I went to college on a football scholarship, though in all honesty it was more like a football coupon—a lot closer to 50 cents off than a free ride. Nonetheless, it did allow some self-indulgent chest thumping on my way out of high school. It also made me feel like Rutgers really wanted me—a feeling that was reinforced when I visited the university in the spring of my senior year in high school.

It was a magnificent April day and the Rutgers campus was buzzing. The entire student body seemed to be out and about, scurrying to lecture halls, throwing Frisbees, or just lying in the grass, textbooks functioning as headrests. Some of the professors had even succumbed and relocated their classes outside to the quad. Spring fever was rampant.

My parents and I walked along College Avenue taking it all in. Suddenly, an enormous fire engine red Cadillac convertible barreled around the corner, screeching to an abrupt halt in front of us. The driver’s door swung open to the metallic bing-bing sound that said it should be closed, and out bounced the short, round fireplug of a man who was Rutgers’ head football coach. With his luxury liner automobile angled so it literally consumed the entire street, door wide open, engine still running, he enthusiastically greeted my parents and me, saying how thrilled he was that I had decided to matriculate at his university. To be fawned over so ostentatiously in the middle of this buzzing college world was sweet indeed. I felt like a Big Man On Campus, and I hadn’t even enrolled yet.

Cut to that August when I arrived in the locker room for the first day of football practice. Walking confidently to the bulletin board, I looked at the depth chart with the expectation of seeing my name in the fullback position on either the first, or worst-case, second team. I couldn’t even find my name. When I finally did, I almost wished I hadn’t. There it was as part of the ninth backfield grouping. I’m not sure what shocked me most—being that far down in the pecking order or that there were so many guys trying out for the freshman squad, it required that many groupings to accommodate us all. The depth chart seemed more like a depth charge signaling the early demise of my collegiate football dream.

Out on the practice field, the coaches lined us up in the prescribed pecking order in two columns. My group was diagonally across from the designated “first team.” I checked out the fullback. It was my first sight of Sam, and it was an impressive sight, indeed.

Sam was huge—solid huge, Jim Brown huge. In fact, his resemblance to Jim Brown, arguably the NFL’s greatest ever fullback, was uncanny. It wasn’t just that Sam was black and powerfully built. His moves were beautiful—fluid and confident. He even sounded great, with a rich baritone, perfect articulation and an easy laugh. I would subsequently learn that Sam had been a standout in high school, literally tearing up the best conference in the state and catching the eye of college scouts from some pretty strong football programs. For reasons I never understood, he opted for Rutgers…a respectable program but, by no means, a football powerhouse…its schedule dominated in those days by Ivy League opponents, midsize Eastern independents and the service academies. Princeton was the archenemy and Army was the prestige game.

Nonetheless, Sam had selected Rutgers and the coaches treated him like the chosen one. I quickly found myself rearranging my priorities toward “maybe I can at least work my way up to become the chosen back-up.” Then I looked at the seven other fullbacks who would be vying for the role of Tonto. None of them looked like Sam, but they didn’t exactly look shabby either. I had been on campus less than a week at this point, and to be honest, I was more than a little homesick. This depressing turn of events on the football field was threatening to deal my self-confidence a fatal blow and send me running home to mamma.

Then I came to the inescapable realization that there was virtually no way to go but up. It was incredibly liberating…a life lesson from the Bob Dylan school of “when you ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose.”

I made up my mind to play with reckless abandon, that day and every day, until they either cut me or elevated me. It worked.

Three weeks later, we had our opening game against Princeton, and I was the starting fullback.

Princeton versus Rutgers wasn’t just a game; it was a tradition. The two schools had played the first intercollegiate football game nearly 100 years earlier. That long rivalry tapped deep emotions, especially for Rutgers, sometimes confused with the Ivy League but never a part of it. Like the poor stepchild constantly sucking hind tit, Rutgers wanted nothing more than to beat Princeton’s Ivy League ass. On a sweltering September night, we did. And I scored the first touchdown.

We played that night at Princeton’s Palmer Stadium—a venue with a deep history and a hell of a lot of seats. Freshman teams, being full of freshmen, didn’t exactly have massive drawing power, so there was an eerie echo-chamber aspect to the evening whenever a whistle blew, helmets collided, or our families cheered. (The spectators were pretty much all related to the players.) In hindsight, it was comical. But for us players, it was loaded with gravitas.

Here we were in this huge, tradition-filled stadium, massive lights illuminating the field, representing the two schools that had played the first college football game. I started. I scored. We won. It felt great.

As for Sam, he turned out to be one of the nicest guys I ever knew…a gentle giant. Which is why I started and he didn’t.

Had Sam been as tenacious as he was physically gifted, as fearful as he was fluid, as bad as he was big—he might have been a football legend. As it turned out, he was just everybody’s favorite teammate.

By the end of our freshman year, Sam had transferred out. He was missed. Maybe that’s not such a bad alternative to being a legend.




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