Did a Deaf Person Really Invent the Football Huddle?

Did a Deaf Person Really Invent the Football Huddle?
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Prior to the twentieth century, American football
teams tended to call their plays via a quarterback simply giving signals while the team either
stood in more or less a generic near-set position or back from the line a bit as the quarterback
called out what they’d do next. So where did the idea of standing well behind the line
of scrimmage in a huddle come from? While there are no contemporary news reports
or other definitive primary documents from the time period to support the story, it is
generally claimed that quarterback Paul Hubbard of Gallaudet University invented the huddle
sometime between 1892 and 1895, though if so, perhaps after 1892 as Hubbard wasn’t
team captain until 1893. For the uninitiated, Gallaudet University
is a school formed to educate deaf and hard of hearing individuals. Hubbard, like the
rest of his teammates, relied on American Sign Language to communicate game strategies
and specific plays, something easily interpreted by opposing teams intent on gaining the upper
hand, especially teams that also consisted of deaf and hard of hearing players and coaches. The two general ways around this problem,
whether signing or verbally shouting out, are to code the signals or to simply block
the other team from being able to see them. Hubbard supposedly chose the latter, instructing
his teammates to form a circle around him to discuss the plays. As to how the huddle spread to other teams
(and even other sports), this isn’t any clearer than the commonly touted Hubbard origin
story, at least as far as hard, documented evidence is concerned. It is often claimed
to have spread via deaf and hard of hearing students taking it to other schools after
graduating from Gallaudet University, with some of them going on to teach or coach at
said other schools for the deaf. In fact, it is often stated that Hubbard himself
did this. After leaving Gallaudet in 1896, he returned to his hometown of Olathe, Kansas
as a teacher at the Kansas School for the Deaf. In 1899, he started the school’s football
program and coached for many years, with it claimed he taught his players the huddle.
However, Hubbard himself doesn’t seem to have ever said he did this and there is no
contemporary evidence backing up that the team at the Kansas School for the Deaf used
the huddle under Hubbard. Of course, if Hubbard really did use the huddle previous to this,
presumably he would have brought the practice over to his new team. As for an alternate origin story, it is noted
by Dr. I. H. Baker in the 1945 work Football: Facts and Figures that the huddle was used
by the University of Georgia in 1896 in a game against Auburn University. Baker’s
claim here is in turn derived from the History of Southern Football, written by Fuzzy Woodruff
in 1928. In it, Woodruff gives an account of the game in question and describes a huddle
being used. (I wasn’t able to find a copy of the book nor a transcript of the statement
in question to see if Woodruff was simply basing this account off of his own memory
of events some 32 years before or something a little more concrete.) Unfortunately, contemporary documented evidence
seems to fail us on both Hubbard and Woodruff’s claims, though there is no reason to think
either were making anything up here, and we do know from a 1942 letter from one of Hubbard’s
former classmates that Hubbard was being credited as inventing the huddle by a news report concerning
Hubbard’s retirement. In the letter, one Herbert C. Merrill writes to Hubbard, The item ascribes the origin of the football
‘huddle’ to you. It must have been during the time that the College had that scrub team
that made all the teams around Washington, including the Naval Academy, look silly. However, it’s not completely clear from
the letter whether Merrill, who was valedictorian of his graduating class at Gallaudet in 1896,
himself is corroborating Hubbard’s claim- that Merrill remembers Hubbard using the huddle-
or was simply pointing out the news report to Hubbard. False memories being extremely
prevalent, as much as we humans don’t like to admit it, and a near half a century separating
the letter from the events in question, even if he was more explicit about it, this wouldn’t
really help us much either way in being more definitive. Also very unfortunately, it isn’t
clear what news report Merrill was referencing to see what they were basing their claim on
to perhaps shed a little more light on the issue. So that’s the commonly touted origin story.
But when did the huddle first start being recorded in first-hand contemporary reports
that have survived to today? This appears to have occurred in a game involving
Oregon State University and Seattle’s University of Washington on November 18, 1918. (Incidentally,
it was at the University of Washington that the sporting wave first started becoming popular,
though it wasn’t invented there, contrary to popular belief, see Who Invented the Wave?) During the game in question, Oregon State,
coached by Bill Hargiss, found themselves with a little problem on their hands. One
of the Oregon State players in that game, Jack Foster, later recalled the issue, As I remember, in the first half of that game,
the U. of W. team was reading our signals as the quarterback called them, and was stopping
us cold on nearly every play. So during halftime Coach Hargiss told us to whisper the play
out of hearing of the defensive team, and then our plays began to work. We did not use
it on every play. Famed Seattle Post-Intelligencer editor Royal
Brougham noted of this then bizarre move in the game, “I remember how puzzled the writers
were when the Oregon… team lined up in a group five or ten yards behind the line like
they were holding a prayer meeting or something.” Hargiss, however, did not claim to have invented
the huddle, simply claiming he was the first to use it in a college game as far as he was
aware. As to where he got the idea from, he stated, I was refereeing a high school game out there
and it was one of those close grudge, battles where the crowd cheered loudly and the band
played the same way. The offensive team got down to a do-or-die play and the boys couldn’t
hear the quarterback’s signals. So he called them into a huddle to give ’em the play.
I thought a lot about that, and I experimented with it at Oregon State. Other coaches criticized
it because they said it cost time. But I put a stop-watch on it, and it often was faster
than the signal calling system. With the huddle seemingly being a success
in 1918, Hargiss continued to use it on occasion and later brought it to Emporia State University
in Kansas in 1920. Within a year of that, famed football coach Bob Zuppke of the University
of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, who is sometimes credited as inventing the huddle,
started using it. Notably, columnist Frederick Meagher in an article published in The Frat
in September of 1946 claimed Zuppke didn’t himself say he invented the huddle, nor that
he got it from Hargiss, but that “Zuppke admits he took it from an un-named deaf football
team he saw somewhere.” Whatever the case, soon after Hargiss and
Zuppke pioneered the huddle in college football, many teams at every level of the sport began
adopting it.

44 thoughts on “Did a Deaf Person Really Invent the Football Huddle?

  1. Thank you for never taking a day off, all of you, and for providing all of us baby birds with beaks wide open in this world-sized nest with the tastiest and most relevant tidbits allowing us to continually grow–and making it OK to wonder still. Slainte!

  2. Perhaps it is from the military?
    A way on the battlefield to hide from a distant enemy an army's intentions?
    Military and sporting teams are quite similar.

  3. You guys must have spent a lot of time researching this one. Many old newspapers and magazines are not yet available on the Internet.

  4. Another Today I Found Out video about deaf people that doesn't IMMEDIATELY have closed captions.
    At the very VERY least: Let the deaf and hearing get Deaf information at the same time.

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