Friday, May 27, 2011

A Night Of Hugs

Everywhere TigerBlog looked last night at the Princeton Varsity Club senior athlete banquet, he saw hugs.

Athletes hugging athletes. Parents hugging their kids' friends and - egads - former teammates. Alums hugging classmates.

TB saw 80-year-old John McPhee hug a woman he affectionately calls "Dad." He saw Vern Bugg hug everyone.

It didn't matter how sticky the night was or how much everyone was sweating. It was a night for hugs.

TigerBlog has his strengths; doing the whole nostalgia thing isn't one of them. Still, there is obviously something special about Reunions at Princeton, and the PVC banquet, which takes place annually on the first night of Reunions, has elements of that all around it.

Basically, the night weaves together the story of the last four years of the athletic senior class, while offering to the soon-to-be-graduates a perspective from people who were in their shoes in the past.

If the banquet is a success, then the athletes leave the tent at the grad college with a strong feeling that they helped Princeton Athletics accomplish great things in their four years (such as 48 Ivy League championships, including a league-record 15 this past year), with a twinge of sadness that their time at Princeton is ending and with the knowledge that their affiliation with the University will endure, much like it does for the people there in the wild orange and black jackets.

Each year, the banquet follows a similar script.

There's a cocktail hour, followed by dinner and the awards program. There are two awards for "adults," the Class of 1967 Citizen-Athlete Award - given this year to Joe Baker, a football player who graduated in 1991 who is now an assistant coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and who was honored for his work with PlaySmart, an organization that brings athletic participation to children who otherwise might not have access to it - and the Marvin Bressler Award, given to a person at the University who has contribute to the experience of the athletes. That award this year went to McPhee.

There are also four awards for seniors, given for service, scholarship and for the top male and female athletes.

Then there are the special PVC awards, which may or may not be presented in any given year. There are also two senior speeches, given this year by field hockey player Alexandra Douwes and swimmer Patrick Biggs.

In all, 16 seniors were honored last night.

There were five male athletes who received the Roper Trophy: runner Mark Amirault, hockey player Taylor Fedun, men's basketball player Kareem Maddox, lightweight rower Robin Prendes and men's soccer player Josh Walburn.

There were five female athletes who received the von Kienbusch Award: runner Sarah Cummings, runner Ashley Higginson, basketball Addie Micir, swimmer Megan Waters and rower Lauren Wilkinson.

The night had some very poignant moments.

Jordan Culbreath was honored with a PVC Award of Valor for the way he fought back against Aplastic Anemia and was able to return to play football, this after Biggs talked about how inspirational Culbreath had been to everyone here.

Peter Quimby, the outgoing Deputy Dean of the College who is headed to become the Headmaster at the Governors School in Massachusetts, fought back tears as he spoke about his work at Princeton. TigerBlog hopes the athletes - many of whom probably had no way of knowing just how much Quimby had done for them through the years - were struck by how important Princeton Athletics was to him.

McPhee, who was also humorous, spoke about his dear friend Marvin, who passed away last year, and how Marvin had worked with his nephew Charles McPhee, who himself passed away from Lou Gehrig's Disease three weeks ago.

And then there was the Lorin Maurer Award. Lorin worked in athletic fundraising here at Princeton, and she was killed in the Continental Airlines plane crash outside of Buffalo two years ago. The award in her memory honors a member of the Department of Athletics who has her same spirit and zest for life.

After the presentation of the award, Lorin's father Scott spoke to the crowd about how he - from inner-city Reading, Pa. - would have been too intimidated to apply to for a job at a place like Princeton but how his daughter did so enthusiastically, and he thanked fellow Reading native Gary Walters for everything he'd done for Lorin.

This year's winner was Vernon Bugg.

Essentially, Vernon's job was to sit by the desk in the Jadwin lobby, check people in for recreational tennis and make sure nothing was amiss. Instead, Vernon injected himself into the lives of everyone who came by, calling all Princeton male athletes his sons and all Princeton female athletes his daughter. His favorite, favorite thing to do, though, was to tell everyone who walked in that they were loved, prefacing it with "have you been told today?"

Vernon usually speaks in deep, strong voice. Upon accepting the award, which was greeted with a standing ovation by the athletes and calls of "We love you Vern" from the audience, he spoke in a barely audible whisper, as he was clearly overcome with the emotion of the moment. It was almost like he was wondering what all the fuss was about, that all he had done was to be engaging to the people who walked past him every day.

At the end, of course, there was TB's video, complete with music from Angels and Airwaves, Frank Sinatra, Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band and Pink.

When it was all over, TB got a big, sweaty hug from Vernon. Then, as TB was about to leave, he saw former hockey coach Guy Gadowsky, who left to start the program at Penn State.

TB asked Guy a bunch of questions about his new job, and it's clear that he is excited about the chance to build something from the ground up.

Then, he turned and pointed over his shoulder to the video screen, where moments earlier, action shots of athletes from 38 sports, 29 of which won at least one championship in the last four years and 31 of which competed in national championship competition in the last four years, had scrolled through.

Looking up at the blank screen, Gadowsky hesitated for a second and then said "I'm going to miss this."

TigerBlog knew immediately what he meant.

He's going to miss the Princeton experience, the chance to be at a place of such wondrous athletic diversity, a place with such a great love for the institution, a place where people come to be a part of something very special.

And, now that it was time for him to move on, this was his twinge of sadness, a realization that a special chapter in his life had ended.

It was the same for the athletes.

And that's how TB knew that Princeton Athletics had not failed them.

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