Today's Tidbit... Those Terrible Tearaway Jerseys
Have you ever heard a song for the first time and thought the band was playing original music and lyrics only to learn the song had been a hit 20 years earlier? That disconnect from history occurs in other aspects of life, including football, where some elements of the game go back further than most imagine. One of those instances involves tearaway jerseys.
Many who came of age in the 1970s and early 1980s recall teams whose running backs wore tearaway jerseys designed to rip apart when grabbed, forcing defenders to hold the person rather than the jersey to make a tackle. Many will recall tearaway jerseys worn by college teams running the triple option, while Earl Campbell and Greg Pruitt gave defenders the shirts off their backs in the NFL. While you might think tearaway jerseys first appeared during that timeframe, they go back at least to the late 1930s and perhaps to the 1920s.
The earliest reported use of tearaway jerseys involves Howard Jones' USC teams of the 1920s and Slip Madigan's St. Mary's teams of the 1930s, but I have not found any contemporary evidence of those teams using tearaways.
Instead, the first documented use of breakaway, tearable, or tearaway jerseys is tied to Fritz Crisler while coaching Princeton from 1932 to 1937. Supposedly, Crisler got the idea for tearaways when a Yale defender grabbed a Princeton back's jersey five yards short of the goal line, keeping him from scoring. Crisler was not amused and ordered tearable jerseys for the following year's game. (Tearaway jerseys were made of easily-torn fabric or constructed with minimal stitching, or both.) Crisler later took his tearaway jerseys to Ann Arbor, where Tom Harmon became famous for wearing tattered jerseys during his 1940 Heisman run.
Tearaway jerseys became commonplace and troublesome in the late 1940s and 1950s. Nebraska, UCLA, the LA Rams, and Minnesota wore them, leading Minnesota's coach Murray Warmath to remark:
People tell me both our offense and our jerseys are ragged. The difference is that the latter is intentional and the former isn't.
Gordon, Dick, 'Eliot: Long Way To Go,' Minneapolis Star, September 28, 1954.
Although coaches loved tearaway jerseys when their runners escaped defenders' clutches, they faced opposition from several sides, including their bosses. Some athletic directors disliked the jerseys for tearing too easily, causing them to spend money replacing them.
More common was the complaint that torn jerseys delayed games since the rules required an official timeout whenever a player tore his jersey. Coaches whose teams did not wear tearaways considered them an annoyance. As Duke's Bill Murray complained after a 21-0 win over Tennessee:
I'm getting sick and tired of this business of shirts being torn off and then being replaced without charging the team involved with an official timeout. It is supposed to be a timeout. I have been looking at this mess for too long to suit me.
Casey, Bill, 'Bill Murray Peeved… Vols' Grid Shirts Rip Too Easily,' Durham Sun, October 3, 1955.
Bill Murray wasn't the only one to complain. Those watching the 1956 Cotton Bowl saw seventeen timeouts called for one torn jersey or another. Enough was enough, and several weeks later, they changed the rule so that torn jerseys no longer resulted in an official timeout. Instead, they charged the timeout to the offending team, a stiff penalty in the limited substitution era since coaches often used timeouts to make critical substitutions.
While tearaways never went away, they were a bit less common until the liberalization of the substitution rules in the first half of the 1960s that allowed players with torn jerseys to be substituted and timeouts avoided, so tearaway jerseys became all the rage again.
Tearaway jerseys could have continued, but they encountered two more complaints. One was the ragged look of tearaway jerseys that ran head-on into the NFL's desire for uniform uniformity. Moreover, the safety-conscious reasoned that shoulder pads were designed to be restrained by fully functioning jerseys. When tearaway jerseys tore away, the cantilevered pads flopped around and presented a danger to other players. So, the NFL barred tearaway jerseys in 1978, and the NCAA followed suit in 1982.
Despite an error indicating that tearaway jerseys originated at Texas in 1959, the NFL Films lookback on tearaway jerseys is a fun watch.
The holidays are approaching, so put these books on your shopping list if you want to be nice rather than naughty.
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