Why didn't I go to Princeton? I think it had to do with the stripes. It was 1967, and the Tiger coaches sat me down and showed me game films. All I could see were stripes on sleeves and players spinning in circles while running something called the single wing, which I'd heard of but thought had disappeared with the prairie chicken.
Then, too, there were the fireplaces. We had a fireplace at home—my dad had built ours one summer, squinting and cursing at the vagaries of trowel and level—but there was something about having one in your dorm room that seemed weird to me. What did I know about tradition? I was 18, from the Midwest and had seen more raccoons in garbage cans than in coats.
So I went to Northwestern to play football, and in time—last Saturday, to be exact—my alma mater came to play Princeton in a duel of eggheads and bigger eggheads. Not only was it Northwestern's first game against an Ivy League opponent since 1928, but it also was the Big Ten's first game in 33 years against an Ivy team. Northwestern won 37-0, and college football yawned. But I, like Gatsby, the greatest invention of that noted midwestern Princeton man F. Scott Fitzgerald, found myself pondering "the dramatic turbulence of some [thing] irrecoverable."
Anyway, I met three nice Tiger players on Thursday, and together we toured their campus. The boys were polite, earnest and sturdy—although not in a Division I-A sense—and this size difference, as well as Northwestern's athletic scholarships, its spring practice, its big-time opponents, etc., had been endlessly trotted out by Princetonians as good reasons this game should never have been scheduled. Conveniently forgotten were Northwestern's own academic standards (the highest in the Big Ten) and record (13-96-1 during the last decade, and a stretch from mid-1975 to mid-1982 when the Wildcats won 3 of 75 contests). Said Northwestern athletic director Doug Single, "It's not like they're playing the Chicago Bears."
Responded Princeton associate AD Sam Howell, "We scheduled this game back when they were 0-22. Then they got better." Indeed, last season the Cats roared all the way to 3-8.
The Tiger players were unruffled by the fuss. Senior punter Rob DiGiacomo introduced himself by handing me a business card that showed him to be marketing director of the Princeton Software Group, a consulting and research company he formed with two other students. Then he tried to sell me software.
At the game itself, played in the rain on grass high enough to hide the players' shoes, a small group of Northwestern East Coast alumni cheered with unfamiliar blood lust. "Princeton has the highest academic standards in the country," snarled Jeff Jacobs, Northwestern '85, "and the biggest athletic sissies."
On one play Tiger defensive end Edwin Joel (Ned) Elton V, who has a photo of himself with three of the other Edwin Joels, got his helmet knocked off and then chased the ballcarrier for another 50 yards. What would he have done had he caught up with the runner? "I don't know," Ned said after the game. Myself, I think he would have stuck his head in there.
I see him now with his teammates, beating on against the current, borne back ceaselessly into a past that includes Bill Bradley, Jimmy Stewart and monstrous purple Wildcats who will never play Princeton again.
Northwestern roared, but just where were the Tigers?