Friday, August 2, 2013

A Gentleman Passes

The picture shows a man, a young man, being carried off the field by his football teammates.

In the background is the unmistakable cement outline of Palmer Stadium, the old home of Princeton football. The young man being carried off its field is the best player who ever played there.

TigerBlog knew him only as an older man, decades after he tore up that field and others, after he was honored as the very best in college football in 1951, after he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

And yet everything TB knew about Dick Kazmaier as an older man comes screaming through in that picture.

His look isn't one of a wild smile. He's not pumping his fists. He's doing nothing to draw attention to himself.

He looks uncomfortable, in fact. He looks like he's wondering why all the fuss over him, when it's a team game and Princeton, once again, won as a team, something it did each of the last 22 times hewas part of that team.

Dick Kazmaier died Thursday at the age of 82.

Each obituary that TigerBlog read about Kazmaier mentioned as much about his sportsmanship and modesty as it did about the yards he gained or the touchdowns he scored. Again, that's in keeping with the Kazmaier that TB got to know.

When you're the only Heisman Trophy winner in the long history of a football program and you had the kind of career that Kazmaier had, you naturally have a bit of "that's him, that's the one" celebrity about you. Kazmaier wanted no part of that.

His story is of course very familiar to any Princeton fan by now.

He came to Princeton from Maumee, Ohio, in 1948 after being a five-sport star in his hometown. He started out at Princeton as the fifth-string back on the freshman team, an undersized 155-pounder who didn't figure to be able to stand up to the pounding of head coach Charlie Caldwell's single-wing offense.

Instead, he thrived in it as a duel passing/running threat. As a sophomore he led the team in rushing as the Tigers went 6-3 while winning their final four games.

Princeton then went 9-0 and finished ranked sixth nationally in 1950. With only Kazmaier back on offense in 1951, Princeton nevertheless went 9-0 and ended up sixth again in 1951.

Among the highlights of his senior year was his 15 for 17 passing performance against Cornell in a 53-15 win. When the season was over, he was the overwhelming winner for the Heisman Trophy, with 506 first-place votes and 1,777 points, easily outdistancing runner-up Hank Lauricella of Tennessee, who had 45 first-place votes and 424 points.

The rest of the top 10 that year included future Pro Football Hall of Fame members Ollie Matson of San Francisco and Hugh McElhenny of Washington, who would share the NFL Rookie of the Year Award in 1952.

Kazmaier famously passed on an opportunity to play in the NFL, choosing instead to go to Harvard Business School before spending three years in the Navy and embarking on a long, successful career in business and philanthropy.

TigerBlog knew him to see him at Princeton events the last 20 years or so. He was always quick to say hello, to ask how everything was going, to share common interests.

He never once talked about himself or his own individual accomplishments during any conversation TB ever had with him. When TB wrote a story about him as the top Princeton football player of the last century, Kazmaier spent as much time talking about his teammates as he did about anything he had done, as if he was embarrassed by the fuss.

The same was true when Princeton retired the No. 42 that was shared by Kazmaier and then a decade later by another Midwestern boy who had come to Princeton, Bill Bradley.

Today, that No. 42 hangs from the rafter in Jadwin Gym, never to be worn again by any Princeton athlete in any sport.

In the Jadwin lobby in a glass case is the Heisman Trophy that Kazmaier won, after years of simply sitting in the office of the head football coach. There is also a larger-than-life Kazmaier statue on display as well.

They all serve as reminders of the greatest football player - and along with Bradley and Hobey Baker one of the three greatest athletes - in Princeton history.

He will be remembered forever for what he did as an athlete and even more so for the person that he was, and for the way he lived his life.

With his passing, the world lost one of its truest gentlemen.

He will be missed at Princeton.

He will never be forgotten.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As a first-year student at Harvard Business School in the mid-80's, I met a much older alumnus who told me that, during his own first year, one of his classmates remarked while watching an intramural football game, "Wow, that guy is pretty good!" To which somebody else on the sidelines explained, "You idiot. That guy *should* be pretty good. He won the Heisman Trophy last year."