With the 2017-18 Ivy hoops season coming upon us, I wish to share with you my one encounter with the Ivy League football championship trophy.
In 1982 I was doing post-graduate work on campus in a subject that will remain classified. (However, I will tell you that it was replete with the “three Ms”—math, molecules and, therefore, misery.) It was also the year that Penn football vaulted from doormat status to Ivy League champion. Up until this time, the football team was so incredibly bad. I once watched an opening kickoff squib a mere seven yards.
Over the years, I had seen many other displays of athletic haplessness in a nearly empty Franklin Field, but on a chilly afternoon in November 1982, coach Jerry Berndt’s team defeated the Crimson on a field goal by kicker Dave Shulman. Although Shulman had actually missed on his first attempt that would have won the game in regulation, he miraculously was given a reprieve on a defensive holding penalty. And with no time remaining on the clock, his golden kick finally delivered Penn’s league first title since 1959.
After the game ended, the students stormed the field, uprooted the goalposts (which I am told weigh 1,500 pounds), carried them to the Schuylkill River and tossed them in. (I imagine they must still be there buried deep in the river’s muck some 35 years later.) Overall, it was an extraordinarily joyous afternoon in West Philly. To this day, that game remains the most exciting and meaningful sporting event I have ever seen, college or pro, and one that I will surely never forget.
Soon afterward though, the elation for the football team that swept the campus during weeks leading up to the Harvard contest eventually faded. Winter was coming and the student body‘s athletic interest shifted swiftly from the gridiron to the hardwood and the reigning Ivy League champion Quakers men’s basketball team.
Although I had always heard much about the famous Ivy League football trophy, I had never actually seen it. In fact, I had never even seen a picture of it. (In the pre-digital age, rumor, speculation, hearsay and conjecture were indeed a significant part of life.) Then one afternoon in March, I read in the Daily Pennsylvanian that Dartmouth, which was to begin its four-month possession of the prize in February (each of the three co-champions got to keep the trophy for four months), had thus far failed to make the trip south to come pick it up. So like the giddy, neophyte titleholders that we were … we decided to keep it. The article went on to say that the trophy was currently on display in Weightman Hall, the athletic administration building located at the base of Franklin Field.
This was perfect. Since my lab was right near Weightman Hall, I decided to meet the fabled trophy, mano a mano. You know, to finally see what all the fuss was about.
As I strolled down Locust Walk, I realized that although I had walked passed it thousands of times, I had never actually been inside Weightman Hall. Where then might I find the fabled trophy in such a large building? I also wondered if I’d actually be able to get a decent look at it as I was certain the newspaper article would bring scores of curious sightseers like me. After all, more than 35,000 rabid fans came to Franklin Field that fall to watch the game that would eventually deliver this shiny piece of hardware to its (rightful) home in Philadelphia.
Upon arrival at the athletic complex, I shunned the main entrance and for some reason picked a random door (virtually no locked doors on campus in those days) toward the left side of the building and opened it.
Well, my search was over.
There sitting before me on a rather low, nondescript table in the middle of a tiny, almost barren, even more nondescript ante-room, sat the vaunted Ivy League football trophy. That’s right, no mantle, no spotlights, no bulletproof case (no case at all), no armed guards and perhaps most surprisingly, no one else there except me. In fact, it was such a forgettable room, it almost looked like this much sought-after piece of metal had been placed there by mistake.
At first I just stared at it, surprised that if I wanted to, I could just reach out and touch it. (In truth, I could have easily just picked it up and walked out with it.) So as I gazed at its ornate fascade and ran my fingers gently over the colorful crests of the eight schools, I began to wonder, why all the indifference? After all, this trophy represented much more than just a few ball games in the September, October and November between a bunch of fancy schools. It represented years of physical and financial sacrifice by thousands of players and parents and countless hours of arduous training starting at an exceedingly young age by hundreds of student-athletes. It also stood for millions of dollars in donations, training equipment, travel, coaching staff salaries and financial aid, not to mention the eventual pride and prestige it bestowed upon the fortunate universities that were lucky enough to finally possess it. (Just ask Columbia right now if it’s worth having.)
So if all of this were true, then why hadn’t the university given this long sought after award of prodigious athletic achievement a more august place in which to be displayed? Why was it left so unprotected in an empty room with an unlocked door and why were there no other spectators in the room looking at it along with me? (Don’t answer that, please.) And perhaps most curiously, if it really was so important, why hadn’t Dartmouth bothered to take back to Hanover what was indeed rightfully now theirs?
I sat on the floor in a corner of the room (there were no chairs), just looking at my reflection in the polished silver. It was just me and the famous trophy alone together in magnificent solitude. After about 20 minutes of enuui, I too became a bit indifferent and finally departed for the lab.
For years since that day, I hadn’t given our meeting much thought, except of course, during football season. It was during this time that I would once again question the apparent apathy that paradoxically surrounded my visit to Weightman Hall in early 1983. Then about two years ago, I was listening to the current Penn football coach Ray Priore talk to his team about “the process” and “the journey” they were taking together as a team and that’s when it hit me. Winning the Ivy League trophy and getting a ring is merely the goal for the team. It is the journey that we all take together to achieve that goal that the players, coaches and fans will remember forever. Even if the trophy never existed, as a fan, I will never forget the miraculous journey of that 1982 football team.
So as the 2017-18 season begins for the Penn basketball team, I hope Steve Donahue and the Quakers defy expectation, both their own and that of know-nothing pundits, and make this year’s journey unforgettable for all of us. Who knows, they might even enjoy showing off the trophy this time.
Stay Red & Blue my friends,