Looking over the college lineups this year and at all those bright young faces, I felt then that something would be missing for me, and I can only record it sadly. College football has never been the same since they exiled the tramp athlete.
Before my alma mater Lehigh went mad with self-righteousness, we used to have some fine Homeric creatures on campus, men who looked like Paul Bunyan or Mike Fink and had as little formal education as a goat. They were loud, jolly individuals who dutifully attended classes and made life a joy for jaded instructors, since they made no pretense of understanding inverted cosines and answered all the classroom queries with a gargantuan laugh that shook the rafters. They always had trouble at roll call, for they had played under so many different names that they often forgot their present one. If they answered to Arbuthnet when their Lehigh name was Dingle, they would say apologetically:
"That must be the one I went by at Southwest College of Chiropracty."
Nothing was more heartwarming in the head cheerleader exhorting the student body to give one short flicker for the left tackle, who happened to be his father. Somewhere in the background must have been a mother, but she probably stayed home, cashed the monthly check and kept an eye out for institutions that would need papa when he had graduated from Lehigh.
On one occasion we brought in a trainload of Swedes from Minnesota, some of them with Western Conference records. This proved to be one of our worst investments, for the Swedes discovered the Pennsylvania Dutch society of Allentown and were so tired out from dancing at Mealey's with the silk-mill girls that they were useless on the gridiron. All it did was give us a wrong impression of Midwest football, with the result that I still lose money on the Rose Bowl and will probably die convinced that any victory for Michigan or Illinois or Minnesota is a fluke.
In the strictest sense this contingent was not a group of tramps, for they were fired after one season and with the proceeds went into business. One of them, a big handsome end, is today a distinguished investment broker in Wall Street and, if truthful, will be compelled to state that he got his first notions of finance from his football experience. This gentleman had been an All-Conference choice at Minnesota, with a great reputation for grabbing forward passes. His dreams of Eastern glory, if any, ended on that day when we played Muhlenberg and he was hit by a tackle named Blenheim, who was in his early 40s and had started years ago in the hard-coal region around Scranton under his original name of Wczthzyski. Blenheim split our Swede left him for dead.
The Swede had sense enough to retire with honor, and we had the fun of following Blenheim's career. He had still been Wczthzyski when he enrolled as a youngster at Bucknell, had been Oscar P. Cameron at the Rolla School of Mines in Missouri, had been Seymour Kiesel at Ouachita Baptist College, Arkadelphia, Ark. His last station was at Sul Ross Teachers College, Texas.
The great treat of our day at Lehigh was to go out to early fall football practice and find what Santa Claus had brought us for the new season. Since we had no professional scouts, the tramps must have been operating their traditional grapevine system, perhaps making a cross on the gates of Taylor Field to indicate that this was a friendly household. But it could be very confusing. We would fall in love with a big guard and find him gone next day. Before our distress became acute, another strange mastodon would appear. Sometimes there would be a complete turnover in the first few weeks of practice, but we always opened the season with a full roster.
Oldtimers still talk with reverence of the day when a halfback appeared, was fitted into a suit and proceeded to make a monkey of the Lehigh varsity. Training had already progressed to the point of scrimmage and our hero, inserted at left half on the scrubs, took the ball on the first play and ran 80 yards for a touchdown. Since this was obviously an accident, the teams lined up again. Our man, given the ball once more, weaved through our gritted-toothed huskies like a wraith and was next seen sitting on the ball behind the far goalposts. When he repeated the performance on the third and fourth attempts, the coach led him gently to the athletic offices, where the treasurer was reposing lightly on a bag of bullion. The financial details were settled with a minimum of discussion, and then the coach said:
"Now, you go up to the registrar's office and sign in."
"Registrar?" said our hero.
"Get your books, and all that," explained the coach.
"Books?" said our man, and turned sadly and walked out through the twilight and forever out of Lehigh's life.
At first there was some slight pretense that the tramps were working their way through college, but this was given up when they instituted the practice of clearing the tables in the dining hall by sailing the plates from the far reaches of a room into a basket held by a confrere at the entrance to the kitchen. A compromise was made by installing them in a row of boarding houses at the edge of the playing field, which kept them from the sight of the fraternity houses and also from inquiring reporters. It was whispered about with disapproval that they spent far too much time in Bob's bar, but since they always showed up on Saturday in bone-shattering robustious condition nobody could really censure them for taking an occasional slug of rye with a beer chaser, their favorite drink.
Great point has been made in recent years that no decent student body would countenance anything but simon-pure representation on the field, but I can testify that spirit was never higher at Lehigh than in those days when we slaughtered every team that had the stupidity to accept a game on our schedule. There were occasional losses but always to famous competitors, and I can still recall with a shudder the time Yale beat Lehigh, 7-6, to an accompaniment of snapping bones, crumpling collisions and skull-cracking assaults. Yale broke the leg of our quarterback, Chenoweth, as neatly as if it had been rehearsed, and one of our hired hands practically detonated the famous Cupid Black of Yale on an end-around play.
The students were in the stands, where they belonged, and out on the field was the finest team our limited resources could buy. We were proud, elated and satisfied. The athletes attended classes to sleep; the students were there with all their faculties intact. It was a perfect arrangement, and the only sour note came when we lost to another tramp-infested team that had paid a little more for its talent. But we had our great moments, and nobody who was there will ever forget the day at Annapolis when we murdered Navy for the first loss on their own field in six years. Not only did we defeat them, 14-0, but we banged them about most merrily.
It was a glorious time, and starry-eyed freshmen followed their heroes in the streets with reverence. They were often disconcerted to find that their hero of one season failed to return for the next, but when he was replaced by another enchanting monster their joy was unabated. There was the further pleasure of following the news stories of football games in remote regions and detecting from some peculiar quirk the presence of a former hero. When the story reported that the "mountainous redheaded McIntosh" had already blocked 12 punts for the University of the Ozarks, our eyes would light up with elation.
"That's old Buck Crouse!" we would cry happily.
This pleasure occupied us long after we had graduated from Lehigh and long after Lehigh had adopted an athletic purity policy of such dazzling nature that the students stayed carefully away from Taylor Field lest they be blinded. Instead of watching the poor pitiful victims who now stumbled where giants once had trod, we remained in our homes with the hope of tracking down one of our old defenders. Texas was their last refuge and some of them were still playing out there 20 years after their Lehigh days. We concentrated on the fabulous McIntosh-Crouse, who ended his career at the Stephen F. Austin State Teachers College at Nacogdoches as A. K. Hammond, mountainous redheaded tackle, and candidate for All-America. This last was a fatal mistake by an over-eager press agent, for it brought about the exposure of Mr. Hammond, who it seems had played at 12 different colleges, had five grandchildren and had forgotten his original name.
Through the years a few of us old gaffers have met at intervals to celebrate the wonderful old days, but I can't say that the occasion is ever very cheerful. We invariably end in tears. We try to make ourselves believe that emotion and nostalgia are the reasons for this, but it may be that we have gone a bit too far in reverence. We always give the toasts in rye with a beer chaser, a drink excellent for a tramp athlete but not for others.