Why This Princeton Football Team Won’t Be Suiting Up Next Season

Princeton’s sprint football program hasn’t won in 18 years. (Or is it 19?) Is the school taking a stand against concussions … or hiding from a hideous losing streak?

Princeton vs. Chestnut Hill College. Photo | Chestnut Hill College

Two Princeton sprint football players tackle a member of the Chestnut Hill College team. Photo | Chestnut Hill College

Back in 2010, Stephen Bednar, a former Princeton sprint football player (class of 1960), ignited a firestorm by penning a letter to the editor of the Princeton Alumni Weekly after Penn’s sprint team beat the Tigers by a score of 91 to 13. “Ninety-one is a basketball score,” Bednar noted. “Because of its dismal performance over the years, it appears that Princeton cannot compete effectively in the sprint-football league against the likes of Army, Navy, etc.” He went on to suggest that the sprint program be discontinued — a mercy killing, if you will.

Among those who sprang to defend the sport was Joe Salerno, also a former player (class of ’84), who countered with a stirring paean to the program: “Sprint is for those who were told their whole lives that they were too small to play football but still strapped on the pads for the love of the game. … Instead of glory, sprint footballers get a few moments of on-field exhilaration and lessons about discipline, dedication, and teamwork that last a lifetime. … ” Last week, Princeton finally, belatedly acquiesced to the now-deceased Bednar’s proposal and announced the end of its sprint football team.

Joe Salerno is still worked up about that. He’s worked up even though in all the years since Bednar wrote his letter, Princeton’s sprint football team hasn’t won a game. It hasn’t won a game, in fact, since long before that, in an amazing losing streak that dates back to 1999. (Or thereabouts; nobody’s really sure.) A 2005 article in the Daily Princetonian cited 35 straight losses over the prior five years — “A men’s Division 1 record — for any sport — of dubious distinction.” Sports Illustrated and SB Nation have written about the streak. The annual joke edition of the Daily Princetonian regularly skewers the team.

But where some see relentless humiliation, Joe Salerno sees only the promise of vindication. “I look at this as the biggest opportunity in the world!” he says, just about hyperventilating in his outrage. “No one’s ever lost that much! I can’t believe this is the university’s decision!” 

Chances are you don’t know much about sprint football (no, not spring football; that’s another animal altogether). Eighty-some years ago, it was invented by (naturally) Harvard and Yale, which pitted squads against each other as cheap entertainment before their annual varsity football game. But it was the then-president of Penn, Thomas Sovereign Gates, who popularized the sport in the 1930s, dubbing it “Football for All.” Sprint football teams field the same 11 players as what its devotees call the “heavyweights.” The rules and positions are exactly the same. The only difference is that no one on the gridiron — not the receivers, not the quarterbacks, not even the linemen — can weigh more than 172 pounds. (“It was 158 pounds in my day,” Salerno notes, “but, you know, obesity.”) The rule is inviolable: You don’t make weight, you don’t play. A few years back, Princeton captain Max Skelly shaved his head and beard after he weighed in at 172.2 pounds. He made the cut.

Sprint football isn’t a Division 1 sport, or an Ivy League sport, or even an NCAA sport. It has its own Collegiate Sprint Football League, made up last fall of nine teams: Penn, Princeton, Cornell, Army, Navy, Franklin Pierce, Mansfield, Post, and newcomer Chestnut Hill College, competing in its inaugural season. This fall, it will only have eight. Princeton was one of the founding members of the league and had competed at sprint football for 82 years.

“Sprint football has a long tradition at Princeton, and alumni who have participated in the sport speak eloquently about the important contributions it made to their undergraduate experience,” Princeton president Christopher L. Eisgruber acknowledged in announcing the demise of the program. “But in recent years, serious questions have been raised about the safety of the sport as currently constituted at Princeton, the inability of Princeton teams to compete successfully, and changes that have taken place in the league in which it plays.”

To which Joe Salerno, a loyal longtime member of the board of the Friends of Princeton Sprint Football, says phut. “‘As currently constituted at Princeton,’” he quotes, sounding bitter. “You know what that means? We have too few players with too little experience. The total number of injuries is less than for the heavyweight team. It’s just that the injury rate is distributed over a smaller total — 43 kids, not 108 kids.” And the reason Princeton’s sprint roster is 20 kids under the league-allowed 65 men? “The root of all the problems is that there are no recruited athletes for our sport at Princeton,” Salerno says. “You can’t run a college varsity sport without recruited athletes.” Every other varsity team at Princeton, he notes, relies on athletes who are recruited and given admissions preference. Back when he played, there were spots allotted to the sprint team. Now, there aren’t. “I’d love to know why this sport got singled out,” he says.

Photo | Chestnut Hill College

Photo | Chestnut Hill College

You may never have seen a sprint football game, but a list of Famous Men Who Played in College will astound you: President Jimmy Carter (for Navy)! New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft! Donald Rumsfeld! (He was a captain at Princeton!) Rappers Hoodie Allen (at Penn) and Eli Northrup (Cornell)! Legendary NFL coach George Allen helped coach Michigan’s sprint team. College Football Hall of Famers Jack Cloud (Navy) and Eric Tipton (Army) coached sprint teams as well. What we’re talking here is a niche sport with the usual cadre of rabid niche-sport fans. Since nobody much goes to see sprint games, those fans are almost all players or former players, making them even more rabid than, say, fans of NCAA water polo or squash. There are only nine (make that eight) teams in the world, for gosh sake.

Consider the case of Bennett Graham (class of ’07), the current president of the Friends of Princeton Sprint Football. “I came from a high school in Tennessee, near Nashville,” he tells me. “I wasn’t a superstar in high school, but football was very big. I had to shift from a winning culture to lots of losing. You never like losing, but it helped me learn a lot. You learn to play for the guys next to you.” The lessons Princeton’s sprint football players take from the game appear to be exactly the values we wish our sports-sodden culture would emphasize over the almighty dollar: teamwork, loyalty, it’s-not-whether-you-win-or-lose. Unless you’re Princeton, in which case you throw up your hands and say, “Enough!”

Or, yeah, the injury thing. A Daily Princetonian editorial throwing shade at the University’s shaky reasons for killing the team noted that the sprint coach, Sean Morey, who has both Pro Bowl and Super Bowl rings from his time in the NFL, co-chaired the NFL Players Association’s Concussion and Traumatic Brain Injury Committee and is well known as an activist for player safety. “He’s a victim of the sport,” Salerno notes. “He’s got concussion syndrome. No one is more dedicated to protecting the players.” The editorial and Salerno both point out that the University hasn’t made public any statistics on relative injury rates among varsity athletes at the school. Sprint supporters also note that the program is self-funded through alumni contributions and fund-raising. The Friends have consistently placed at the top of their brackets in Princeton’s fiercely competitive fund-raising drives, giving more to their alma mater than the friends of the soccer, basketball, baseball and softball and ice-hockey teams, among others. Such largesse may be a thing of the past now. “This was the most significant tie I had to the university,” Salerno says. “Princeton has turned its back on that. I’m furious. Bennett,” he appeals to Graham, his colleague on the board, “are you going to donate anymore?”

But if it’s not money and it may not be the injuries, why cut the program? All that’s left is that losing streak. Graham tells a story about playing Navy at Annapolis in his junior year. “It was 69-0 at halftime,” he recalls. “We went into the locker room. The coach at the time was feeling cynical. He said, ‘We’re just gonna run the ball.’ Our quarterback was getting killed.” The team captain, Graham says, ushered the players into the showers, so the coaches couldn’t hear him: “He said, ‘Screw that. We’ll call the plays ourselves.’” The final score? Ninety-eight to zero. But you should hear the pride in Graham’s voice as he describes the delirium on the Princeton sidelines when the team notched a first down. “The losses teach you more in life,” he says. “Guys who go to Princeton aren’t used to losing at anything. They’ve always won everything.”

“The tragedy,” Salerno says grimly, “is being told that after 18 years of futility, you’re not even allowed to try to win.”

The celebration, when (if?) it came, would have been epic. Last season, Princeton got damned close to shaking its jinx, against Chestnut Hill College. The irony is that Chestnut Hill just added sprint football to its slate of sports, bringing in veteran heavyweight and sprint coach Mike Pearson from Mansfield University (which added its sprint team in 2008). Pearson tells a downright Rudy-esque story of the pep rally Chestnut Hill held to announce his hiring, which saw kids climbing down from the bleachers to ask for the chance to play. “We didn’t run into a lot of injuries our first year,” he says. “I’d like to see some long-term data on the risks of the sport. Everything I’ve heard is anecdotal.” Common sense, he adds, would indicate that sprint is safer than heavyweight: “I’d rather get hit by 172 pounds than 350 pounds. Less mass.”

Chestnut Hill College, he says, started its sprint program because the school is “growing like crazy, and they’re looking for opportunities for more students.” There aren’t any scholarships, but the admissions office lets him know when kids express interest in the game, so he can talk to them. Further irony: Pearson models his practices on Ivy League football, especially Dartmouth’s heavyweight team, which has seen great success even after coach Buddy Teevens eliminated tackling at practice, and Princeton’s heavyweight team under Bob Surace, who spent nine years coaching for the Cincinnati Bengals. “The pros have been practicing like this for a long time,” Pearson notes. “They don’t tackle in practice. The game is too demanding. It takes too long to recover.”

Princeton was tied with Chestnut Hill, 36-36, in the final minutes of last season’s final game — what could turn out to be Princeton sprint football’s final game ever. Princeton quarterback Chad Cowden (six-one, 172 pounds) led a 47-yard drive to the Griffins’ eight yard line before a Chestnut Hill freshman, Brian Layden (five-nine, 172 pounds), forced a fumble that was scooped up by sophomore defensive end Josean Perez (six-two, 172 pounds), who ran it back 85 yards for a touchdown. With a two-point conversion, the final score was 44-36 in favor of Chestnut Hill.

“It was a really good football game,” says Coach Pearson. “It was a really exciting night for both teams. I know those Princeton kids from when I was at Mansfield. Those kids are very proud of their football. Those kids are winners. They play for the love of the game and their university.”

Make that played. The CSFL will be back up to nine teams in 2017, when Caldwell University joins its ranks. Pearson says he fields calls regularly from other colleges inquiring about sprint football: “There’s a lot of interest. People are intrigued by it.”

Joe Salerno isn’t giving up. “Never say die!” he actually says. (In case you think sprint football’s supporters are all guys who peaked in college, not exactly. Salerno is a muckety-muck at a financial services software firm; Graham is a VP for a national health-care company. “We have alumni who work for NASA, for Twitter, who are starting their own hedge funds,” Salerno explains. “The guys who play are little nerdy guys in high school. They’re incredibly accomplished today.”)

There is a precedent of sorts for a reversal of Princeton’s decision. Back in 1993, in the wake of Title IX, the university announced the demise of its varsity wrestling team. Alumni erupted in outrage, the Friends of Princeton Wrestling raised $3 million to endow the program, its recruitment slots were restored, and the sport was reinstated. “Now it’s thriving,” Salerno notes hopefully; it even has a newly minted All-American in Brett Harner. Hey, stranger things have happened. Like dozens of young men willingly turning out day after day after day to play for a program that hasn’t won in 18 — or is it 19? — years.

Remember Max Skelly, the captain who shaved his head and beard to make weight? He told a reporter last year: “You know how awesome it’s gonna be when we win? That’s why I come out here every day.”

Follow @SandyHingston on Twitter.