Ninety-nine years ago this week: The first forward pass in Canada

On Nov. 5, 1921, a Syracuse football player completed the first forward pass in Canada at McGill’s Percival Molson Memorial field. The forward pass was a monumental step in the development of modern-day North American football, which originally resembled rugby. 

Many fans are unaware of the origins of American football: It was first developed in Canada, specifically at McGill University. In 1874, almost 40 years prior to the historic forward pass, McGill competed against Harvard University in a two-game series that comprised the first intercollegiate football games. The games drew around 500 spectators, mostly students, who each paid a $0.50 USD admittance fee, equivalent to roughly $13 CAD in 2020. While Princeton and Rutgers University had already faced off in 1869 in what some may consider the first collegiate football game, that match was more similar to soccer, as only kicking the ball was allowed. The McGill-Harvard games, which had comparable rules to English rugby, allowed both carrying and kicking in what was the start of the now multi-billion dollar industry of North American football. Harvard had different rules, known as “Boston rules,” where players could only kick the ball, which was round. In their first game of the two-game series, the teams played with Boston rules, and Harvard won 3–0. In the second game, they played with McGill’s rugby-style rules, and the game ended in a scoreless tie. Harvard liked the rugby style of play much better, and in their next meeting a few months later, Harvard decided to permanently adopt McGill’s rules. While McGill proceeded to score no points that season, the mark they made in history has lasted for almost 150 years.

As the game increased in popularity, more and more schools formed teams. While many of them started playing the soccer-like style popularized by Princeton and Rutgers, all universities eventually shifted towards McGill’s rules. The game continued to evolve in Montreal, and teams from the United States loved playing the new version. Schools from the U.S. would come to Montreal with their own spin to the rules that included features like blocking and the forward pass. In a 1921 game against McGill, Syracuse University completed the first forward pass in Canada, a key stepping stone in the transition from traditional rugby rules to those of the new American version. 

At the time, many Canadians did not appreciate the American transformation of their game. They believed the English rugby version of the game was better than this new American form. The Montreal Gazette expressed their disdain for these American innovations in an article published in November 1921.

“Recent rule changes had made backfield play in Canadian football much more sparkling,” the article read. “[But] if the Canadian game was still not good enough, better to retreat toward the rules of English rugby than to go for the American version.” 

While Canadians may not have appreciated the style at the time, its popularity grew, especially in the United States. Today, football is one of the most popular sports in North America, with events like the NFL Superbowl drawing tens of millions of viewers every year. 

The development of the forward pass was a step in the creation of the modern game of football, and its completion in Montreal was a testament to the role McGill played in the development of the game.

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