They were, with apologies to Chuck Bednarik, the last of the 60-minute men. Of the 19 students who suited up for Oberlin's season finale two years ago, only quarterback James Parker had not played on both sides of the ball that fall. "We did it all," says center-defensive lineman Chris Lavin, who was a freshman then. "Offense, defense, special teams, some guys playing every down."
Of course, little glory is conferred upon any player, even a two-way player, who suits up for a team that is outscored 358-10 and fails to score a touchdown on offense, as was the case with Oberlin in 1994. Indeed, having to play both ways under such circumstances seems less an honor than a sentence. "I remember the 83-0 loss to Allegheny," says Adam Shoemaker, who played free safety, tight end and fullback for the Yeomen in '94 and who graduated last spring. "I'd look at the Allegheny sideline and see players stretched from one end zone to the other. Must have been 100 of them. Then I'd look at our sideline, where there were more people out of uniform than in uniform."
Oberlin players no longer have to play the whole game, but that doesn't mean the Yeomen's fortunes have improved. Last fall they were outscored 469-72 and finished 0-10. extending their losing streak to 30. Only Division I-AA Prairie View A&M, which has lost an NCAA-record 57 consecutive games, has a longer streak. Haplessness was not always the case at Oberlin, which, like Prairie View, boasts a rich football history. John Heisman was a player-coach for the Yeomen in 1892 and coached the team two years later. Oberlin was the last Ohio school to defeat powerhouse Ohio State, doing so in 1921 by the score of 7-6. "If you go back, you'll find that football occupies a special place at Oberlin," says third-year coach Pete Peterson. "As for people's suggestions that we would be better off without football, that's crazy. Absolutely crazy."
Yet against the backdrop of its recent history, the notion that there was a Golden Age of Oberlin football seems impossible. On the 2,800-student campus today, the game is viewed by some as an underground activity. The school has other things to recommend it, of course. Oberlin has been admitting women since it was founded in 1833. Two years later the school opened its doors to African-American students, becoming the first college in the U.S. to admit both women and blacks. Oberlin is also famed for its music program, which turns out world-renowned sopranos and tenors with the same regularity that Penn State mints NFL linebackers. "Oberlin doesn't get its identity from football," says history major Lavin. "I think there are some people on campus who still don't know we have a team."
You can hardly blame folks for pleading ignorance. Oberlin football has been so frightful in the 1990s, during which the team's record is 2-56, that the Yeomen have actually kept the clock running at home games when time should have been out. Although Peterson denies this has happened on his watch, athletic director Don Hunsinger admits, "A few years back, before Pete got here, there was, yes, some, uh, clock management."
If only that were the worst of it. In 1992, after a 56-0 loss to Allegheny, injuries and attrition had reduced the roster to 16, forcing Oberlin to forfeit its subsequent game against Wittenberg. There was some perverse solace to be taken from the forfeit, though. "Nobody got hurt," says one school official, "and a forfeit shows up as a 6-0 loss in the books, which was better than most of our scores."
Peterson took over the Yeomen in June 1994. With the roster nearly depleted and only two months to recruit new bodies, he sent a letter to every incoming and returning male student. "I don't remember exactly what it said," Peterson says. "Something like, if you've ever dreamed of playing college football, we'd like to have you come out.' We just didn't have time to recruit the conventional way. If that meant taking a guy who had never played football before, that's what we did."
Shoemaker was among the handful of Walter Mittys who took Peterson up on his offer. He had played on the tennis and soccer teams at Oberlin, and in the spring of 1994 several of his friends suggested he give football a try, although he had never played the sport in an organized league. Shoemaker broached the subject with Hunsinger, who at the time doubled as the tennis coach and the football team's defensive coordinator. Initially Hunsinger dismissed the query as a joke. "Gradually, though, he took me more seriously," recalls Shoemaker. "By the end of the semester he came up to me and said, 'I think you'd make a pretty good football player. Maybe you should give it a try.' He was impressed by my attacking style, the way I'd do anything to get to a ball, like running into the net or into the curtain that surrounded the indoor courts. I thought about it during the summer; then the letter came [from Peterson], and I decided to go through with football."
Throughout the 0-9 season of '94, Peterson never had more than 24 active players. After the second week of preseason workouts, no contact was allowed in practice. When players were excused for lab classes, exams and injuries, coaches participated in drills. It wasn't uncommon to see Hunsinger faking a handoff to Peterson in the backfield and then firing the ball downfield to defensive line coach Thomas Smith. Once, an out-of-town reporter was called upon to serve as a defensive back. Given those circumstances it comes as little surprise that the Yeomen's second-leading tackier that fall was none other than the 6'3", 190-pound Shoemaker.
The 44-year-old Peterson laughs grimly at these anecdotes. He is seated in a comfortable leather chair in the school's Heisman Room, which was donated by the school's Heisman Club in 1978. Above him hangs an elegant, four-foot-tall portrait of Heisman himself, his carriage slightly bent, a ball tucked under his right arm, his left arm thrust outward. It is the most recognizable pose in college football. Yet, even with a guardian angel like the great John Heisman watching over the program. Oberlin has had little success signing the players it has tried to recruit. In the last two years Peterson has sent letters to more than 20,000 prospects. But this year he will probably open the season with no more than 35 players. That is well short of the 79 with which most Division III teams play.