In the world of football, there’s a lore surrounding who threw the first forward pass in game’s U.S. history.
On Christmas of 1905, a post-season test game (not part of the regular season) between Washburn University and Fairmont took place in Wichita. The left half-back for Washburn in that game was William Arthur “W.A.” Smiley.
Part of football’s first forward pass lore falls to Smiley, who had also not only lived in Junction City, but practiced medicine here, too.
That Christmas Day experimental game was played with new rules which included the use of ten yards instead of five for three downs, forward passes were allowed back of the line scrimmage, place kicks from behind the forty-yard line being counted as six points, five points between the forty-five yard line and thirty-five yard line, and four points in front of the thirty-five yard line.
The rules came about that same year after representatives from 62 schools met in New York.
President Theodore Roosevelt organized the meeting with the goal of making changes to the rules in order to make the game of football safer to play.
An article published Dec. 26, 1905 in the Topeka State Journal reported that during the game, “the longest gain made during the game was by Smiley, who got away for one 20-yard run.”
But whether this was the first forward pass in the U.S. is not completely certain.
Other sources indicate that a player named Bradbury Robinson of Bellevue, Ohio, who attended St. Louis University, had thrown the first legal forward pass on Sept. 5, 1906, in a game against Carroll College.
Washburn University quarterback, Hugh “Bottle” Hope has also been attributed to having thrown the first forward pass during that test game — one of three thrown by Washburn during the game.
Fairmont, however, claims their former center, Bill Davis, threw the first pass — a ten-yard completion to Art Solter.
Junction City resident John York, a fourth-generation Junction City native, used to walk passed Smiley’s house, located at the corner of Fifth Street and Adams Street, which York now owns.
“He was our family doctor, too, at one time,” he said.
York also said Smiley had delivered him when he was born.
He recalled Smiley as being a tall, slender man.
“A delightful person — kinda gruff. And he was quite a marksman,” York said.
Smiley came to Junction City in 1910 as a doctor, having graduated from Washburn School of Medicine and practicing medicine in the community for more than 60 years.
His diploma still hangs inside York’s home.
Smiley, along with Dr. W.A. Carr (a prominent physician in the area) had plans to open a new hospital in 1913 on the same corner where the house sits.
According to information published in the Daily Union in Sept. 1913, the east part of the residence was going to be arranged for hospital use. The building was going to be small, just enough space to accommodate many seven patients, but would still be “modern in every respect and be able to have patients close at hand where they can be given the best care and attention.”
York said Smiley tore down the building that was there, and built the house that is still standing.
Smiley once had a medical clinic on Sixth Street where Family Video is currently located.
But Smiley never told York about the lore of the first forward pass, and York didn’t know about it until he purchased the house in 2001.
York has gathered a lot of research on Smiley, with some help from the Historical Society in Topeka. Upon contacting an athletic director at Washburn during his research, York was told that Washburn University had known the first forward pass in U.S. football had taken place by one of their players, but they didn’t know who.
Smiley died July 24, 1978. Meanwhile, the lore of his being the first player to make a forward pass in football’s U.S. history continues.
Though the debate of just who threw the first forward pass in U.S. history may continue for years to come, what’s known for sure is that Junction City resident Dr. W.A. Smiley played for Washburn during the game that Christmas day, that he threw a forward pass in that experimental game, he later came to Junction City and practiced medicine here for six decades, and that neither team won that day. The final score was 0-0.