was as tough as nails. Ben was a star wrestler and center on the football team at West Virginia University, and took his hard-nosed attitude to Syracuse University where he coached for 25 years, earning the school its only National Championship in 1959.

Schwartzwalder's attitude on football was quintessentially Northern-style. It reflected not only the toughness of the region's inhabitants, but also the cultural norms of the times:

On passing:

"There are only two situations when it is okay to attempt a pass. One, On third down, with more than 15 yards to go. Two, when you touch your date's knee and she doesn't slap you"

On tacking technique:

"It's pretty simple: 1) Take a proper angle at the opponent; 2) Wrap your arms tightly around them; 3) Drive them to the ground; 4) When done, help them up, and shake their hand...hard grip, two-to-three seconds, looking them squarely in the eye."

On defensive backs:

"Sometimes you are going to have a few kids who just won't cut it. They are about as useful as shopping for French pastries in a Commie bread line. This is America and by God you give them the opportunity to put on the uniform, but you stick them in the back of the defense and hope to hell you can teach one or two of them to kick."

On romantic love:

"It's pretty simple: 1) Ask the opponent's father for permission; 2) Take a proper angle at the opponent; 3) Wrap your arms tightly around them; 4) Drive them to the ground; 5) When done, help them up, and shake their hand...hard grip, two-to-three seconds, looking them squarely in the eye."

Not surprisingly, Schwartzwalder's teams adhered to a run-first, pass hardly-ever style of offense, and a no-holds-barred, stick-ten-players-in-the-box-and-the-weak-kid-at-safety defensive strategy. During the first twenty years of Ben's tenure, the truly Northern approach worked like a charm. But times, they were a changin', and with it the Northern-style grudgingly adapted to that change.

The Real Forward Pass Era Arrives...and Leaves the North Behind


A century after Red Rover’s early and frankly awkward attempt at coining the phrase "forward pass", Northern-style football finally tried to join the rest of the country in trying to utilize the passing game as a way to gain yardage. Unfortunately, the forward pass was just not in the DNA of Northern players, with the rare exception of a midget from outside Boston and three kids from the steel towns of Pennsylvania. Yet Doug Flutie, Jim Kelly, Joe Montana and Dan Marino never really amounted to anything, so we’ll just move on.

Unable to find quarterbacks who could accurately deliver a forward pass with great regularity, Northern-style coaches instead perfected a variation to their traditional running style, featuring the freeze option, a pass play which feigned the familiar running game, yet was designed to "freeze" pass defenses just enough that a generally useless Northern quarterback could awkwardly hurl a ball up the field to a usually wide-open receiver.

The freeze option followed a pattern familiar to the popular Northern-style triple option (quarterback option 1) handoff to fullback, run down the line and if still in possession of the ball, take option 2) of running upfield or 3) lateraling to running back -- triple option!). The unique wrinkle to this offense was, once or twice each game, the quarterback would stop at the tackle, take three steps back, and heave a pass to a sprinting wide receiver. The results against Northern-style defenses were often spectacular! Syracuse Offensive Coordinator George DeLeone, early proponent of the freeze option, would utilize this play to great effect by first handing off the the fullback 15 straight times for no yardage, then suddenly spring the freeze option pass...ALWAYS resulting in a long touchdown pass to Rob Moore!


While nearly always effective against Northern opponents, the freeze option had far less success against the faster, more athletic and pass-ready defenses from the rest of the country. As a result, Northern-style teams struggled to gain victories away from home, and the lack of success corresponded with a declining respect for Northern football outside its home region. Sadly, even today, the reputation of Northern teams has suffered due to the perceived lack of dimensionality on either side of the football.

Northern-style Football Today

Despite enormous advances pretty much in every other region in the country, Northern-style football remains endearingly rooted in its founding characteristics: A hard-nosed, ugly, nuance-free slog featuring twenty-two players who seem hell bent on attacking each other straight-on until one side submits from sheer exhaustion. The forward pass is more of a rumor than a reality, and trickeration in any form is wasted on the "fancier" conferences scattered throughout the land.

And in the grand scheme of things, considering the hard-nosed inhabitants of this proud, if somewhat stubborn region, that’s probably how it should be. The Deep South can have its "Grown Man Football" with its speed and spectacle. The Midwest can have its "Slow Man Football", trying to be all things but failing to do so to everyone but Brent Musberger. The West can have their "West Coast Football", with aerial fireworks, and soft defenses. And the Atlantic Coast can have…well, whatever it is that Virginia and North Carolina try to pass as an acceptable form of the sport.

Northern-style remains today what it has always been. Hard, uncompromising, a bit predictable, yet something you can always count on. It won’t be the coolest or trendiest. One week, it will work, another it will get clobbered. But it is honest…and in our cynical, shallow, twerking world, honest is perhaps all we should really ask for!