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#TheRivalry 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.

I did not attend the final meeting between Lehigh and Lafayette at Taylor Stadium, which was the final time a football game would be played there.

Those that did attend said that was that it was cold.

"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 seemed to feel like the end of an era.

The glory days of Bethlehem Steel running the town of South Bethlehem were finally on their way to being over.  Steel ran Bethlehem since the beginning of the century, but the reality of plant layoffs, cheaper foreign steel and lack of innovation seemed to finally point to the sunset of that once-great industry. 

As folks were saying their goodbyes to Taylor Stadium, also gone was the football program's physical proximity to Bethlehem Steel, at one time a place where steelworkers might be able to get some rare entertainment after a grueling, dangerous week at the furnace.  Bethlehem Steel had a special tailgating area for football games, the Centennial II parking lot, which was a VIP area for executives and the well-connected; when Taylor Stadium closed for the final time, so did the history of that exclusive tailgate area.

Homer Labs
Lehigh was moving forward, with the announcements of the construction of the $5 million Rauch Business Center and the sale of Bethlehem Steel's old Homer Labs to the University to become Mountaintop Campus.  And it felt figuratively and literally the passing of one way of life to another.

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 and it hung a shadow over the proceedings of that entire year.

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".

It also sparked a furious debate about campus security.  "Lehigh can spend $40 million for Bethlehem Steel's land (the land that would become Mountaintop Campus), but they are too cowardly to spend money on additional security?" Constance Clery, her mother was quoted as saying. 

With the perpetrator committing his crime before his 20th birthday, Lehigh, who had been a Top 10 party school in Playboy in the past, could no longer look the other way when it came to underage drinking any longer.

Starting in earnest the following year, thanks to the piece of legislation that would end up being called the Clery Act, 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 was much beloved by the current Lehigh students who could walk to the football games easily from fraternities and dorms.

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.

"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."

It 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.

Taylor Stadium
"I really don't like this place," he said afterwards.  "I hate walking up the three flights of stairs to the locker room. On the sideline, the line judge ran over me three times because there's just no room there. The fans are sitting on your back, in your head and everybody's screaming. They can hear everything you're saying; it's kind of like being naked.  As much respect as I have for Lehigh and the number of fantastic games we've played here, I'm glad to get out of here. Sure, I'd like to play Lehigh again somewhere down the road... but not here."

Lafayette folks I talked to 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.  What gave Lehigh players (and their fans) home-field advantage was great for the students and terrible for the opposition.

For that final game, 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."

It was so cold that some students took over the physics building to drink and stay warm.  Many chose Mad Dog 20/20 as the drink of choice, the ultra-cheap sweet wine that many used to keep warm.

"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.  Some people recalled that half the stands were empty at halftime.

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.

Comments

Anonymous said…
Believe or not some of the taylor stadium seat still in place as they did for that last game
Anonymous said…
?? Please come again with that comment.

Love Taylor Stadium nostalgia..so many great Saturdays in the 70s with my alumni dad. First game ever- I saw Jack Rizzo run wild (and set the single game record) against the Leopards with the young Kim McQuilken at QB. What a great way to start my Lehigh experience.
Hunga58 said…
I & my neighbor lived on the South Side. I couldn't get a buck from my parents in those days. That is what it cost to get in. But nothing could keep us from our Lehigh Football Pride. We would trek down to the south side parking area and fence and when the policeman would wander a bit, we would use all our speed and anxiously climb and leap that fence and sometimes with the officer's bellowing "HEY" in the background, we would be dashing into the stands and taking our place in forever the history of Lehigh Football Games at Taylor! We did get caught and made to exit on occasion but usually our will was stronger than that fence and warning and we would be undeterred from missing that game! From Maine, Connecticut, William & Mary, etc....we saw many many great contests. And those Lafayette games...wow! Fists, bottles, brawls, goal posts being dismantled...Never ever will we forget those great memories!
Douglas said…
One thing I also remember from those Taylor days is it wasn't just L-L that it was special. The convenience of the old place on game day meant a far greater attendance than Goodman on a regular basis during my years in the early-mid 70's... As Chuck pointed out, there was a far greater "town" support than they get these days.. But times are different.. those football loving Southsiders who worked at the plant are mostly gone.. Goodman is a much nicer stadium though 30 years later somewhat obsolete compared to what other schools ( esp that place in Easton ) have with better fields and video scoreboards... They've been lucky the last few years that weather hasn't chewed up the field like some seasons... Also with no lights, it limits the ability to have night or late afternoon games or be able to host a playoff game again..
Anonymous said…
I think Goodman's field condition right now is the best it's ever been. It has improved incredibly from even a few years ago, its been a lot of work and a long time coming. Grass used to be cut way too high, and the sod was way too soft. Its really nice now. ON THE OTHER HAND, and Chuck will have to address this in the offseason posts- the fan excitement, atmosphere and attendance numbers is ABYSMAL compared to 10-20 years ago, the glory days of Goodman's best atmosphere. Agree Douglas, its now outdated on several fronts including lights, and it the stands were built way, way too far away from the action. Its the polar opposite of what Tubby Raymond was crowing about old Taylor. I do remember what he was talking about- you could easily have an intimate personal conversation from the lower rows to the coaches, players and cheerleaders, etc..and I actually remember walking on the actual field level-on the grass/dirt- to get to my seat, or visit with friends on the other end of the stands, literally mingling with the bench.
Tom Marron said…
Good article Chuck, I enjoy all your stuff. I'll see my old teammate Gary Nelson on Saturday, and have to tease him about depriving me of my best hilite on our first TD.
PAUL REINHARD said…
I remember how I thought I, along with Shel Siegel and a couple of other media colleagues up there to have a pregame chat for a Channel 39 telecast, I was going to be blown right off the roof of the Taylor pressbox one day. I swore I could feel it shake as the wind blew, but that's where Shel wanted to be. Keith Groller and Ted Meixell were covering the teams for The Morning Call in 1987. I'm sure both have shivering memories of that day.

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