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A. A. Stagg and the Origin of Wind Sprints
This is article #23 in a series covering the origins of football’s terminology. All are available under the Terminology tab above. My book, Hut! Hut! Hike! describes the emergence of more than 400 football terms.
The recent Tidbit about the 1919 Army-Boston College game told the story of the origins of grass drills, and it led Jon Crowley, a paid subscriber, to ask about the origins of gassers and similar conditioning drills. I attempted to identify when and where gassers were born, but it proved rather tricky since the search for "gassers' brings up a slew of athletes named Gasser and a few schools with Gassers as the team nickname.
More success came from searching for the origin of "wind sprints." As I describe in Hut! Hut! Hike!, my book about the origins of football terminology, I determine the source of football terms using newspaper archives, reasoning that coaches create most football terms, with many transferring into the public realm via newspapers, especially in the old days.
Like a host of other innovations, the inventor of wind sprints appears to be the University of Chicago's football, baseball, and track mentor, Amos Alonzo Stagg. The University of Chicago had a strong track program under Stagg before WWI, and he trained multiple Olympic athletes. As covered in an earlier Tidbit, Stagg became aware of athletes using oxygen while attending the 1908 Olympics in London. After checking with Chicago's medical faculty on his return, Stagg provided oxygen on the Maroons' sideline that fall.
The use of oxygen may not have been the only lesson Stagg learned in London since he surely monitored and discussed training techniques used in other countries. Perhaps those discussions gave him a new idea since the 1908 Chicago football team also improved their conditioning or wind by running wind sprints.
Previously, conditioning came through many methods, though distance runs around town and practice fields were common in the 1800s. Nevertheless, "wind sprints" first appear in newspaper articles about Chicago preparing for their 1908 games with Minnesota and Wisconsin. The Maroons won the conference that year, going 5-0-1, with the tie coming against Cornell, so the wind sprints did not hurt the team's performance and likely made them a better team.
Wind sprints were mentioned in 1908, but it was not until 1909 and 1910 that detailed descriptions of wind sprints appeared. The first came in the coverage of Indiana's football team, coached by Jimmy Sheldon, a former UChicago player, who assisted Stagg in the Windy Sprinty City in 1903 and 1904 before taking the helm in Bloomington.
His best conditioner is what he chooses to call the "wind sprint." At the conclusion of the three-hour workout every afternoon, Sheldon lines up his men at one end of the field and starts them off on a series of short dashes. Forty yards is the average distance, and ten times is the average number of sprints. Each heat is a race, as the horsemen say, and when he finally gives the letting up signal he has a tired bunch of athletes on his hands.
'Sheldon Drives Squad,' Indianapolis News, October 16, 1909.
The following year, a reporter in Chicago provided insight into how Stagg conducted wind sprints, indicating the squad worked inside on quick starts, lunges, and rolls to increase coordination. Once completed, Stagg:
... ordered them out on the practice field, and without a bit of rest they were compelled to run at least ten sprints of fifty yards each. According to Stagg, these are termed wind sprints, but to the average outsider the majority of the players looked as if they were just finishing a mile run or some other race which taxed their physical energy to the utmost.
'Stagg Is Severe In Initial Drill,' Chicago Tribune, September 21, 1910.
Northwestern also ran wind sprints in 1909, and Boise High School, coached by O. W. Orthwine, a recent Chicago grad, ran them in 1911. By 1912, Brown and Army ran them as well, with the latter being notable because Dwight Eisenhower was on the Army squad that year, making him the first future president to run wind sprints.
From there, wind sprints, gassers, interval drills, and other conditioning training involving repeated sprints spread across the game and onto other sports. Although Amos Alonzo Stagg receives credit for many football innovations, he has not previously been credited with devising wind sprints. So, while someone, somewhere, would have developed a similar formula (such as fartlek in the 1930s), Coach Stagg sprinted ahead of the others, crossing the line first.
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