A rail line neatly bisects the Swarthmore College campus, leaving the athletic fields on the wrong side of the tracks. "We have an agreement with Coach," said junior safety Tony Hillery, seated outside Lamb-Miller Fieldhouse last Friday afternoon. "We don't diagram football plays when we're up there; we don't read Shakespeare when we're down here."
That contract with second-year coach Pete Alvanos notwithstanding, a glance at the team's record over the past several seasons leads to the conclusion that Bard-browsing is up, playbook-pondering down at the selective suburban Philadelphia institution that has sent, among others, James Michener and Michael Dukakis onto bigger and better things. Swarthmore's losing streak stood at 28, the longest in the country, going into last Saturday's game against Oberlin. The Garnet Tide's last victory—a dreary 2-0 shutout of Washington & Lee—occurred on Nov. 11, 1995.
But hopes were unusually high on the wrong side of the tracks last week, partly because Alvanos has brought a new spirit to campus, partly because Swarthmore had come close to winning on three occasions last season and partly because of the identity of the upcoming opponent, a highly rated academic institution whose conservatory could kick your conservatory's butt but whose football team had lost 59 of its last 60. Unlike Swarthmore's players, however, nine Yeomen had at least been in uniform for a W, that an 18-17 win over Thiel College in September 1997. "Saturday," pronounced Swarthmore senior offensive lineman Carlo Fitti, "something has to give."
It turned out to be overmanned Oberlin, assuring another fitful week for one John W. Heisman, who was the school's player-coach in 1892. Swarthmore turned a 14-6 halftime lead into a streak-shredding 42-6 rout that unleashed a frenzied celebration and the tearing down of the goalposts at Clothier Fields. Actually, frenzied is a little strong. The post-razing, in fact, had a calm, studied aspect about it, as if a couple dozen physics majors had gotten together and determined the most efficient way to do the deed.
The most surprising thing about the game, dubbed the Brain Bowl by Oberlin admissions counselor Paul Marthers, was not the offensive output of Swarthmore, which in the past 14 seasons had scored more than 40 points only once. Nor was it that Oberlin, despite dressing only 28 players and suffering two injuries to starters during the game, never stopped cracking the pads until the final whistle. The most surprising thing was that the game took place at all. Measly attendance that produces no revenue; student apathy; periods of mass defection from each team (seven Swarthmore players quit in one week two years ago); antifootball sentiment among the faculty—all of these make both schools prime candidates to drop the sport, as did Swarthmore's erstwhile archrival, nearby Haverford College, in 1972. The word you hear on both campuses, over and over and over, is tradition, but that doesn't quite explain why both schools have soldiered on with football. It has more to do with stubbornness and pride, with subscribing to the idea that you don't abandon something lightly, that you keep plugging away and maybe you turn a corner and things suddenly look brighter, which now appears to be the case at Swarthmore.
What you get from a game like Swarthmore-Oberlin are not great football moments, but great moments. There were Swarthmore deans Bob Gross and Tedd Goundie happily roaming the sidelines as Alvanos's honorary game coaches. "We thought about getting headphones and talking to each other as if we were actually doing something," said Goundie. There was Hillery stealing a glance into the stands and noting with satisfaction that his residence adviser had made good on a promise to bring over a couple dozen rooters from Willets Hall. There was injured Oberlin offensive lineman Barya Schachter pounding a clipboard and yelling, "All right, offense, let's go!" even though time had all but run out and the deficit was 36 points. There was hard-hitting senior middle linebacker Rick Kocher sheepishly but proudly recounting the other positions—fullback, offensive lineman, defensive lineman, punter and placekicker—he has played during his career because of Oberlin's thin rosters. "I even completed a pass off a fake punt," said Kocher. "I guess I wouldn't have had the chance to do that at many other schools."
There was Swarthmore athletic director Bob Williams, studying the crowd of about 2,000, the Garnet Tide's largest in many years, and saying with a smile, "Hmm, maybe we should start charging." There was Tom Blackburn, who has taught English at Swarthmore for 38 years and is considered the athletic department's biggest booster among the faculty, counting down the final seconds while receiving pats on the back and handshakes from fans all around him. "I should have something to quote from Shakespeare or Milton," said Blackburn, who was a lineman at Amherst from 1950 to 1953 and earned a Rhodes scholarship in 1954, "but words fail me." There was Tom Fitti triumphantly taking a photograph of the scoreboard and greeting his sweat-soaked son, Carlo, a senior guard, as he came off the field. And there they were, dissolving into tears.
"To see what Carlo's gone through and how he's never given up and how hard it's been," said Tom, searching for words. "Well, it's not like winning's everything, and it's not like I'm expecting a championship. But this win, this one win, makes it, well, nice."