Thursday, September 29, 2016

Lehigh At Yale Game Preview: Going Back To Where It All Began For Me

For one reason or another, I hadn't been back.

Since my undergraduate years, I hadn't gone to see Lehigh play Yale at the Yale Bowl.  It was either too long a trip as an undergraduate to catch the Engineers, a trip to Disney with the family interfered, or maybe I was just saving up my energy for a big conference game the following week.

No matter what it really was, it really was a bucket of excuses, with the ultimate result being I hadn't gone back, even though Lehigh had played there so often.

It feels almost criminal, even though I have driven past the stadium many times.

This weekend, for the first time since a beautiful night for football in October of 1977, I will be heading back to the iconic Yale Bowl.

And in contemplating this trip, a flood of memories returned from my first trip there - my first-ever college football game, and thus the very first inspiration for what I would end up doing the rest of my life.

Though I was very young, I remember my father, a lifelong Dartmouth alum and football fan, showing me the tickets, the stubs which I still have somewhere.

My recollection is that it was the first time my dad and I really did something together, just me and him.  It was a time when men went out to the office to work, and if you played Dixieland Jazz on the weekends, as my Dad frequently did, it meant a lot of times when my Dad was on stage, and my mother, sister and I were in with the crowd, watching him perform.

So going to a big-time college football game with my father and other Dartmouth people was great excitement - like being asked to join some sort of secret society of men, enjoying things as a father and son.

At the same time, I was maybe in the first grade, in an era when the idea of bringing your son to an event with more than 20,000 people in attendance didn't seem like as big a deal as it might seem today.  But there I was, with my father, in the Yale Bowl's ample grass parking lots, enjoying an elaborate tailgate spread on someone's card table.

When you're that young, and that small, everything seems big.  The spread, probably a decent-sized amount of food, seemed enormous.  The number of people, which can be proven to be more than 20,000 fans, felt more like 100,000 fans, as if the entire population of Connecticut and New Hampshire had invaded the Yale Bowl.

More than anything, though, I remember the mood of the crowd around that tailgate, emotions I had never felt before - unrestrained optimism, people talking, people other than my mother and father about the anticipation of the upcoming game.

When you're in the first grade, you're in your own world, for the most part, but this was the first time I could remember the worlds of the adults and the world of the kids intersecting in one big area.  I didn't know about family finances, who was cheating on who in the neighborhood, or who couldn't stand their boss at work.  But I did know that everyone I was around wanted Dartmouth to stick it to Yale, and even though I didn't know that Dartmouth RB Curt Oberg was one of the finest running backs in the Ivy League, or that Yale RB John Pagliaro would be equally as difficult to stop, I knew that it was simply right, for there to be order in the Universe, that the Big Green prevail on this afternoon.

The Yale Bowl is big by anyone's measure, but it looked especially enormous on that October day to me.  It used to be able to host 64,000 fans - to put this in perspective, Oregon last season averaged "only" 57,000 fans, with Autzen Stadium "only" able to accommodate 59,000 standing-room only fans.  The Yale Bowl, even with the maximum count of seats slightly reduced since then, still can hold more fans than can attend an Oregon football game.

I remember getting my ticket ripped, walking with my Dad, probably holding his hand, and distinctly going up into the end zone, in a middle or upper deck, behind one of the end zones to watch the game with a block of Dartmouth alumni.  There was no other game, no other sport in the world at that very moment to me - the entire world was that game.  There was no internet or Diamondvision, telling us scores from around college football or entertaining us with graphics - there was me, my Dad, a thousand of his closest friends wearing green, a Christmas light scoreboard, and the undivided attention, as far as I was concerned, of the Universe.

My dad got me a program to commemorate the day, and I read it before the game started.  From an early age I was an avid reader, and I'm sure the glossy magazine was the smartphone of its era, helpfully identifying the coaches and players amidst a few ads.  It may not have been much for the adults, but for a kid it was a window to this world of college football.  "When Phillips missed the Lehigh game with an injury," I undoubtedly read in the program I have in front of me today, "QB Bob Rizzo went all the way at quarterback, completing half of his twelve passes and leading his team to a 21-6 triumph."

I had no idea what Lehigh was then, that I would end up going to school there so many years later and then spend an inordinate time writing about the football program and its history.  But the thread was there, as was the amazing experience I was having, memorizing Yale taunts that made other Dartmouth fans in the stands laugh.

I will never, ever forget the positive reactions those Yale taunts had with me.  It was my first interaction with a crowd, with me as a sort-of star, and it was addictive.  It gave me an outlet I'd never had before, me, a quiet, nice kid that was in pretty much every other way mild-mannered and well behaved.  It had to have inspired me to start writing about Lehigh football so many years later, at first on a "weblog" and later on a brand new internet tool called Twitter.

Being so young, I don't remember a lot of the ebb and flow of the game.  I don't remember much of the moment when future NFL hall-of-famer PK Nick Lowry would boot the game-winning field goal, a modest 24 yarder, though I vaguely remember a football hitting a net installed behind the goalposts.  (Is that me, idealizing the moment, or is that what really happened?  I have no way of knowing for sure.

OL "Jeff Immelt"
I don't remember seeing Dartmouth OT Jeffrey Immelt, listed in the program as "Jeff Immelt", make any memorable pancake blocks, even though he would later become the CEO of General Electric, a position he still holds.

I didn't remember seeing Yale S Steve Skrovan make any memorable plays, though he must have played a big part in stopping Dartmouth's offense, more than a decade before he would join the writing team of Everybody Loves Raymond.

In fact, whether it was simply because of my age or our placement in the end zone, we only had one straight-ahead view of the field at the end zone.  Half the time, you couldn't see what was happening across the field, and you had to rely on the energy of the crowd to figure out what really was going on, read their anticipation, body language, or their swearing.

The part of the game I do remember, distinctly, was the goal line stand.

"Pagliaro took a pitchout and raced around the left side to the Dartmouth three," The Bridgeport Post's account said, "but on that crucial fourth-and-two situation, Dartmouth DE Don Rutishauser broke through the Yale line and dragged Rizzo down as he pitched behind Pagliaro going right."

I swear on the name of the Big Guy above, I remember this exact play from the stands.  It was coming towards our end zone, and I remember it as it happened.  I remember a big hole opening up in the line, and I can see Rutishauer planting in the gap, and tackling Pagliaro.

And then the Dartmouth section went absolutely wild.  My dad, never emotional in the best of times, leaped up out of his seat and cheered, as did everyone else.  I saw one of the programs fly in the air around me, and as a unit, everyone, including myself, celebrating the fourth-down stop.  I remember the raw energy of that moment, the joy, and how special it was - and that I was a part of it, in a small way.

I also remember the silence everywhere else in the stadium.  I don't remember how they felt, or how they reacted, but only that their cheers went from loud to stunned silence.  I remember the tension of that moment, and how it all unfolded.

I had no way of knowing it, but that moment in the Yale Bowl would shape the rest of my life.

"I'm on top of the world," Dartmouth head coach Jake Crouthamel said afterwards.  "Yale has had some pretty lucky games against us, but today, we just took that luck back and shoved it back at them."

Looking back, seeing this game when I did, it feels like it's from a different era, when Yale football games were as eagerly anticipated in the Northeast as Auburn games are in the South today.

It even, I think, shaped my love of football from a defensive perspective.  Don't get me wrong, I enjoy offense as much as the next person, but there is something about a goal line stand where a defense stands up a offense at the point of attack, that gets me going.  Some of my favorite Lehigh memories, like LB Mike Groome's flying 3rd down stop in The Rivalry, and the Mountain Hawks' six stops of eventual national champion James Madison at the goal line - only finally falling on the seventh try - are some of my favorite memories.

I'm eternally grateful my Dad brought me to that tailgate, gave me a smell of the cigar smoke and taste of the raw emotion of a college football game in the Northeast on a Saturday.  He didn't know it then, and I certainly didn't either, but it opened me up for a whole world that I didn't know existed.

And I'm stunned, finally unpacking this so many years later, that there were links to Lehigh in that game so many years later.  It's as if God, as I've long suspected, indeed has a sublime sense of humor.

Game Notes and Injuries

Lehigh had a few question marks on injuries when they came off the field this Saturday at Murray Goodman stadium, none bigger than the extent of senior QB Nick Shafnisky's ankle injury that took him out for a play vs. Princeton.  It looks like he should be ready for full go at the Yale Bowl.
Additionally, I asked about two other players who came out with injuries on Saturday, senior NG Jimmy Mitchell and junior OL Tim O'Hara.  I was assured that their injuries were not something that would keep them away from Yale on Saturday, so they should be good as well.

On offense, the recurring injury to junior WR Sasha Kelsey will at least keep him out another week, if not the rest of the season:
Fortunately for Lehigh, and the game notes bear this out, senior WR Derek Knott hasn't only stepped into the starting spot for Kelsey, he's delivered in a big way: he's already got 189 yards and 2 TDs.

Weather Report

"Cloudy, a little rain, and breezy" is what Accuweather is reporting in regards to this weekend's weather in New Haven.

With a high of 60, it should still be surprisingly warm at gametime, while simultaneously reminding everyone that summer is over.  It should still be a decent day to tailgate.

Getting to the Yale Bowl and Special Stuff Happening

From Bethlehem, you want to take 78 to 287, and then take my secret way to the Yale Bowl - up the Merritt Parkway, all the way to New Haven.  It's about a 3 hour drive to the iconic venue, which is an official historic landmark.

The Yale Bowl, at one time the temporary home of the New York Giants, is perhaps second-best known for its ample parking close to the field.

It is one of the best places on the East Coast for tailgating, right up there with Delaware, Princeton, and, of course, Lehigh.

There isn't any official Lehigh Football partnership tailgate this weekend, but as I mentioned, the Yale Bowl is a great, historic place to bring your pals and tailgate on your own.  The lots open three hours prior to kickoff.

The Yank Townsend Trophy

One of the interesting quirks of this rivalry, of sorts, is that it's actually a trophy game.

In 2006, the Lehigh/Yale series got a trophy. Called the "Yank Townsend Trophy", it was named after the only Yankee (i.e., student from Connecticut) who was in the Lehigh class of 1895.

Ironically, during the period of time when Yank Townsend was at Lehigh, the football team struggled with a multitude of different teams not named Lafayette.

Lehigh Actually Won This Once, In 2011
The one year Lehigh played Yale during "Yank's" student days was 1894, where they played twice and lost 34-0 and 50-0, both times, oddly enough, after rainy conditions.

"The rain last Saturday was a great drawback, as the grounds were so slippery that the men could not get a firm enough foothold to withstand the heavy weight of their opponents," The Brown and White said of the first game.  The second game, played at the old Polo grounds, saw "one end of the field entirely submerged," The Brown and White reported, made "somewhat improved by the sprinkling of sawdust."

(Though no level of field maintenance would allow Lehigh to be at all competitive with Yale in that time, where Lehigh's students would largely going against grown men and some of the best football players of their generation.)

After graduating, "Yank" would relocate to New Haven to be close to the rest of his family, where he would design many buildings and residences and cement his legacy for generations.

It was Yank's descendants who sponsored the trophy to be presented to the winner of this game.

Famous Yale Alumnus You Didn't Know About

Stone Phillips with head coach Carm Cozza, 1976
Did you know former Dateline NBC anchor and current PBS correspondent Stone Phillips wasn't just a Yale alumnus, but also was a starting Eli QB?  I didn't either, until I started looking up the history of the first game I ever attended at the Yale Bowl.

You probably know Phillips as a reporter who worked his way up from an entry-level position to host of Dateline NBC in the 1990s.  Currently he's still very much a reporter, and doing specials for PBS.

During his time at Yale as a senior, it wasn't clear whether he was going to be the QB, and he didn't play against Lehigh that year.  Nursing a "sore shoulder", QB Bob Rizzo instead led the Bulldogs to a resounding 21-6 win over Lehigh in front of more than 13,000 fans at the Yale Bowl.

Phillips recently write about his playing days in a very interesting recollection of the two times he remembered getting a concussion while playing football.  It was during his final college football game vs. Harvard, he remembers, when he experienced it.
After the hit in that last college game, I remember getting off the ground and a teammate grabbing me by my shoulder pads and asking if I was ok.  I’m sure I said yes, but behind him, it looked to me as if the concrete stands were swaying.
I don’t remember much after that.  I stayed on the field for a few more plays, but, apparently, as the quarterback, I wasn’t making much sense in the huddle.  My teammates and coaches got me out of the game and that was the end of my playing days.  Knowing what I know now about head injury, I am grateful that no one let me tough it out and finish the game.
LFN's Drink of the Week (#DOTW)

#DOTW Stone Cal-Belgique IPA
What do you do when your best mixed drinks from Yale games end up as losses?  Do you resurrect some classics, like one of my personal favorites, the Elm City Iced Tea?  Or is that too risky in terms of the win/loss?

Preferring to err on the side of caution, I'm ditching the Elm City Iced Tea, which was last seen help lose the game at Yale two years ago.  Instead, I'm going a different direction.

Normally I don't go with beers in two straight weeks, but with the invocation of Stone in the Yale preview, I thought perhaps a Stone Cali-Belgique IPA might be an appropriate drink to bring with you to the Yale Bowl.

With a deep color that should remind you of fall in the Nutmeg State, this Belgian-style IPA looks perfect for the tailgate, a hearty, full IPA that looks perfect for the winning Lehigh occasion.  Stone Brewery is known for its time-sensitive beer, too, so it will encourage you and your party to enjoy each large bottle you bring, rather than save it for next spring.

Sensible drinking can be a part of a pleasant tailgating experience, but only if you drink responsibly and for God's sakes don't get behind the wheel of a car when having consumed too much alcohol.  Make a day of your tailgate, stay late and sober up before driving.


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