J. Matthew Wolfe C’78 sits alone on a Franklin Field bench, staring ahead at fellow Penn alumni of all ages playing a game for young men. Wolfe is dressed in a Penn football uniform, complete with pads and a leg brace. His helmet is resting beside him for the moment, revealing a little bit of gray hair clinging for life below a bald scalp. He looks tired but isn’t gasping for air.
[quote align=”right” color=”#999999″]Wolfe responds almost defiantly, as though a 57-year-old lawyer playing tackle football against 20-year-olds is the most normal thing in the world.[/quote]
Ralph Roesler, the coordinator of sprint football operations at Penn, catches a glimpse of Wolfe and smiles. Roesler is in charge of coaching the alumni team in Penn’s annual sprint football alumni game, which pits former players against current ones in the unique sport that only a few colleges besides Penn play at the varsity level. (It’s just like regular football, except players must maintain a weight of 172 pounds or less.)
“How you holdin’ up?” Roesler asks.
“Fine,” Wolfe responds almost defiantly, as though a 57-year-old lawyer playing tackle football against 20-year-olds is the most normal thing in the world.
Roesler turns his head back toward the field. “I’ve got to check on everyone’s oxygen level,” he says.
Moments later, Wolfe diligently straps on his helmet, jogs out onto the turf, and huddles up with his teammates before crouching on the left side of the offensive line. Some defensive players on the varsity team easily sidestep him—but he’s able to make a few good blocks too.
Sure, he might be slowing down, but Wolfe, who’s played in all 17 alumni games since the quirky tradition began, has no plans of hanging up the cleats any time soon.
“It’s the highlight athletically for me,” says Wolfe, who lives within walking distance of Franklin Field in West Philly. “What else am I going to do? Run a 5K?”
While the game certainly gives older alums a chance to relive their gridiron glory days, it’s also as an important fundraising event for a program that often gets overlooked.
“We’re in a major campaign to endow the sport and we’re approaching $2 million,” says longtime head coach Bill Wagner. For Wagner, the game also serves as a tune-up for his squad. In this year’s contest—which was held on September 7, just six days before Penn’s regular-season opener against Army—the alums were able to field a very competitive team that challenged the varsity. Led by three recent record-breaking players—quarterback Todd Busler C’12, running back Mike Bagnoli C’11, and wide receiver Whit Shaw C’13—they took a 12-7 lead late in the first half and looked poised to follow up their 2012 shutout victory with another win.
But despite the running clock (which, along with there being no kick returns, is the only departure from a normal game), the alums began to run out of gas in the second half, eventually losing by a score of 26-12.
Near the end of the contest, Chuck Hitschler C’73 was asked by a teammate how he was feeling, and responded as many of his teammates probably felt. “Just give me a new body,” he laughed, “and I’ll be fine.”
The oldest player on the field, Hitschler had woken up that morning thinking he might be nuts for putting on a football uniform for the first time in, by his rough calculation, 500 months. But as a recently hired assistant coach for Penn’s sprint football program, he also thought it was important to get out there on the field opposite the players he’d be teaching.
“It was a chance for them to get back even with their coach,” he said with a smile.
Before Hitschler got into coaching, he was an MVP on Wagner’s first team at Penn. Now in his 44th year leading the sprint football program, Wagner relished the chance to see Hitschler back in pads, along with many other players who return year after year.
The love for the program is evidenced by the distance some people traveled to get to the game. Mike Bagnoli (whose uncle, Al, coaches Penn’s regular football team—or “fat-boy football,” as some sprint players like to call it) came from Louisville. Shaw’s mother, Marla, flew in from Texas, just as she used to do for every one of Whit’s games while he was in college. Peter Harris C’67 commuted from upstate New York, though he didn’t suit up for the game, per his doctor’s orders.
For Harris, who played for Penn in 1964 and 1965 back when it was called lightweight football, the best part was simply walking along the sidelines and chatting with old friends.
Harris spent much of the afternoon talking with Rob Shnider W’85, who came from New Jersey. Shnider wasn’t able to play in this year’s matchup because he couldn’t get to Franklin Field for the start of the contest. But he still has a unique perspective on the game. Last year he suited up for the alumni team opposite a varsity squad that featured his son, Derek. At one point in that game, the elder Shnider took the ball on a handoff, saw his son attempting to tackle him and let out a guttural scream. Derek ended up getting the tackle but Rob made sure to tell him as they both rose from the pile, “Notice that I was on top of you.” Then, they hugged.
Family is an important part of the alumni game for many players. After breaking his leg in the contest five years ago, Steve Schickram C’00 decided he wanted to play football one more time in front of his 10-year-old son, Lucas.
“He was my motivation,” Schickram said while kneeling on the sidelines between defensive series, his son nearby. But it wasn’t easy for him. At 250 pounds, well above the ordinary sprint football cutoff (waived for the alumni team), he said he was more worried about his heart giving out than his leg. By the time the game ended, he barely made it off the field and had to lean on his son for support when he did.
“You hung in there,” a referee told him with admiration. “I’ve got to give you that.”
While Schickram was simply happy to get through the day in one piece, other members of the alumni team seemed to want to keep playing forever. Despite trailing by a pair of touchdowns in the final minute, the offensive players discussed strategy on the sideline and came to the conclusion that they should run the same hook-and-ladder play that figures into the end of the movie Varsity Blues. That didn’t quite work out, but the last play was still the most exciting one of the game, as Shaw caught a pass between a couple of defenders and broke a bunch of tackles before being dragged down short of the goal line with no time left on the clock.
“We’re not looking to place or show,” Wolfe said. “These guys are pretty serious players. I know I am.”
Even if both teams really wanted to win, the camaraderie of the opposing players was on full display afterwards when everyone united for a barbeque with their families. And the previous night, the alums held a career mentoring session for the current students. It’s all part of the fabric of Penn sprint football, where players of all ages enjoy coming together to support the program—with their wallets and, of course, with their passion for a game they never want to stop playing.
—Dave Zeitlin C’03