For Princeton's sprint football players, it's a toss-up as to which phenomenon they have to explain more often: their sport or their streak. Although the university has fielded a varsity sprint football team since 1931, even some fellow students aren't familiar with the sport, which is identical to the more popular version with one notable exception: Players must weigh no more than 172 pounds. It's football for guys who wear mediums instead of XXLs, for linebackers who come in placekicker-sized packages, for defensive tackles who are the size of wide receivers and sometimes just as quick—hence the sprint in the name. "We want our guys to eat six meals a day, like the Division I big guys," says coach Stephen Everette. "We just want the meals to be salads."
The players aren't offended when fans of heavyweight football, as the regular brand is known in the sprint community, hear sprint football and think spring football, or assume it's some sort of smartphone app. "It's pretty common for people to be unfamiliar with it," says senior tight end--linebacker--sometime tackle--occasional defensive end and former punter Richard Hildreth. (It's easy to switch positions when size doesn't matter.)
Egos are smaller in sprint football, just like the players, the crowds and, in Princeton's case, the roster. The Tigers have only 32 players, about half the number of some of their opponents in the Collegiate Sprint Football League, which also includes Cornell, Penn, Army, Navy, Mansfield (Pa.) University and Post University in Waterbury, Conn. Princeton is often outmanned, in part because the school no longer designates any athletic admissions slots for sprint football, as it did until 1999. Given those limitations, it's not surprising that the Tigers are on a bit of a losing streak: 12 straight without a win. Not games. Seasons.
The Tigers, 0--2 this year, haven't won an official game since they edged Cornell 12--7 in their season opener in 1999, back when there was no such thing as an iPhone and only the first three books in the Harry Potter series had been released in the U.S. Since then Princeton has lost 82 consecutive times, including a 62--13 pounding by Navy last Saturday. The Tigers have been down so long that even their most modest successes become milestones. When senior running back Sean Conrad ran 56 yards for a touchdown on Princeton's first possession of this season's opener against Mansfield, it was the first time the Tigers had led in a game since 2009.
The players, who have to pass weigh-ins twice a week, react to the streak with an elite athlete's intensity ("It just eats at you," says senior cornerback--receiver Ross Cadman) and an Ivy Leaguer's intellect: "It motivates us, but we try not to let it consume us," Hildreth says. "We desperately want to break it, but to break it, you can't obsess about it."
Despite their record, it would be misleading to describe Princeton sprint players as losers, not when so many of them go on to great success in life. The program counts former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, class of '54, among its alumni, as well as Nick DiBerardino, a 2011 Rhodes Scholar, and various CEOs, investment bankers and other captains of industry. (President Jimmy Carter, who played at Navy, and Patriots owner Robert Kraft of Columbia are also sprint alums.) The Tigers' struggles haven't reduced alumni support, either; the program is sustained entirely by private donations. "We've never had to worry about getting the things we needed," Everette says. "Sixty-inch flat screen, new projectors, computers, an online editing system—it's all been provided."
But Everette and his staff have to find the talent themselves. They have mailed promotional material to every high school coach in the country, and the Tigers' players and coaches recruit on their own campus. They look for Princeton students whose plans to play other sports didn't pan out, including appropriately sized reserves on the heavyweight football team who want more playing time. Then there are students such as Hildreth, one of several Tigers who had never played organized football until they donned Princeton pads. "I played baseball and squash in high school," Hildreth says, "but I had played tackle football without pads a few times, and I was pretty sure I liked to hit people."
That, and the ability to make weight, are all the qualifications necessary to earn a spot on the Princeton roster. For players who have to put on sweat suits and go for a last-minute run before weigh-ins, the work is well worth it. "It's all for the chance to keep playing football, or to play it for the first time," says assistant coach Ned Moffatt, who says the reaction of most students when they learn about the team is not derision over the streak. "It's envy. So many guys would love to do what we're getting to do."
But there is still the matter of breaking the streak. Everette, who likes to wear suits on the sidelines, is glad Princeton doesn't use the big Gatorade jugs that would surely be dumped on him in the victory celebration, but his players insist they'll find some way to drench him. Here's hoping the coach of the littlest team in the country soon has a gigantic laundry bill.
THE LAST TIME PRINCETON'S SPRINT FOOTBALL TEAM WON AN OFFICIAL GAME, ONLY THE FIRST THREE HARRY POTTER BOOKS WERE FOR SALE IN THE U.S.