The buses came to a stop, the band struck up a patriotic tune, and giggly cheerleaders from the local high school began performing a choreographed routine. Before a colorful autumnal backdrop provided by the Sharp Mountains, several dozen of the youngest students at John S. Clarke Elementary School in Pottsville, Pa., held yellow or blue balloons. All the children were wearing huge grins.
"The kids are so starry-eyed and excited," said Jack Spleen, a fourth-grade teacher at the school. "Quite a few of them couldn't even sleep the past few nights."
It was late October, and college football had come to this blue-collar town (pop. 18,000) 30 miles southwest of Jim Thorpe, Pa., and some 100 miles east of Joe Paterno. But it wasn't just college football. It was Army-Navy football, and the locals were putting on their best show.
Necks were strained and eyebrows raised as the citizens of Pottsville watched players step from the buses. The athletes were resplendent in their military uniforms: proud, disciplined, big, burly....
Cut! Wait a minute. Not big, not burly. These guys were college football players? The town had rolled out the red carpet for what appeared to be a busload of place-kickers, each hovering around 5'7" in cleats and weighing about 165 pounds soaking wet. Who had cast this scene? Mickey Rooney?
Welcome to lightweight football, which is the same as its heavyweight cousin in every way except that the combined weight of any two of its players equals that of some Big Ten linemen. That and the fact that players aren't recruited, games aren't scouted, fans are usually hard to come by, and the five schools that make up the Eastern Lightweight Football League (ELFL) field the only five teams in existence.
Army and Navy have won or shared 42 of the last 47 league titles. Since the two service academies all but own the Robert L. Cullen Trophy (named after longtime Cornell coach Bob Cullen, the Bear Bryant of the sport), they can boast of having the best lightweight football teams on earth. Some might say this is like claiming to be the world's tallest midget.
But to the residents of Pottsville, which hosts the annual Anthracite Bowl game between Army, most years, and another ELFL team, the lightweight players are larger than life. Says Spleen, "To the kids, seeing these athletes perform on the field is just as exciting as watching professional football players."
There are, however, more players in the NFL than in lightweight football. Only Cornell, Penn, Princeton and, of course, Army and Navy offer the sport. The game, in fact, is all but unknown outside these five schools, though it has been around for more than six decades.
The Eastern 150-Pound Football League, as it was first called, was founded in 1934 under the guidance of a Rutgers University athletic director named, appropriately, George Little. Seven schools joined the new league: Cornell, Lafayette, Pennsylvania, Princeton, Rutgers, Villanova and Yale. Early rules required that all players weigh no more than 150 pounds 48 hours before game time, a limit that has since been bumped up to 158 pounds. The result is still the same: a unique brand of football in which linemen are often faster than halfbacks and smaller than kickers.