What football position does someone refer to when saying "He plays back for Dartmouth"? (I read it in a novel, which takes place in 1931)

Edit (more context):
A conversation during the game between his friends, one of whom arrived late:

"How’s he doing?"
"He’s all right, I guess,” says one of the boys.
“Decent run in the last series. Eleven yards.”


In the 30s almost all teams ran a version of either the single wing or "T" formation.

On the single wing the quarterback didn't receive the ball. He lined up as a fullback would today and either the tailback or fullback would get the ball. In this formation you would probably refer to the tailback or fullback as the "back" because they were more important. The slang for quarterback for the single wing is quarter. (There is also the cornerback on the other side of the ball - linebacker wouldn't be referred to as back but would be a backer)

On the "T" formation you have the quarterback, fullback, and two halfbacks (one on each side). In this formation you would probably say I play back as a fullback or runningback.

In general if someone says, "I'm a back." That means they are either a runningback or fullback. If I am running a practice and I say, "Backs go with Coach Shelton!" All of the runningbacks and fullbacks (and wings if you have that) would go. This hasn't really changed much from the 30s. Football terminology is rich on tradition and hasn't changed much.

Now the problem is with the single wing in the 30s quarterbacks were backs, not "quarterbacks". Today no quarterback wants to associate themselves with being a back.

Shortened terminology:

  • quarterback = QB (back if in old single wing setup)
  • halfback = back
  • fullback = back
  • runningback = back
  • tailback = back
  • linebacker = backer
  • cornerback = corner

Given your updated edit he is a [full/tail/half]back. Back then those three positions all ran the ball a lot and were for all intents and purposes the same thing. They didn't pass the ball much if at all so you would have 2-4 guys and 3 positions that received a good amount of carries. As a reader I would equate the position to today's Runningback position but know they would have had multiple guys with the same position as that back in the 30s.


When speaking of offensive teams, it usually refers to a quarterback or sometimes a running back. Even less often, and when speaking of defensive teams, it may refer to a linebacker.

Some more context would help narrow the answer, but I would say quarterback is the most likely.

  • My impression is that it refers to a running back. Context indeed would help. – njboot Jun 5 '14 at 16:43
  • @njboot agreed. If said today I would certainly infer to mean a running back, but I'm just not sure what the lingo was in 1931. – emsoff Jun 5 '14 at 16:50
  • In the 30s, many players played both offense and defense, so he might be both a running back and a linebacker. – Oldcat Jun 5 '14 at 17:40

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