Passing for 1,000 yards is not a difficult feat today, but just after WWII it was a novelty. This is the man who did it first for Clemson football.
Punting, to the 1940s Clemson football team, was an integral part of a successful strategy. Rooted in a game of field position, the punt was considered a weapon. Triple threats were players who could throw, run, and kick.
The quarterback was not the position it is now, and the passing game was in its infancy – more Lamar Jackson dodging pass rushers and letting it rip than five-step drop. The offense, while a few evolutionary steps removed from the mass-of-players-running-into-each-other style, was a far cry from the dynamic blend of pulling linemen and jet motions that it is today. Passing was important but not critical.
In that world emerged Clemson’s first 1,000 yard passer, Bobby “Schoolboy” Gage.
Digging into Clemson’s digital repository, you can find a stash of football programs, digitized from as far back as the early 1900s to as recent as 2012. I came across this program from 1957, that lists the rushing yardage, passing yardage, and scoring leaders from each season. The numbers only go back to 1935, so there is a chance that Gage isn’t the first 1,000 yard passer. But let’s assume that the Clemson football world began in 1935.
Really quickly – there’s nothing special, per se, about 1,000 yards, except that its one yard more than 999 yards. It’s a nice round number, which sounds official, but why not why not the first Clemson quarterback to throw for a mile? After all, Trevor Lawrence threw for almost two miles this year. But somehow the first quarterback to throw for 1 mile sounds less impressive than 1,000 yards, even though its 1,760 yards. And 0.568 miles definitely sounds pretty lame, even though that’s 1,000 yards. So here we are, talking about the first quarterback to throw for 1,000 yards.
Oh, also, look at the ads in those 1940s and 50s programs. You’d think everyone was a smoker, which might be true, if silver screen movies are accurate. But seriously. CHESTERFIELDS! CAMELS! PHILIP MORRIS! SMOKE! Also, there were some pretty cool looking Coca-Cola ads, and make sure to buy your coal from Kentucky Cumberland Coal Co. for the love of God.
Anyway, a graphical representation of Clemson’s leading passer’s yardage looks like a Pats fan’s EKG during the Super Bowl. Flat for a long time, then two huge spikes late.
Two guys hit that 1,000 yard mark, both of whom were tailbacks (the quarterback wasn’t what it is today, at least in Clemson’s offense, more on that late). One was Billy Hair, and the other was trailblazer, mister triple threat, Bobby Gage.
The 1947 season started with the optimism that comes when mediocre team returns talented players. Think the 2008 Clemson squad that has this Wikipedia page that’s oddly incomplete. Optimism abounds. Check out this clip from The Tiger heading into a week 1 tilt against the “mighty” Presbyterian College Blue Hose:
"When asked what kind of team the Tigers would put on the field this year [Howard] replied we had two good chances to have a winning team this year – “slim and poor.” However, we hardly think that it will be that bad. Clemson is pretty close to Georgia , and Howard is a good friend of Wally Butts, and it may be that some of that crying fever has drifted across the Savannah River."
Frank Howard (who was right in his appraisal) was heading into his 8th season and coming off a 4-5 season. In his offense were the standard five lineman, two tight ends, a blocking back, a wingback, a fullback, and a tailback. It looks like a single wing formation, but, and I can’t stress this enough, I don’t have access to any film from back then. Those position names, though, read like the single wing.
At any rate, from what I’ve been able to piece together, running a solid offense out of the single wing required a “triple-threat”. Since the formation telegraphed what direction a play was going, having a player that was just as likely to throw as he was to run, or punt for that matter, allowed for wrinkles to be added to the offense. The Tigers used a mixture of passes and reverses – some razzle dazzle elements that were uncommon for that team – sometimes to the fans’ chagrin.
While football may have been a subject worth writing about in 1947 Clemson, keeping proper tallies of statistics did not interest the staff of The Tiger. Details are pretty sparse, although it looks like what was important during the time was total yardage and rushing touchdowns. And sometimes interceptions. The 1950s programs detailing passing stats didn’t even mention how many touchdowns each player threw. Just attempts, completions, yards, and interceptions. So anyway I pieced together what I could from the fall 1947 issues of The Tiger.
The 1947 season started off on solid footing. In the September 25. 1947 issue of the Tiger, we find out that Gage had three rushing touchdowns and one passing touchdown. Line play was essential to the team’s success, and the nimble (by the day’s standards) and diminutive (by today’s standards) offensive line managed to get downfield and lay the foundation for the Tigers’ ground game. Clemson won the game 42-0.
Week two did not bring the same degree of success. After flying up to Boston to play the BC Eagles, the team fell 32-22. Gage ran for another touchdown and passed for his second on the season. He threw for 197 yards, but he couldn’t get much going on the ground. The Tiger summed it up in this hilariously roundabout way of saying he only ran for three yards:
"He gained 69 yards rushing, losing 66…"
BC’s larger offensive line manhandled Clemson. The team is now 1-1, Gage has 4 rushing TDs and 2 passing TDs and a combined 482 yards through two games. No mention of how many yards he had rushing or passing in week 1, though so all we know is that he has more than 197.
Weeks three through six kept the losing going, one more and it’s a streak. At Wake Forest, Gage threw for another touchdown and combined for 166 yards. Week four brought the team’ third loss. Gage had only three passing yards and threw a pick-six after spraining a finger in his throwing hand. On the bright side he did get married the following Monday, so there’s that.
Gage threw another pick at his own six yard-line against U of SC, which led to writers lamenting that the team shouldn’t throw when it is so close to its own endzone. Times have changed. Clemson lost 21-19. A trip to Athens resulted in the team’s fifth loss in a row. With a 1-5 record now, the fans are growing restless. They actually booed Gage during the UGA game after he threw his third (?) interception of the year. If you’re keeping track, that’s 4 rushing TDs, 3 passing TDs, and at least three interceptions, but probably more. But maybe not. So lets say somewhere between three and thirteen interceptions.
Finally, in week seven, Gage goes off on Furman. After playing dead for the previous five weeks, Gage scores a receiving touchdown, intercepted a pass on defense, and rushed for 47 yards. More importantly, the dude went 9-11 for 245 yards and 2 touchdowns. Now he’s cooking. That’s 4 rushing touchdowns, 4 passing touchdowns, and 3 interceptions. The passes and reverses were starting to click.
A trip up to Pittsburgh to play Duquesne kept it going. Gage eclipses the 1,000 yard mark for combined offense after throwing for 43 yards and rushing for 136. He ended up with two more rushing touchdowns, bringing his total up to 6 now.
Gage wrapped up the season by bodying Auburn. In the 34-18 win, Gage threw 14 completions for 4 touchdowns and a combined 374 yards of total offense. He chipped in one rushing touchdown of 60 yards on a naked reverse to boot.
On the season, Clemson put up the most points of any team in the Southern Conference. Despite being hampered by an injury, Gage managed to throw for 1,002 yards, 8 TDs, and 13 interceptions, while rushing for 502 yards and 7 TDs. He earned a few post-season spots on all-state and all-conference teams as well.
From the looks of it, Bobby Gage racked up a lot of yards as a good player on a mediocre team. He was the best runner and the best passer, but most of his yards came against bad teams. In what was probably a bit of gamesmanship, the student newspaper at that university in Columbia put Gage on their second team all-state because he had a bad game against the Gamecocks.
Gage went on to lead Frank Howard’s Tigers in passing in the 1948 season, but he fell well short of the 1,000 yard mark. He had some help from sophomore wingback, Ray Mathews, who led the team in rushing and averaged almost 6 yards per carry. By accounts in The Tiger, Mathews was incredibly fast, but Bobby Gage could do it all. After that season, he went sixth overall to the Pittsburgh Steelers, and had a fairly successful career as a QB/HB/Punter.
Gage was the first for Clemson. Me nerding out on some Clemson archives led to a pretty interesting factoid.