Hut! Hut! Hike!: Shovel Pass
— The Hut! Hut! Hike! series examines the origins of football terminology and how the game's evolution drove changes in its vocabulary. This article (#13 in the series) is available for free. —
As described in an earlier story about the origins of the quarterback sneak, some football legends really are legends. They are make-believe, balderdash, or worse, purposely inserted into the conversation to mislead.
The shovel pass stands on the podium of football terms with the murkiest beginnings. Its birth traces to an imaginary player, a real player several years after its actual origin, and a real coach several decades postpartum.
The imaginary player was one Walter “Bug” Bujkowski, who was said to have thrown an improvised shovel pass for the NFL’s Duluth Eskimos in 1927. Unfortunately for Bug, his name does not appear on the Eskimos’ 1927 team roster or other period or current football sources. Instead, his name appears only on two blog sites that attempt to credit him with his purported feat.
The next incorrect claim goes to Western Maryland’s Stoney Willis. Willis tossed a pair of underhanded, behind-the-line-of-scrimmage passes to teammate Jimmy Dunn, who took them 30 and 39 yards for touchdowns to help Western Maryland tie Boston College 20-20 in 1932. Utah coach “Cactus” Jack Curtice also receives credit for pioneering the shovel pass in the 1950s.
Unfortunately for the folks in these stories, none were there when a forward pass was first shoveled. The first mention of shovel passes in print appears on the same weekend in 1930 when Wisconsin executed theirs against Northwestern and Minnesota did the same versus Minnesota. Despite “shovel pass” first appearing in print that weekend, the coverage suggests the pass was already as old as dirt. (This may be due to others having thrown screen passes or other behind-the-line-of-scrimmage passes since shortly after the forward pass became legal, but who knows.) The distinct element of the early shovel pass appears to be that it was an underhanded toss; hence, the name, shovel pass.
After Wisconsin and Minnesota threw their shovel passes in 1930, they and others ran the play hundreds if not thousands of times in the 1930s. It has remained in the game ever since and has recently enjoyed revived popularity.
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