New Ways for an Old Game

In November 1869, the Rutgers and Princeton college teams gathered onto a field to play what many sports historians consider the first “American football” game. The contest would be barely recognizable from today’s modern game. The squads consisted of 25 individuals each, who played with a round ball that the rules prohibited from being held. Players could only kick, bump, head, or swat the ball towards the opposing goal. Rutgers won with a score of 6–4.

The sport soon became popular, and more college teams participated. With that popularity came innovation; lowering the number of players on the pitch, standardized field sizes, and more rules. The introduction of the snap and three downs to advance the ball also occurred during this time. But the game still relied on brute force, and some offensive formations, like the flying wedge, were borrowed from ancient military tactics. Although these formations effectively protected the ball and gained field position, the cost to the players was high, with injuries being commonplace, sometimes resulting in death. In 1905 alone, the sport reported nineteen fatalities and 159 life-threatening injuries.

The public outcry over the injuries led the league’s sixty participating schools to begin an intensive re-work of the football rule book to make the game safer. The New York Times reported that the reform efforts were “to provide for the natural elimination of the so-called mass plays and bring about a game in which speed and real skill shall supersede so far as possible mere brute strength and force of weight.”

One of the revolutionary changes was the legalization of the forward pass. Although teams had tried forward passes before, the previous rules had declared these plays illegal. But with the new regulations, it was now possible to routinely gain twenty, thirty, or forty yards of field position with a quick throw. While most colleges were slow to adapt, preferring to continue with brute force tactics, the Saint Louis Billikens’ football coaching team implemented the forward pass as a standard strategy. In the 1906 season, the Billikens won all eleven of their season’s games, amassing 407 points against their competitor’s 11.

Insight and Application

Our industries and customers are constantly buffeted by macro forces like societal change, technological innovation, environmental trends, economic factors, and political and legislative winds. Market stasis is an illusion. These dynamic currents open new windows of opportunity and close others, creating and destroying companies and products in their wake. The Billikens’ football entertainment factory adopted the forward pass as a new “process.” Because their competitors were slow to adopt the new throwing “technology” (i.e., knowledge used for practical purposes), the Billikens trounced their rivals by a factor of 37X. Leaders must regularly conduct environmental scans to monitor macro currents that might eventually create wholesale sea changes that will not care who benefits or is left behind.

This is a story in the new book I’m writing, Leadership Parables, which will feature leadership lessons in highly memorable short story form. But I need your help. If you remember an anecdote that influenced the way you think about business and leadership, tell me about it. If your suggestion is selected, you will receive a copy of the book and credit as a contributor. If you would like to know when the book is released, please add your name here. And, if you have an idea to share, please contact me at

If you would like to know when Leadership Parables is released, please add your name here. And, if you have a story idea to share, please contact me at

Also, check out my first book, The 7 Essential Stories Charismatic Leaders Tell, click here:



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