Not all of the students who show up in Pasadena are athletic novices. Jonathan Brown, the tailback two seasons ago, turned down football scholarships from several Division I-A schools. He quit the Beavers last year, however, to devote more time to classwork. He told a disappointed, but understanding, Parker that he had decided he would rather be Cal-tech's first black electrical engineer than its first black tailback.
The disparate levels of football prowess can be frustrating for some of the players. Martin Brouillette (thesis: Shock Induced Rayleigh-Taylor Instability), the quarterback last season, says, "You throw the ball right to them and they don't catch it. They know what they have to do, but sometimes they can't physically do it."
That sense of physical inadequacy is the reason many of the Caltech players have never played before. Parker says, "Lots of our guys have had negative experiences in phys ed and sports. They were always the last guys picked. They ended up hating athletics."
Last year at Caltech, 79.1% of the undergraduates participated in phys ed classes or intramural or intercollegiate sports. What changed for those people who felt unwelcome in high school sports but welcome in Caltech sports?
R. Scott Miskovish (research: Stresses on a space shuttle turboprop), the Beavers' center for the past three years, was attracted by the Caltech style. "I went to watch the first scrimmage. On the first play, they had a 60-yard touchdown scored against them," says Miskovish. "I thought, This looks like a team I could fit into pretty well."
Anyone can fit into Parker's program. No one is ever cut, and everyone who comes to practice plays in the game. Parker says, "Sometimes it comes down to a time when we can ensure a victory or play everybody. We play everybody and cross our fingers."
"Since it was a club team, they said anyone can play," says Davidson. "I took them at their word, being anyone." Davidson is a 50-year-old, world-renowned scientist, who wears cowboy boots and Western clothes and rides his Yamaha to the office. "I'm having an enjoyable second adolescence," says Davidson. "Not many guys get four letters between ages 46 and 49."
Davidson will testify that football serves a more important role at Caltech than it does at most Division I-A schools. It bridges gaps that are wider on the Caltech campus than they are at many large colleges. "The faculty is chosen here for research, not necessarily for teaching," says Davidson. "Students are chosen for their potential. They tend to be withdrawn, unconfident. The quickest way to bring faculty and students together is out on the football field."
"It's an outlet—the major one for students and faculty," says Ted Hurwitz, vice-president for institute relations. "You can't believe the intensity of the teaching around here. You need something, the intensity is just too great."
Why does an 18-year-old science whiz whose goal is a Nobel Prize or a revolutionary research breakthrough want to play football? "The only reason I can think of is that he enjoys it," says Parker. "He finds out he can do something that he didn't think he could do."