OUT OF LEFT FIELD
A Green and Leafy
This is the pastoral Wesleyan University campus in Middletown, Conn., where
Stan spent a memorable day in 1969.
Drama and excitement
in a small-scale showdown
By STAN ISAACS
In the midst of a college football season when commercialism perverts college football, when the polls grading the powerhouse, semi-pro football teams dominate the sports dialogues, I find myself thinking back to one of the most satisfying football scenes I ever experienced. This was the memorable battle between Wesleyan and Williams on. Nov. 9, 1969.
I went up to Wesleyan in Middletown, Conn. to experience and write a column about a green and leafy football scene involving two outstanding small schools, traditional rivals. I got a bit more than I bargained for.
Wesleyan, founded in 1831, is a privately-endowed school of some 3,000 students. It is one of the small prestige New England colleges, among the most innovative of American liberal arts colleges. Its significance athletically is that it is one of the Little Three along with Amherst and Williams. The rivalry among these schools goes back to the 1880s; the richness of this tradition matches the Big Three of Harvard, Yale and Princeton.
In 1969 Wesleyan beat Amherst and strung together six victories. It went into the Williams game with a chance for its first undefeated season since the three glory years of 1946-47-48. More important, a victory over Williams would insure the Little Three championship.
Wesleyans picturesque campus is located in central Connecticut between Hartford and New Haven. The football field was laid out between temporary stands (seating about 4,500) on a greensward in the middle of the campus in a bower of huge oaks and elms ringed by century-old red brick buildings. Looming behind them was the architecture of new buildings. Behind one end zone, non-paying tweedy and jean-wearing spectators spread out on blankets on a grassy terrace amidst some frolicking dogs of various sizes, pedigreed and non-pedigreed.
Wesleyan had long been the most liberal of the Little Three. On the Wesleyan team of that tumultuous time, coach Don Russell told me, there were extremes of beatnik pseudo hippies and full-fledged athletes, the jocks. The previous year star end Stu Blackburn took part in a Vietnam War protest and a sit-down in the presidents office. At the same time his pal, Steve Pfeiffer, the quarterback, was collecting signatures for a petition urging that the protestors be removed from the presidents office.
The coach said, Despite this they remained friends and they left here as friends. Blackburn became a coach at a private school in Maine, Pfeiffer a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. I think there is a willingness here on all sides to respect the other fellows views. We have differences but some of our personality clashes on the team are as likely to be between two jocks as between two hippies.
At half time the Williams band straggled onto the field, all wearing outlandish hats, to serenade the crowd. Wesleyans musical aggregation featured a swing band with an old upright piano in the front row of the stands. The Wesleyan cheerleaders, all long-haired males, shouted the usual cheers, plus the chant, Chastize them!, chastize them! Make them relinquish the ball.
The teams played one of the most exciting games in Little Three history. Williams, powered by Jack Maitland, a sensational, deceptive runner who would have a brief spin in the National Football League, took a 14-0 lead in the second period. Wesleyan had a quarterback named Pete Panciera, skinny, round-shouldered, who had the slouchy movements of Joe Namath. He couldnt run, he set up badly, and he often threw badly. But he threw line drives and the Wesleyan ends made some remarkable catches. Wesleyan cut the lead to 14-6 at the half.
At one point in a topsy-turvy second half, Williams intercepted a pass. Wesleyan intercepted a pass a few moments later. And on the very next play Williams intercepted back. Wesleyan went 80 yards and trailed, 14-12 early in the fourth period. Williams surged back. It kicked a field goal and led, 17-13.
Panciera then moved Wesleyan 80 yards to a touchdown and a one-point lead. . It came down to a tingling, final play. Williams attempted a 30-yard field goal. It was blocked. Wesleyan won, 18-17.
I couldnt ask for anything more, but there was a subtext to it all that provided a bit more than green and leafy football. An ominous backdrop to the game was a campus dispute not untypical of the 1960s. There had been an incident in which some black students beat up a white student because he had written what they regarded as an anti-black tirade in the school newspaper. The blacks were expelled by the dean. This produced protests by militants who objected that the black students had not been tried properly by a student disciplinary board.
The protestors hinted they might disrupt every campus event, including the football game, unless the black students were reinstated. Sides were taken; the captain of the football team was among those heading a drive supporting the dean. And there was a bomb threat late in the game that emptied the press box.
At half time a representative of the black students addressed the crowd. His appeal was listened to respectfully by most of the students. Others and some of the tweedy alumni tried to shout him down. The official in charge of the microphone said, When Nixon and Humphrey were here last year, the kids were branded punks and rabble because they hissed and didnt give those men a hearing. Well, now this man has something to say and you should pay him the courtesy of listening.
The bomb threat was empty. Nothing happened. Green and leafy football prevailed.
It all added up to Wesleyan 18, Williams 17. My lingering memory is of the triumphant Wesleyan kids celebrating. The players paraded the coach off the field. The swing band played. The students--long haired and short--ran from the stands to hug the players.
And the dogs scampered.
©2012 by Stan Isaacs. The Stan Isaacs caricature is ©2001 by Jim Hummel. This column first posted Sept. 24, 2012.
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