Posts Tagged ‘football’

You learn some interesting things writing a blog like this.

Things like this: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute — a classic engineering school, and mostly not thought of as an athletic powerhouse — has been fielding football teams (not quite continuously) since 1886.

This week we hearken back, through my grandpa’s hand, and revisit a rare and noteworthy highlight from a particularly difficult stretch for the school’s football program.


October 23, 1965. Future Mets pitcher Al Leiter is born in Toms River, N.J.

A Homecoming win is always a nice thing, if you’re into high school or college football.

(My high school was more likely to be a patsy than a victor in Homecoming games; we were the sort of school other teams wanted to play on their Homecomings. The one time in high school that we won our Homecoming game, the other school went out of business at the end of the year.)

Anyway, RPI’s victory over Middlebury College on Oct. 23, 1965, must have sent the Homecoming crowd in Troy home happy.

But, looking at the records, this one meant a lot more than your average win: Going into the game, the Engineers hadn’t won a football game in more than six years. Most of them hadn’t been tremendously close, either.

Following a 21-0 win over Union on Oct. 17, 1959, the RPI gridders lost their last four games of 1959 (scoring a combined two points); all eight games in 1960; all seven apiece in ’61 and ’62; all six in ’63; six in ’64; and four more to start the 1965 season.

(In football-speak, they did manage to kiss their sister at one point, earning a single 20-20 tie against Nichols on Oct. 10, 1964.)

The nadir of this stretch had to have been an 82-6 pasting by Vermont — at home in Troy — on Sept. 29, 1962. For comparison’s sake, the RPI squad only managed to put 76 points on the board in the 1961, 1962 and 1963 seasons combined.

So after the final whistle sounded on Oct. 23, 1965, there must have been some serious celebrations in the dorms, frat houses and beer cellars of Troy.

The student paper, The Polytechnic, got in on the act a few days later with an above-the-fold tease and five pages of coverage:


The Engineers wouldn’t win another game in 1965, but would post records of 5-4 and 4-4 in 1966 and 1967 — positively Lombardian by RPI standards.

(Rejiggering the schedule had something to do with it. Haverford College, a team that hadn’t been on RPI’s schedule during the down years, conveniently showed up in time to get walloped 57-0 in 1966 and 61-14 in 1967. A lot of events in 1966-67 made people think the world was turning upside down; RPI football winning a game 57-0 must have been one of them.)

The one remaining question, for Hope Street purposes, is whether my grandpa or my dad actually happened to be there for the big day.

The answer appears to be no. My dad only attended a few RPI football games over the years, and those because membership in school organizations required him to. He was not in the house for RPI’s only win of his five-year tenure:

I did not see the game, but I know it was a great excuse to party that night, although no excuses ever seemed necessary.

My grandpa’s calendar doesn’t record any trip to and from Troy that weekend. And if my dad wasn’t at the game, my grandpa surely wouldn’t have gone either.

So the calendar entry for Oct. 23, 1965, is simply a reflection of my grandpa’s amazement at a noteworthy and long-awaited event.

Would wonders never cease?


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After leaving 1107 Hope Street and Stamford, Connecticut, behind, my grandfather lived the final 15 years of his life in Rochester, New York, where I grew up.

And the cutest thing happened: This placid, skinny 80-year-old man became a football fan.

Those years — we’re mainly talking late ’80s through late ’90s — were halcyon times for the Buffalo Bills, who by some combination of intelligence and magic molded themselves into one of the league’s toughest teams.

(What’s that you say? Do I know what “BILLS” stands for? Yeah, I’ve heard that one. Go play in traffic.)

I’m still not entirely sure what turned my grandpa into a Bills fan. Maybe he saw it as a way to find common ground and start conversations with the shivering, Genny Cream-fueled masses of Monroe County. It’s not easy to uproot yourself at an advanced age, after all, and anything that makes a new hometown more homey is welcome.

I do know that, when Doug Flutie came to Buffalo, my grandpa was particularly charmed by his story. He delighted in talking about what the little guy had done the previous Sunday, especially when Flutie had engineered one of his fourth-quarter comebacks. (Thankfully, my grandfather did not live to see the J.P. Losman years, which were enough to make the living envy the dead.)

At any rate, it was kind of endearing to go over to my grandparents’ house and hear my grandfather enthusiastically hold forth on the Bills’  latest effort.

I was never much of a Bills fan as a teenager. But I’ve become one since I left WNY, and I think my grandfather’s interest contributed a little to that. It’s almost like I feel a desire to stay updated on the team for him, since he’s not around to do it himself.

None of the above rambling explains this week’s calendar entry:

August 22, 1971

I have no indication that my grandpa was a football fan before he moved to western New York in the mid-’80s. So I have no idea why a football score from 1971 — from a pre-season game, no less — would be considered worthy of noting on his calendar. I am 99.44 percent sure (like, Ivory Soap sure) he would not have attended in person.

I can think of a couple reasons why this game might have been important to my grandfather, but they’re all supposition:

* New Haven was a city my grandparents sometimes went to for big occasions like birthday or anniversary dinners. So maybe an NFL game there was redolent enough of the Big Time for my grandpa to put it on his calendar.

That being said, the Giants played regular-season games — games that actually counted — in the Yale Bowl in 1973 and ’74, after they got kicked out of Yankee Stadium and before Giants Stadium was ready. None of the results of those games made it onto my grandfather’s calendar; nor did he suddenly develop a fandom for Big Blue when they moved to New Haven. So maybe his interest was based entirely on the novelty of the first game.

* My Aunt Elaine was apparently in New Haven that day on undisclosed business. If she attended the game, perhaps that would have piqued my grandfather’s interest in it. I don’t think she had any more interest in football than my grandpa did, though. So I’m guessing she wasn’t at the game.

* This game appears to have been the first head-to-head matchup between the two teams that have fought since 1960 for the allegiance of the Tri-State Area. (The Interwebs tell me that the first regular-season Jets-Giants game occurred in New Haven in 1974, with the Jets winning.) So maybe my grandfather was seduced by first-time-ever hype to take notice of the game.

One major figure was missing from the Aug. 22 game. Flamboyant Jets quarterback Joe Namath suffered a serious knee injury a few weeks earlier in the team’s first preseason game, against Detroit, and missed most of the rest of the 1971-72 season.

Of course, stars rarely see much playing time in preseason games. Still, the absence of Namath meant one less thing to draw a casual fan like my grandpa into the Giants-Jets game.

About 15 years of my grandpa’s calendars (1961 to 1975) are still in the family collection. And, based on my month-by-month review, only two football scores ever made the grade for inclusion on his calendars.

The Aug. 22, 1971, preseason game is one. This legendary game is the other:

Jan. 12, 1969: Super Bowl III.

This, of course, was Super Bowl III, the famous game in which brash young Namath promised a victory for the underdog Jets against the entrenched Baltimore Colts.

Joe Willie didn’t exactly light up the skies — his team managed only one touchdown and three field goals — but the Jets’ fierce defense ensured a 16-7 win. (No one remembers Randy Beverly, but he did as much as Namath did to win that game.)

I would have guessed that my grandfather would feel a much stronger kinship with the Colts’ Johnny Unitas — a crew-cut, high-topped organization man — than with the shaggy-haired playboy Namath. Again, I’m guessing that the pre-game hype drew him in, and the game itself delivered enough drama and tension to keep even a non-fan interested.

Incidentally, if you ever want a time trip to the Sixties, run a Google search for “Les Shaw’s New Haven.” A number of postcards still circulate showing the building’s exterior and main dining room. They pop up on eBay from time to time, and offer a great view of what a long-running locally owned fancy-night restaurant looked like back then.

If science perfects a time machine in my lifetime, I will go back to January 1969 and secretly reserve the table next to my grandparents and aunt at Les Shaw’s. I will order a big American steak, with a baked potato on the side, and a few Old Overholts to wash it down with. And I will smoke unfiltered cigarettes the entire time I’m eating.

And when I’m done, I will leave a generous tip worthy of Sinatra himself, and then travel directly back to 2011, without passing Go or collecting $200.

I lived through the J.P. Losman years once; only a fool would do that twice.

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Another special edition of 5,478 Days.

When my grandfather stopped by the Stamford High-Norwalk High football game in October or November 1958, his main purpose was to take pictures of my father, then a skinny sophomore playing in the Stamford High marching band.

But when he saw one of pro football’s greatest defensive ends milling among the crowd, my grandpa couldn’t resist asking to take his picture.

And, just like any self-respecting local hero would do, Andy Robustelli obliged.

Andy Robustelli, autumn 1958

At the time my grandfather snapped this picture, the unprepossessing fellow in the gray cloth coat was at or near the peak of a remarkable, late-blooming football career.

Robustelli, a Stamford native, turned 16 the day before Pearl Harbor and enlisted in the U.S. Navy two years later. After his tour of duty, he came back to Connecticut and went to college in Bridgeport. He got drafted by an NFL team, but not by much — 19th round to the Rams, in 1951 — and was 25 by the time he went to his first pro training camp.

He defied the experts by not only staying with the Rams, but starring with them. And when he moved to the semi-hometown New York football Giants in 1956, he cemented his legend as a dangerous, durable pass rusher who used speed and intelligence to make up for what he lacked in pure size and strength. (The Football Hall of Fame lists Robustelli at 6’1″, 230.)

Only two months or so after this photo was taken, Robustelli would take part in the 1958 NFL championship game against the Baltimore Colts — a game celebrated in NFL legend as “the greatest game ever played.” Robustelli’s Giants lost in overtime to the Colts, but the game played a key role in popularizing the NFL and televised pro football to audiences nationwide.

Robustelli retired after the 1964 season, and was elected to the Football Hall of Fame seven years later.

In the only blot on his professional resume, he served as the Giants’ general manager during their fallow years of the Seventies, proving that he was less adept at drafting and managing talent than he was at being it. (This is a common shortcoming among star athletes in all professional sports, and is scarcely unique to Robustelli.)

Back home in Stamford, where Robustelli became a successful businessman, the poor fortunes of the mid-Seventies Giants put scarcely a dent in his reputation.

By all accounts, he embodied the old-school example of the local boy made good — humble, grounded, steady and clean-living. People spoke well of him, and meant it.

Decades after my grandfather took this picture, Robustelli was still attending Stamford High sporting events to cheer on his grandchildren, mixing unpretentiously with the crowd as he did in 1958.

He was not the sort to seek out a neighbor with a camera, but not the sort to shrug them off if they asked for a picture or two, either.  My other grandpa, a lifelong Giants fan, also lived in Stamford, and I’m fairly sure that among his effects is a picture of him with Andy Robustelli at one or another civic event. On the football field, Robustelli was an immortal; off the field, he was a quiet, distinguished, but accessible part of his community.

Andy Robustelli died Tuesday, May 31, in the city he called home all his life. He was 85.

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