Commentary

Before it was normal

The University of Chicago celebrates the 40th anniversary of the return of football

Originally Published: October 21, 2009
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

University of Chicago
U. of C. AthleticsFootball returned to the University of Chicago campus in 1969.

The Monsters of the Midway don't look so big up close.

It's 7 p.m. on a Tuesday, and the Monsters, actually the University of Chicago Maroons, are going through their first practice of the week. It's a routine duplicated around the country and the sounds are like Beethoven for any football fanatic.

The Hyde Park campus is mostly quiet as students prepare for midterms. But on this field, where whistles blow, coaches bellow and players yell the directives that football players yell -- "Ball, ball, ball!" -- a symphony is unfolding. The Maroons are mostly underclassmen; only a handful of seniors are left, they are smallish and fast, and they occasionally have to leave early for a lab or a study session.

As the team gets ready for this week's game, young women with six-pack abs run on the track, checking their watches for times, and traffic glides down 55th Street on the other side of the fence.

Football at the University of Chicago is a Division III, non-scholarship sport. It's an extracurricular activity for dedicated students, and they will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the sport's heralded return to the university this Saturday against Denison University.

Varsity football is a normal thing here. There are hundreds of programs like it, where similarly sized, similarly talented young men play because they love the sport or, sometimes, because they can't give it up.

But no other Division III school can compete with the history of the University of Chicago, the only current non-Division I school that boasts a Heisman Trophy winner. The first-ever Heisman welcomes visitors to the Gerald Ratner Athletics Center and reminds the young ones that life went on without them once.

"Kids nowadays are like, 'Yeah, that's the Heisman, that's neat,'" said Chicago football coach Dick Maloney, who lists Big Ten championships and the 1905 and 1913 national championships on his letterhead. "But when their dad or their grandfathers comes in, you see a look on their face, like 'Wow.' Especially if they're Chicago people or Big Ten people and know about how football was in the old days."

The old days

The Midway Plaisance runs down 59th Street, where it helped house the 1893 World's Fair and served as the inspiration of the nickname the Chicago Bears adopted when they still played at Wrigley Field, far, far from the Midway itself. The Bears also appropriated the U of C's logo.

Football was once the thing here. In 1905, the raccoon-coat days, the Maroons were national champions. By 1940, the program was no more.

Old Stagg Field, which once sat 50,000 fans, is most famous for being the site of the first-ever nuclear chain reaction in 1942. Football was too barbaric for the school president Robert Hutchins, who called it "an infernal nuisance" when he banned it after the 1939 season. The atom bomb? No, that was fine.

The name Jay Berwanger, the winner of that inaugural Heisman, carries weight in Hyde Park. So does the name Amos Alonzo Stagg, one of the most famous football coaches of all time, the man who invented things like the lateral pass and the tackling dummy during his 30-plus years at the school. Enrico Fermi, his name you should know, too. He was the guy with the Manhattan Project.

Then there were Walter Eckersall, the Hyde Park kid made good; and Clarence Herschberger, the first player to execute the Statue of Liberty play; and Fritz Crisler … man, do these guys sound old.

One name players now don't forget is Bernard DelGiorno, who, for this team, might be the most important old alum around. DelGiorno, a college gymnast, earned three degrees from the school in the 1950s. With the money he's made in finance in Chicago, he donated the millions of dollars to build this field with the bright green grass and bouncy, Olympic-quality track.

"All the kids know Bernie," Chicago's friendly sports information director, Dave Hilbert, told me.

Maloney, who came to the school in 1994 and has a remarkable 75-67 record despite three straight losing seasons, makes sure to mention the first two names to his charges. His recruiting presentation is part history lesson. ("I'm a performer," he says, laughing.)

But if you want to talk about a name from the past who indirectly led to the return of football to the Midway, you have to bring up Marlene Dixon.

40 years ago today …

Who is Marlene Dixon? Well, she was a Marxist and a feminist and, by most accounts, a pretty lousy professor, at least in terms of research, at the U of C in 1969.

"She was an embarrassment to humanity," said Charlie Nelson, class of 1973, a four-year starter on the revived program.

He still relives the battles of the Vietnam War era and still loathes the "quasi-Marxists" he went to school with, but he credits Dixon and her charges for helping revive football at the school.

When the university refused to renew her contract, a group of students protested by occupying the administration building for two weeks. The 1969 sit-in, which started at the end of January, didn't get Dixon re-hired and resulted in a number of suspension and expulsions.

Nelson was a senior in high school in West Bridgewater, Mass., when all this was going on. His mother wanted him to go to school closer to home, but he had already been accepted at Chicago. His father, a blue-collar Teamster, as Nelson described him in a phone call from his house in Palatine, wanted his son to do as he wished. Then they sat and watched the evening news and saw these rambunctious "quasi-Marxists" running rampant, and Nelson's dad looked at him and said, "Don't you go acting like that."

What Nelson didn't know at the time was that this sit-in was a rare occasion at the school, one that lumped thousands of students in one place. A couple of guys on Walter Hass' club football team took the opportunity to start a petition to bring back varsity football after a 30-year absence. They got 1,500 signatures and presented them to the faculty committee, the deans and the board of trustees, according to a Chicago Tribune story. Nelson said he thought the school was looking for some positive publicity in a time of upheaval.

Hass had been the Athletic director since 1956 and tried in vain to get football reinstated for years, waiting for the right time. This was it.

"It was a million-to-one shot," Hass told the Tribune, "but I guess sometimes, stubbornness pays off."

Nelson helped organize the 40-year reunion of the team that brought football back to campus. The players will be honored before Saturday's game.

Nelson started at center on that first team and started all four years as the Maroons took on Wheaton junior varsity, the Marquette club team and other programs at their level. It wasn't easy, he said. Half the team had no football experience. But they had Hass, who had played at Minnesota and coached a single-wing offense at Carleton. They got new uniforms Nelson's freshman year, but he wound up wearing the same jersey for four years.

"I stole it," Nelson said, laughing. "It's in my dresser now."

While some students tried to sit-in to block the program's return, the protests didn't last. Eventually the students supported football, Nelson said, but in a U of C way, which meant abnormally. The days of stodgy alums and "rah-rah sis boom bah" were over.

"We had 800, 1,000 students a game," he said. "It was a lot of fun, a lot of frivolity. Kids were blowing marijuana smoke in the stands, you could smell it on the field, and they were passing wineskins. We had a marching kazoo band. People would come out of the stands and march around like a band. It was an inside joke we were all in on. I think the campus was desperate for something normal, and we were probably the most normal thing there."

[+] EnlargeHeisman Trophy Case
U. of C. Athletics The 1935 Downtown Athletic Club trophy -- renamed the Heisman Trophy the next year -- was awarded to the University of Chicago's Jay Berwanger.

The trophy

Berwanger's Heisman isn't really a Heisman at all. It's the Downtown Athletic Club trophy, and it was given to the halfback in 1935 for being "the most valuable football player east of the Mississippi." He got the news via telegram.

The next year they named it after John Heisman. Berwanger was the first-ever draft pick by the fledgling National Football League, but he asked for $25,000 for two years, and George Halas, who acquired his rights from Philadelphia, blanched. Berwanger went on to a successful business career

Four years later, football was abolished. By 1946, the school had left the Big Ten, the conference it helped found in 1895 as the Western Conference.

For years, Berwanger's trophy was reportedly used as a doorstop by his aunt. Eventually he gave it to the school, which put it on display. A few years before he passed away in 2002, Berwanger, a College Football Hall of Fame inductee, received a diamond ring to commemorate his award.

A frequent visitor to the school and booster of the program, Berwanger stopped in one day and donated the ring, too. He loved the program, even though it wasn't the caliber of his own, and he supported it until he died in 2002.

Modern times

In 1954, Hutchins wrote a long piece about college football in Sports Illustrated. He wrote, "Football has no place in the kind of institution Chicago aspires to be."

[+] EnlargeFrancis Adarkwa
U. of C. AthleticsSophomore running back Francis Adarkwa, who won a state title at Wheaton Warrenville South, is leaning toward majoring in economics at the University of Chicago.

Francis Adarkwa is the living example of why that is totally false.

Adarkwa, a thickly built sophomore running back, stands eye to eye with his interviewer. Adarkwa is square-jawed and earnest, and he's everything you would want in a student-athlete. He won a state title at Wheaton Warrenville South, one of the best programs in the state, and came to college to be a doctor. As to major, he is undecided but leaning toward economics, the top major at the school.

"I love playing," he said. "One of the biggest decisions for me to come here … I was choosing between here and Northwestern. I figured I still loved football, and I wanted to play, so I came here to Chicago. I've never regretted it since. I love playing with these guys. It becomes more about playing for enjoyment, playing for your buddies, than playing for the crowd or playing for stats."

When Adarkwa's team lost to Lake Zurich, 7-3, in the Class 7A finals in 2007, he couldn't sleep for days. And when asked whether he still gets up for games, he goes off about the team's last game, a road win over Macalester.

Macalester was leading with 46 seconds to play when their kicker, or their coach, had a brain cramp and kicked to Dee Brizzolara, the 5-foot-11 freshman sensation from Aurora, Ohio.

Brizzolara returned the kick to the Macalester 38-yard line, and four plays later, quarterback Marshall Oium found Clay Wolff for the winning score. Adarkwa describes Brizzolara, who leads Division III in all-purpose yards (213.6 per game) as "sick."

"We recruited him hard," said Adarkwa, who was the rookie of the year in the four-team University Athletic Association (a collection of eight top-notch national research universities that field a full slate of teams in other sports). He had 143 yards and a touchdown in the win and has five 100-yard games in his career to go along with 12 touchdowns.

Finding players like Brizzolara and Adarkwa, and watching them grow, is what makes Maloney stay, year after year. He has coached in the Ivy League and in the Canadian Football League, but he is happy in Hyde Park.

"Recruiting is a challenge and a joy," Maloney said. "Ninety percent of high school seniors, I can't even talk to. We recruit players, as opposed to numbers. Our roster is 65, most Division III schools are 110, 130, 150. So in that regard, numbers-wise, we recruit like a scholarship school."

Adarkwa said that the student-athletes support one another and that he has grown close with his football teammates. The women's soccer program is nationally respected, nearly winning a Division III championship in 2003.

Adarkwa didn't come to Chicago for the history, but he is looking forward to meeting the 1969 alums. Nelson said he expects about a dozen to show up.

Ghosts

As he traveled back 40 years, Nelson said he remembered an old football player who seemed enthralled by the haphazard games. He believes it was "General" Lawrence Whiting, class of 1912, but being a college freshman at the time, he wasn't quite sure.

"Almost every game, I remember him being there," Nelson said of the man. "He told me, he told everybody, anybody who would listen to him, that he promised Stagg on his deathbed that he would represent him when the university brought football back. This old guy was wrapped up in blankets, but he was there for our first game against the Wheaton junior varsity and he was there for several other games. I remember him being there for our last games. It was in the 30s, and they tried to get him to go inside, to stay warm. But he refused."

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He can be reached at jgreenberg@espnchicago.com.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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