Benny Friedman’s Hands

Benny Friedman’s Hands
How building stronger hands turned a skinny kid from Cleveland into one of the greatest passers of all time and earned him a place in the College and Pro-Football Halls of Fame.

Benny Friedman was a two time All-American at Michigan

A few days from now, Benny Friedman will be enshrined in the Pro-Football Hall of Fame. It has been a long time coming but it will be well deserved. (He was voted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1979.) At the University of Michigan he was a two time All American and one of the finest all around players in College Football History.

Friedman often won many games singlehandedly. For example, in a 1926 game against Wisconsin he lead the Wolverines to a 21-0 victory by throwing a touchdown pass on the first play of the game, returning a kickoff 85 yards for a second touchdown, and later passing for a touchdown for Michigan’s third score of the afternoon. He was a an absolute terror on the field, a “triple threat” man who could run, kick and most importantly pass the football better than anyone who came before or for many years after him.

It was his passing prowess which was often the “nail in the coffin” to opposing teams.

Understand, in the early part of the century, football was a very different game than the one you see today. Though the legendary Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne “invented” the forward pass in 1906, you hardly ever saw one in a game in those days. The rules at the time dictated that the passer had to stand at least five yards behind the line of scrimmage and if he threw two consecutive incompletions, the team was penalized. If an incomplete pass occured in the endzone, it was a turnover, which made passing the football a very risky proposition.

Passing was thought as being for “sissys” …it was thought that the real rough and tumble bunch were the ones who charged head first into the scrum, not the guy throwing a pass while standing in relative safety behind his linemen. Players had great difficulty throwing the heavy, melon-shaped football. (see below) After all, it was made more for kicking and carrying than for passing. Most teams stuck with the ground game by necessity since few men could even pass the ball at all, let alone with accuracy.

That would soon change…

Even before Benny Friedman set foot in Ann Arbor, he had a plan to succeed. The following few paragraphs are excerpted from an excellent book he wrote in 1930 entitled ” The Passing Game. This was radical thinking, especially in those times when strength training was frowned on by coaches and the medical community alike.

Read on:

“My first great ambition was to become the world’s champion strongman. Some boys want to become fire chiefs, some want to pilot a monster locomotive engine; I wanted to become the world’s strongest man. I worked hard in pursuing this ambition. I read all the magazines devoted to the subject. I visited all the “strong man shows” that came our way. I followed all the preaching of the writers who told the world how a lamb could be developed into a roaring lion.

I even became entered in a strength tournament, or a strongman tournament, and I thought I had reached the end of the rainbow when I won the finals. It was a great night for me and I decided that having won the local championship, it would be a very easy matter to become a world champion.

It is odd how our early dreams go smash, as the boys say. Mine went smash in a hurry. I entered high-school and I decided that football was a far more interesting sport than lifting 500-pound dumbbells and breaking steel bars and chinning yourself a thousand times, more or less. Football was a game of brain as well as brawn and I quit the world of strongmen for the game that had produced Heffelfinger, Ames, Hinkey, Thorpe, Lazarus, Whaley, Gelbert, Poe, Hogan, Simmons, Johnson, Gampfer and so many other greats.

While trying to win the world’s strong arm championship, I had, without knowing it, prepared myself for a football career. I had developed hands, and wrists and biceps and shoulders. I had hip strength and sturdy legs.

…I was not any roaring success during my high school career but when I entered Michigan I decided I would do better in college. I had all my freshman year to prepare. It was at that time that I decided what the varsity really needed was a good forward passer and that if Michigan were to succeed in football she would have to depend on the forward pass…

I had once read how baseball pitchers developed their fingers, wrists and hands. Their system was to use a tennis ball or a “squeezer.” They would grip the ball as tightly as possible and suddenly release it. This was done over and over again; grip and release, grip and release, tighten and relax, tighten and relax. They would go on for long stretches doing this.

Now, if this was such an excellent exercise for baseball pitchers why was it not just as good for football forward passers? Was not throwing a football practically the same thing? The one principle was applied in each case. I decided I would emulate the baseball pitchers by making my hands, fingers and wrists as strong as possible.. I purchased a handball and a “squeezer” and I kept them in my coat pocket and during my leisure hours and even in the class room, I would squeeze and release, even for a few hours at a time. I kept strengthening my fingers, hands and wrists every chance I got.

In class we were seated in one-arm chairs. I used to try to spread my fingers over the entire arm. I watched the slow growth. I took pride in the fraction-of-an-inch developments as they appeared.

It all helped. Before I finished my freshman term at Michigan I was able to wrap my hand around a football and grip it as firmly as a pitcher grips a baseball. And to be a successful passer you must have strength of fingers, hands, wrists, forearms and shoulders. You must be able to grip a ball firmly and to develop a firm grip you require the necessary muscle support. You must have a grip above everything else and although I have been a football player for ten years, I have never found a better method of developing the necessary mechanical ability than by the method I have used myself.

It is not, as I have tried to emphasized, original with me; I copied it from baseball and I recommend it to you, with due apologies to whatever intelligent baseball player invented it. His name unfortunately, has never been published to my knowledge but to him, whoever he is and wherever he is, I owe a deep debt of gratitude and I am sure that all who will benefit from the system will join me in this tribute to an unknown hero.”

Benny Friedman showing the passing form that made him a champion as well as the results of his training:
hands strong enough to grip the oversized 1920s football firmly and securely>

How about that? Grip training and strong hands = football success way back in the 20’s and 30’s. But wait, it gets even better:

“To be a successful forward passer you must have sturdy forearms and shoulders. To stand the physical gaff of four periods of football you must be in tip-top physical condition and your legs, above everything else, must be strong.”

After his college career, Benny Friedman went on to play for the Cleveland Bulldogs (1927), Detroit Wolverines (1928), New York Giants (1929-1931), and the Brooklyn Dodgers (1932-1934). In each of his first four seasons, he won first-team All-NFL honors while also leading the league in touchdown passes. In 1928, he led the league in both rushing touchdowns and touchdown passes; a feat which had never been accomplished before or since.

Wow, not only an emphasis on strong hands but of a balanced whole-body development program. Sound familiar? Looks like Benny Friedman also established the traditon of Michigan Football players with extra-ordinary hand strength levels, a tradition I have been lucky enough to be a part of…

Train hard,

John Wood

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