Tuesday, April 28, 2020

40 To Life

TigerBlog remembers when his friend Ed Mikus Jr. asked him if he wanted to go see a movie called "The Right Stuff" when it was in the theaters.

If you saw it, you know it was about the Mercury astronaut program. You know it was really, really good. You also know it was three hours long.

Before TB saw it, he knew the first and third ones. He only figured out the second after he reluctantly agreed to go and then realized it was almost over after it seemed like only 30 minute had gone by.

He thought about that Sunday night - late Sunday night - after his Zoom call ended. The subject? Princeton-Yale football, 1981.

For all of the great games in Princeton football history, that 1981 game against Yale is the best of all of them. For his part, TB selected it as the "Game of the Century" during a 20th-century review 20 years ago.

In the first 20 years of this century, Princeton has played five games that could all be considered the best this century to date:

2006, 31-30 OT win over Penn
2006, 34-31 win over Yale
2012, 39-34 win over Harvard
2013, 51-48 OT win over Harvard
2018, 14-9 over Dartmouth

Of those five, all but the 2012 game against Harvard were in championship seasons in which a loss in those games would have meant no championship at all. Does there need to be that component to make it the best ever?

Or could a game in which a team trailed 34-10 in the fourth quarter before an epic rally that still amazes TB when he thinks about it - as in the case of that 2012 game - push it over the top? That's up to you and everyone else to decide.

If you asked TB, he'd go with the 2018 game, which was the difference between 10-0 and not even winning a share of the league title. It was an incredibly intense 60 minutes with great historical context mixed in.

The 1981 Princeton-Yale game had a different kind of historical context to it. Yale came into that game with a 14-game winning streak against Princeton and were favored to stretch that to 15 straight that day at Palmer Stadium.

It certainly seemed that way when the Bulldogs led 21-0 in the second quarter. The Tigers, though, came sailing back, cutting it to 21-15 at halftime and then taking a 22-21 lead in the third quarter.

Yale would regain the lead and push it to 31-22. It was still 31-29 Bulldogs with 1:23 left, when Princeton took over with no timeouts and 76 yards to go.

After three straight Bob Holly incompletions, Yale was one more stop away from another win. This time, Holly found Scott Oostdyke, who barely stretched past the first-down marker. Or at least the refs said so, but more on that in a few minutes.

Holly then marched Princeton down the field, getting to the Bulldog 20 with 15 seconds left and then to the 1 with nine seconds left after a pass interference penalty in the end zone. Then, on the next play, Holly ran it in for the winning TD around the left side. Had he gotten tackled before he got to the end zone, the clock would have run out on the Tigers.

Holly put up ridiculous numbers in that game, completing 36 of 55 for 501 yards and four touchdowns, not to mention the game-winning rushing TD. Derek Graham caught 15 passes for 278 yards.

Now it's almost 40 years later, and the purpose of the call Sunday night was to talk about the game, reminisce and generally have a good time. It's one of the pluses that's come out of this current situation, where people who otherwise would be unable to all be together in the same place at the same time suddenly can be.

Think about it. How many times have that many members of the 1981 Princeton football team been together in the last few decades?

TigerBlog was invited to join the call in the middle of last week by Rich Gorelick, a member of the Class of 1982 and a former class officer. The current class officers have been having a series of Zoom discussions, featuring a wide array of topics, everything from confronting COVID-19 to online yoga.

Gorelick was the play-by-play announcer on WPRB for that game in 1981. He was the moderator for the conversation Sunday night, which featured nearly 80 people, including other class members in addition to the football players.

Gorelick began the event with a moment of silence for those on both teams that day who have passed away, a total of four players and Nick Donatiello, the former Princeton sports information director. That was a very nice thing for Gorelick to do.

For TigerBlog, that 1981 game was a little before his Princeton time. He's read about it, written about it, seen highlights of it. He's interviewed a few of the players who played in it, including Oostdyk, who insisted when TB wrote the story 20 years ago that his fourth-and-10 reception was really 9.9 yards and a favorable spot. He's never really met too many of them, so the Zoom call was a great chance to put some faces to names.

Oostdyk, by the way, repeated that claim about the first down on the call. That drew laughs.

There were dozens of little stories, all of which drew laughs. There were stories about the game, about players from both sides, about the Princeton coaches, about how the season had gone to that point. There were lots and lots of laughs.

It was exactly what you'd think it was. It was a bunch of guys telling their stories and loving every second of it. They remembered every detail, even if they remembered those details differently from each other, like what play, if any, was called by the coaches on Holly's game-winning run.

TB's favorite was from Stan Freck, who intercepted the desperation pass that followed Holly's touchdown and then the kickoff. Freck mentioned how all the while he was celebrating on the field, he still was holding onto the football he'd just caught, and it wasn't until he came into the locker room after that he realized it.

Then he pulled back and showed that very same ball, sitting on a shelf in his house, the word "Yale" visible clearly, as it was Yale's ball, not Princeton's, because Yale was on offense at the time.

The minutes flew by on the call, which stretched nearly as long as "The Right Stuff." Time has flown by in general, as the game is about to turn 40 years old.

At Princeton, the talk is always how choosing to compete as a Tiger isn't a four-year decision but a 40-year one. The implication, obviously, is that your time as a Princeton Athlete will stay with you long after you graduate.

For TB, it's never really seemed like the right slogan. The event Sunday night was further proof of that.

These guys, some of them who have already touched 60 years old, were still teammates, and always will be. The connection they share was obvious to any observer, even TB, who didn't really know any of them. 

It wasn't a 40-year decision. It was 40 to life.

It was a forever decision.


JordanBeck said...

I'm glad that you enjoyed the Zoom call. I enjoyed it, too, and was in Palmer Stadium that day as a member of the marching band.

Jordan Becker
Class of 1982 Secretary.

JordanBeck said...

I'm glad you enjoyed the Zoom call. It was fun for me too, and I was in Palmer Stadium that day as a member of the marching band.

Jordan Becker
Class of 1982 Secretary