Benny Friedman’s enshrinement speech transcript
2005 Pro Football Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony
August 7, 2005
Pro Football Hall of Fame Field at Fawcett Stadium
DON PIERSON: Thank you. Friends of pro football, this is a wonderful day for the Hall of Fame. We know why most of you are here but if you are a true fan of the sport, you need to know first about Benny Friedman and Fritz Pollard. Pioneers, who simply put, did no less than help keep the pro game alive. That both men persevered against obstacles of racial and religious prejudice to become examples in sport as well as in greater society gives all of us gathered here today extra reason to owe them thanks. And after many years, we begin today to pay that debt.
Dan Marino is pro football’s most prolific passer. Steve Young has the highest passer efficiency rating ever. Benny Friedman was pro football’s first passer, period! Oh, there were players who threw the ball a little but remember it was a melon-shaped thing designed more for dropkicking. And, as you’ve heard, the rules discouraged passing. This is what George Halas said, ‘Friedman was the first pro quarterback to recognize the potential of the pass. Until Friedman came along, the pass had been used as a desperation weapon.’ Benny demonstrated that the pass could be mixed with running plays as an integral part of an offense.’ Halas went on to say it was Friedman’s success that influenced rules makers to taper the football. Dan and Steve, you have special reason today to thank Benny Friedman.
Now, his 66 touchdown passes might not sound like many compared to Dan’s 48 in one season. But that record was the league record from 1929 to 1943 when Sammy Baugh passed it. And his single season record of 20 in 1929 might not sound like a lot if you’re from Indianapolis. But, I’m from Chicago and 20 TD passes in one season is more than any Bear quarterback has thrown in 38 of the last 39 years.
Friedman was the main reason for the existence of the 1927 Cleveland Bulldogs and the 1928 Detroit Wolverines because he was a native of Cleveland and he played at the University of Michigan. Those two early franchises were attempts to create interest in the pros by using Benny’s name. Few of us got to see Benny play and NFL Films didn’t exist so we rely on accounts by sportswriters of the day. And here’s what the renowned Paul Gallico wrote, ‘Grange cannot touchdown Friedman. Pro football has been slow to catch on with the public. But, in his own game, Friedman is in a class with Babe Ruth and Bobby Jones, and Earl Sande and Gallant Fox.’
It is my privilege today to offer Benny Friedman for induction into another class with Fritz Pollard and Dan Marino and Steve Young and to join all you other legends of the game (turns to the Hall of Famers on stage). And, to accept for Benny, please welcome nephew David Friedman.
DAVID FRIEDMAN: Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, and members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and special guests…I’m truly honored to be here this afternoon representing the family and friends of Benny Friedman, as he is accorded pro football’s highest honor – Hall of Fame enshrinement.
Today, I stand before you, a man who’s in absolute awe of his surroundings. Believe me, not in my wildest dream did I ever think that I’d be on the same stage as I am today. I keep asking myself, “what on earth is an optometrist from Westford, Massachusetts doing on this stage? What exactly am I doing here?
Well, the answer is simple – I’m enjoying the heck out of this wonderful opportunity! I’ve met some wonderful people here in Canton, Ohio who put a tremendous amount of time and effort into arranging this absolutely fantastic event. They deserve tremendous amount of credit and thanks. I also wish to thank my presenter Don Pierson and all of the other members of the voting committee who have lofted Benny to the Hall of Fame status that he so justly deserves.
It’s a good thing that this is being taped, because I know I’ll eventually have to watch the video just to make sure that I was really here and didn’t somehow imagine all of this.
However, as much as I’m enjoying my few moments in the spotlight, believe me, I fully understand and appreciate that this is not about me – it’s about the accomplishments of an amazing man who I’ve had the good fortune of calling my uncle – Benny Friedman. (applause) Thank you, thank you.
As terrific as this day is for me personally, the one thing that could’ve made it even better, would have been having my uncle standing here at the podium looking back at me in the stands. But obviously, that is not possible. But somehow if it was, and Uncle Benny were here today, he too would tell you that it was not about him alone. He’d tell you that it was all about family, friends, teammates, and teamwork.
Now don’t misunderstand me, my uncle would, at the drop of a hat, tell you more than you needed to know about his football exploits. But just as certainly, he would remind his listener that no one, not even he, could do it alone. Proud yet unpretentious, that was the essence of my uncle.
Today I’m going to do my best to share with you a few thoughts that I think capture his essence – thoughts I think he would have been willing to share on this special occasion and maybe one or two that he would have been too modest to relate.
Without a doubt, the first thing that he would do today would be to profess his love and appreciation for his family, beginning with his wife Shirley to whom he was married for 52 years.
There’s a special family member in the audience here today that he would have loved to recognize, so I’d like to do that now by giving a very special thank you to Marilyn Myers for all of her efforts (applause). Thank you.
Also with us today is a very special group of 30 or so people who’ve traveled from all over the country, many of whom Benny coached at Brandeis that I know if he were here today, he would, with that big characteristic grin on his face, express his most sincere thanks and gratitude.
Naturally, Uncle Benny would have told you of his background. He was born in Cleveland to an orthodox Jewish family who’d immigrated from Russia. And, what a profound influence his immigrant parents were in his life. The name, Benjamin, in Hebrew, very appropriately means ‘son of the right hand.’
Family was very important to Benny. To his family he provided unconditional love and support. He took great care of his family when times were very difficult during the Great Depression.
A favorite family story he liked to tell was how he attributed his injury-free football career to his mother and her faith in Judaism. As the story goes, mounted on a wall in his parent’s home was a pushke, or a charity box. Benny told the story of how when he was in high school, he observed his mother dropping a few coins in the box and seeing her lips move as if she were in prayer. When he asked what she was doing, she said she was protecting him from injury by putting 18 cents into the pushke. Eighteen is a lucky number in Judaism. She explained that 18 in Hebrew stood for chai, which means life. Benny never questioned her wisdom, he merely accepted her words as fact… from that day forward, as far as he was concerned; it was his mother’s faith and chai that kept him healthy.
My personal recollections pretty much includes the kind of things a nephew would remember about an uncle. Of course I was very impressed by all the stories I had heard of his athletic accomplishments. We had scrapbooks around the house when I was a kid and I’d read about Benny’s prowess when I was very young. I asked my father on more than one occasion, something like, ‘Dad, was Benny really that good?’ My father, who was a man of very few words, would say it all in his very simple response, ‘David, Benny was great.’ He said it with such feeling that I knew it just had to be true; there was no doubt about it.
I remember how proud Benny was – and sometimes all too willing to demonstrate – how he could do a certain kind of pushup starting from a position in which he laid flat on the floor with his arms and legs totally extended. If you’ve ever tried to do a pushup from that position – and I’m not sure why you would – you’d know that it’s extremely difficult.
But to know my uncle you would have to understand that he never sought out the easy way of doing things. Quite to the contrary, he was in constant pursuit of new and interesting challenges. He enjoyed being able to do things few others could do, or do as well as he.
So, just as he chose the more difficult way to do a push-up, my uncle chose the more difficult way to distinguish himself as a quarterback. He chose to be a passing quarterback in an era when the pass was generally accepted as a last ditch option, it was a move of pure desperation. Benny, basically, is responsible from changing football from a running game to a passing one. As a story in Steven Fox comments in his book Big Leagues , and I quote, ‘football has gone airborne on Benny Friedman’s arm.’
Consider this – football rules in Benny’s day actually discouraged passing. Back then, if a quarterback threw an incomplete pass into the end zone, it was a touchback. In other words; the ball was turned over to your opponent. But whom am I to be explaining that to you?
Also, if a quarterback threw a second or third incompletion in a series of downs, his team was penalized five yards and a loss of down each time….hardly rules that would encourage quarterbacks to throw the ball. And don’t forget, the ball was fatter and difficult to grip. It was like a melon. Sure, he could’ve played the position as it had been played to that point, but that just wasn’t Benny Friedman.
For Benny, the fact that passing was the more difficult road to travel, only served to inspire him. He loved the challenge and it was his dogged determination, competitive spirit, and willingness to put all on the line that made him great.
To attest to Benny’s greatness as a passer, I’m quoting from a wonderful article that appeared in the Brandeis Review referring to Benny’s 1929 season with the New York Giants. “Benny responded to having a fantastic season in 1929 whereas as the game had been one a great running strength, Benny’s wide open style of play changed that. And, the crowds he attracted, shouted for more. Leading the Giants to a phenomenal season, he threw 20 touchdowns at a time when 10 was considered exceptional. That number remained the record for 13 years and would have been enough to lead the league as late as 1977. The Giants’ 312-point total that year marked only the second time the 300-point barrier had been eclipsed. But, it would happen again in 1930 when Benny quarterbacked the team to 308 more points.
Benny Friedman was then, and is today, an example of excellence. Being enshrined in the Hall of Fame not only validates that fact, but also guarantees that his legacy, his example of excellence, will survive for as long as there is a Hall of Fame. His name is now permanently etched into the game’s honor roll.
It is rewarding to know that my uncle’s accomplishments will not only be permanently preserved, but will serve as inspiration to others. To know that thousands upon thousands of pro football fans will stand in front of his bronzed likeness and know that by his inclusion in the Hall of Fame gallery that this was a man who’s among the very best. That would have made my uncle very proud. Today, I am very proud to stand here before you on his behalf and accept this great honor. Thank you so much for letting me be a part of this special tribute. Thank you.