Friday, November 16, 2012

Flashback: November 21st, 1987: Lehigh 17, Lafayette 10

Since becoming an undergrad at Lehigh back in the late 1980s, I first heard about the historic nature of the football team and "The Rivalry" through the stories that fellow students would share.

And from then until today, the overriding memory of the final time a football game would be played at Taylor Stadium was that it was one of the coldest days for the Game that anyone could remember.

"I remember it being one of the coldest games ever," Mark Redmann recollected, "with strong Northwesterly winds and the temperature hovering around 20.  By the end of the game, the stands were half empty because most of the fans just couldn't take the cold.

"Fortunately, several of my fraternity brothers snuck in flasks to help fend off the chill."

Though the entirety of the 1987 football season, it felt again like a year of transition to something different.

The horrific Jeanne Clery murder on Lehigh's campus in April of the prior year was not related in any way to football, but it shook the Lehigh campus to its core.

The student newspaper covered the slow-motion legal proceedings in gory detail week to week, leading to a death penalty conviction for the perpetrator, who committed his crimes in a dorm within view of the old stadium, after an "all-night drinking binge".  To get to the dorms, he probably walked right next to the area, which is now occupied by the Rauch Business Center.

With the perpetrator committing his crime before his 20th birthday, Lehigh, who had been a Top 10 party school in Playboy in the past, couldn't look the other way when it came to underage drinking any longer.

Starting in earnest the following year, security would be beefed up, and public drunkenness and the lax drinking culture, where underage drinking would survive with a nod and a wink from security, would not be tolerated any longer.  Dean Dr. John Smeaton was quoted as saying that a major portion of the effort to improve security was "a major commitment to combat underage drinking".

Taylor Stadium, much beloved by Lehigh students who could walk to the games easily from fraternities and dorms, was not much loved by visiting teams, or by former Delaware head coach Tubby Raymond, who hated the cold lockers and the fact that fans were so close to the sidelines.  After his final win over Lehigh there, 28-24, he said he wouldn't miss the place at all.

Its proximity to campus was a boon to students - especially on Lehigh/Lafayette weekends, where sunrise cocktails were a rite of passage - and a nightmare for security, who had a difficult time patrolling and keeping order during the postgame riots that for decades had become the norm.


Lafayette folks also swear that the worst of the postgame riots for bits of the goalposts, including the legendary one from 1959, were the ones at Taylor since it was so hard to maintain order.

"It was somewhat sullen for me for all the time I had been in that stadium and the memories it had for me," Doug Henning shared with me.  "First as a student going to my first games with my older brother, then as a Brown and White reporter and editor.  My fraternity brother Bill White's parents, along with the parents of another Phi Delt, would tailgate in the lot behind the home stands.  They had the reserved parking there, and what a wonderful spot to tailgate!   They would treat me during those years all the time and in return, I would provide the stats as produced on ditto paper in the press box."

Cracking down on underage drinking, and anticipating bigger-than-usual problems concerning the final game at Taylor, strict rules were announced before the game.  No re-admittance once you leave.  An earlier kickoff time, in order to try to keep people from drinking too much at the tailgates.  All alcohol would be confiscated at the gate - no exceptions.

Not that it deterred many, of course.  Students came up with creative solutions to get around the restrictions.


"We rolled in to tailgating outside Taylor in front of the physics building," Kellie Fisher wrote me, "on no sleep rolling out of sunrise cocktails.  My home base was the Crow tailgate, hovering around a trashcan of green slime [a popular mixed drink].  Eventually my camera ended up in the slime."

So cold that some students took over the physics building to drink.  And stay warm.  And drink Mad Dog 20/20, the ultra-cheap sweet wine that many used to keep warm during one of the most frigid games ever in the recent history of the Rivalry.

"The temperature fell through the low 20s. Winds gusted to over 40 miles per hour, dropping the wind-chill factor to minus-17," Paul Reinhard of the Morning Call reflected ten years ago looking back on this historic game.  "Several people had to be treated for frostbite."

"Once in the stadium," Ms. Fisher added, "I remember commandeering a few blankets to wrap myself in to watch the game and couldn't understand why Lehigh would want to build a new stadium and move tailgating to the non-walkable side of campus."

Many fans, there to take one final seat on the cold, concrete bleachers at 74 year-old Taylor Stadium, couldn't handle it - they went back to their cars, fraternities, dorms, or wherever there was warmth at halftime, despite the fact that they wouldn't be able to be readmitted.

Many, too, had plans to keep mementos of the stadium as souvenirs, despite the repeated warnings that "vandalism would not be tolerated", and police dogs would be present to keep people in line.

"The Marching 97 leaders had decided in advance they were going to leave the game at halftime for a couple reasons - the cold forecast and the fear of issues with fans stealing their instruments and/or uniforms," Redmann told me.


One person in the stadium that day was someone who couldn't leave for warmer buildings - current head coach Frank Tavani, who was on the sidelines during that game as an assistant coach to head coach Bill Russo.

"Tom Gilburg, a good friend of Tavani's who had coached at Lehigh four years during the 1970s, 'told me about the game way back before I was not even remotely thinking I'd ever end up here,'" Tavani told Reinhard ten years ago.  "''And when I got the job, that's all he wanted to talk about. "You're going to be involved in The Game, he said.'"

Tavani would call it the "Frozen Tundra" game, likening it to the 1966 NFC championship game at the Green Bay Packers' Lambeau field.   There were similarities.  The wind chill was incredibly cold.  Was the turf really solid frozen dirt, painted green?  It could have been, in Tavani's first and only game at Taylor Stadium.

*****


"I had the honor and privilege of being Lehigh’s starting center for that game," OL Gary Nelson shared with me, "and I can confidently say that bringing home a win in that last game at historic Taylor stadium was easily the proudest moment of my entire Lehigh career."

In the run-up to the game, and aside from all the hubub about the drinking crackdowns and the last game at Taylor, Lehigh was trying to cement a win against Lafayette for the seniors - they lost the prior year, 28-23, in Easton.

"I know closing out Taylor stadium with a win over Lafayette was vitally important to our seniors," he continued, "but it was particularly important to me because it was where, as a little boy, my dad would take me to see Lehigh greats and fellow Catasauqua alums Mike Rieker ‘78 and Vince Rogusky ‘80 play ball.  Stepping out onto the grass and playing football in Taylor stadium was a dream come true for me, and stepping out onto that field in the last game ever had a special meaning to me that was simply beyond words."

In the bitter cold, Lehigh struck first.

"I believe the first touchdown of the game was when our fullback, Rich Curtis, took a handoff up the middle for a touchdown.  The play called for our tackles Lou Charito and Kent Weaver to block the d-tackles inside-out, for our guards Aaron Frantz and Brian Hensel to pick up the linebackers, and for Rich to key off of my block on the nose-guard.   What we were hoping for was a good five or six yard gain actually turned into six points as Rich dodged a few tackles and galloped twenty or so yards across the goal line.  The entire stadium erupted in pandemonium and I remember thinking how incredibly special it was to be part of this historic game."

For the linemen, the deep freeze was especially a challenge.

"I believe that my fellow offensive linemen and I may have been the least dressed individuals at the game," he added.  "You see the game jerseys back then were a lot different than they are today.  They had regular length short sleeves, which defenders could use to grab hold of to gain control of you.  To counter that, the offensive linemen would usually tape up or roll up their sleeves up under the shoulder pads leaving their arms bare. 

"That wasn’t a big deal in September and October.  Going into November, however, was a different story.  This particular game may have very well been the coldest in Lehigh/Lafayette history.  So while everyone else at the game was dressed in winter coats, hats and gloves, the o-linemen were sporting their bare guns.

"I must have been surviving on pure adrenaline, because the extreme temperature didn’t both me one bit.  In fact, I refused to wear an overcoat when I was on the sidelines.  I wanted to be sure I was ready when called upon for another opportunity to step onto that field one last time."

For the fans, the cold was one problem, but another was the souvenir-hunters.

"Jeff Gendel was a junior trumpet player in the band that year and like me is a huge fan of the football team," Redmann told me.  "He wad adamantly opposed to 'abandoning' the team in the middle of this historic game despite their concerns.  In spite of his protests with band leadership, they stuck to their plan and marched directly out of the stadium after their halftime performance.  

"Jeff had different ideas.  Instead of marching out with the band, he broke ranks and marched back to the band seats.  He then played the fight song all alone by himself until his trumpet finally froze near the end of the game."

Cold and adrenaline aside, no lead was safe for Lehigh that season, however, having lost several, including the game versus Delaware.  A missed Engineer extra point was the difference as Lafayette took a 10-9 lead into the 4th quarter, after the Leopards quarterback that would grace Sports Illustrated's cover in 1989, QB Frank Baur, lofted a 5 yard TD pass.

It's at that point that MVP QB Mark McGowan saw his Lehigh career start to flash before him.

"I remember going into the huddle midway through the 4th quarter, trailing 10-9, realizing it could be the last time we would touch the ball," he shared with me.  "We had one last drive to get a touchdown, win the game and close out Taylor Stadium in style."

McGowan and the Lehigh offense would do just that.

With two critical catches by TE Tom Marron and TE Vance Cassell, McGowan would have Lehigh embark on a ten-play, 59 yard drive, punctuated by McGowan's 1 yard sneak, to take the lead.

"We did it!", McGowan simply told me, as Lehigh would indeed win the final game at Taylor Stadium 17-10.

"After the game ended I remember looking into the stands way down on the south-east corner where baseball dugouts once stood," Nelson added.  "I imaged that little boy climbing around on the concrete stands without a care in the world and thinking I was sure going to really miss this place."

He'd miss it sooner than he thought, as students and alumni "were breaking down doors, ripping away bleachers, and even attacking ushers for their uniforms," the Brown and White reported.

I had heard stories of people smuggling hammers into the game, hoping to chisel away parts of the old stadium when the game was over.

That was aside from the fights over the pieces of the wooden goalposts from the "regular" postgame riot, which was a normal part of the postgame festivities at that point.  "It was my senior year and my house got a big piece of the post, over 10'", Mark Redmann told me.  "It was one of the last games with wooden posts."

 "The stadium was barren after the game," the paper continued.

Junior Karl Thunberg walked through the stadium late Saturday evening.  He said, 'The entrance was torn down and I walked right in.  All the gates around the stadium had been torn down.  Twisted pieces of aluminum from the bleachers were reflecting distorted light.  There was a desolate feeling, seeing everything destroyed.  The Lehigh letters under the press box were gone.  The turf was in clusters in some places.  It was like seeing the remnants of a huge party after everyone had gone.  It made you think of the generations of people cheering in the stadium and all the good times that went on.'

"I do have 2 bricks from Taylor in my home," Henning told me.  "One I bought [from the Lehigh bookstore, where they were sold as souvenirs] and one that my dad bought which I grabbed after he passed away in 2004."

*****

Rauch wouldn't be completely built until several years after the final game in 1987.  For a couple years, the turf where McGowan snuck the final touchdown in Taylor Stadium history, you could roll down the hill from some Lehigh dorms, and walk, or even play pickup games on the field where a lot of college football history took place.

Part of the concrete stands survived from that cold day in 1987 as some of us scored the final, unofficial touchdowns on that turf, before it would be bulldozed for good.

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