Even if the New England Patriots did steal some air from the football, the AFC championship wouldn't be the first game ever played with a deflated pigskin.
Ninety years ago, in a hard-fought private school contest, Friends defeated Boys' Latin on a touchdown scored with a ball as flat as roadkill. And the losers went to their graves believing they'd been duped on a play as strange as any, then or now.
"They talked about that game until the day they died," Mac Kennedy said of the Boys' Latin players who were beaten, 9-0, by Friends in 1925. At their 50th reunion in 1976, said Kennedy, director of alumni relations at the school, "five of those guys squawked about it so much that we took a picture of them holding a squashed ball."
By most accounts, chicanery played no part in the outcome of that game on Nov. 6 at Mount Washington's field. On the fourth play, from his team's 30-yard line, Boys' Latin's Steuart Woodward booted a 40-yard punt that seemed to disappear from sight. The reason? Woodward's strong kick had punctured the ball, the remnants landing in the arms of Friends' startled halfback, Ferris Thomsen.
Thomsen faked two handoffs and took off running "with something that appeared to be his headguard crumpled in his left hand," The Baltimore American reported. "The [Boys' Latin] players were mystified. Was this a ruse to lead them to believe that Thomsen had the spheroid while someone else was speeding in another direction with the pigskin?
"Before they could answer the riddle, Thomsen was behind their goal and had touched the leather he was carrying in his left hand to the ground."
The Boys' Latin players screamed foul. Their coach, Andy Kirkpatrick, argued that once the ball went flat, play should have stopped. The referee ruled otherwise, "claiming that the sphere was inflated when the play commenced and when he saw it last, and consequently the ball had to be declared dead before a new one could be substituted," the American reported.
Moreover, officials said, Boys' Latin had supplied the ball, so Friends couldn't be blamed for its demise. And on his 70-yard touchdown run, Thomsen had made no effort to conceal the sorry-looking pigskin, the American wrote:
"There was nothing that savored of unsportsmanlike conduct on [Thomsen's] part, for by the manner in which he thrust the crumpled leather out while he ran, he appeared to be trying to show his opponents that the something he had in his hand was the remains of the ball."
"I didn't want to hide it," Thomsen told Sports Illustrated, which celebrated the incident in a 1981 story. "When I caught [the ball], it went absolutely flat. There was no sound like an explosion or anything. I stood there for a split second but didn't hear any whistles so I thought, 'Hey, I'd better get moving.'"
None of this sat well with Boys' Latin. Still bristling, its coach suggested that since Friends had scored a touchdown with the deflated ball, the Quakers should be made to kick the extra point with it. Officials brushed him off, secured the only other ball on site — a beat-up old thing that Friends used for practice — and continued the game. Friends made the conversion and later added a safety while preserving the shutout.
The fate of the original ball is unknown.
It was a bitter loss for Boys' Latin, given the proximity of the institutions, Kennedy said.
"We were big neighborhood rivals. Both schools were then located in Bolton Hill: Friends at the north end and Boys' Latin down where the Meyerhoff [Symphony Hall] is now," he said.
Did the Quakers rub it in?
"My father never talked about it," said Leonard Thomsen, 80, of Portsmouth, N.H. Ferris Thomsen's real love was lacrosse; he coached that sport at McDonogh, Gilman, the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton, where his teams won national championships in 1951 and 1953. He was inducted into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 1963.
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Leonard Thomsen said his dad, who died in 1994, "was pretty quiet about a lot of things. His coaching was subdued, like [New England's] Bill Belichick."
But that football game of nearly a century ago stuck in the craw of Woodward, the Boys' Latin punter who'd kicked the bejesus out of the ball.
"He was very kind and wise, but he'd cuss about the [player] who scored the touchdown," said Tilly Dorsey, Woodward's daughter. "He referred to him as 'that S.O.B.,' which were pretty harsh words for my father."
Woodward, who sold plumbing supplies, died in 1983.
"He was a big, barrel-chested bear of a man, very athletic and very strong," said his daughter, who lives in Butler. "Boys' Latin was fighting so hard to win that game that he put everything he had into that kick. Apparently, it was a little too much."