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Scarff Downing
December 09, 1963
In a void of cheers a Princeton 150-pound footballer writes of a small, bruising world filled with dedication, perspiration—and the ever-present menace of the boiler room routine
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December 09, 1963

Bumpy Journey To Oblivion

In a void of cheers a Princeton 150-pound footballer writes of a small, bruising world filled with dedication, perspiration—and the ever-present menace of the boiler room routine

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Alan Gray, a sophomore end, is sitting across from me. "You guys beat Navy last year, didn't you?" he asks.

"Yes, and was that ever an upset. The funny part was that we played in their own varsity stadium. Great big place, seemed like there was room for 60,000 people, but there weren't more than 50 there. They were using the PA system to keep the fans informed and it echoed like crazy. One time I made a tackle and I was still getting credit for it a few plays later."

Rutgers arrives. They are dressing in the room right next to ours. There is a stir in the hall and they begin to file by our open door. Those guys are 150s? Couldn't be. It happens every time. The other team looks like it has an abundance of 200-pounders. I wonder if we look as big to them.

Everyone is dressed and sitting around on the floor and benches. Waiting. Judd Timm, assistant coach, begins to give last-minute instructions. Things we already know, but it's good to go over them once more. I sit wrapping my hands with tape as I listen. Every finger gets attention. Really, it doesn't serve any purpose. It's a nervous habit. I get so much tape on my hands by game time that it annoys me and I take it all off. Right now it's something to do.

Finally we start to move. The sitting is over. At first we walk. Up the stairs and out of the locker room. Past the jayvee game, which has already started. A Cornell halfback receives a short Princeton punt. He fakes left and goes right, picks up a blocker, spins off a tackier and is finally brought down. We start to run. My mind snaps back to what is at hand.

Of all the things in football, I hate pregame warmups the most. All they do is to postpone the game. By now the feeling of tension is so tight that I think I'll pop. This is good.

At our games it's a rare crowd that can drown out the noise of two butterflies fighting in the end zone. Today's crowd—and I use the term loosely—is no different. You can almost classify every spectator. The men and women are parents, the girls are the dates of the players, and the boys are roommates who have finally come to the game they promised to see last season. The rest of the people think they're watching the freshman game. They usually give themselves away with a remark like, "Sure, the backs are quick, but Dartmouth will make mincemeat out of that line."

We win the toss and elect to receive. Last-minute bumping with teammates to get ready. I hit my helmet a few times. Once my head gets ringing, it's easier to convince myself to run into people. The referee lines us up.

Then the whistle. The kicker drops his arm and approaches the ball. The leg swings, a dull thud. The ball goes over my head to the right. Fourth man in from the right. Drop back to meet the ballcarrier. Keep defensive man in sight. From behind me, "go." Drive forward. Cross body block. Down. Roll. Hard earth feels good. The tension is gone. From here on it's all football.

My first thought is that we will take them. But things quickly turn against us. They get a drive going that eventually gives them a touchdown. We're hitting hard but not using our heads. We get the ball near the end of the half and drive to their one-yard line. We stall and they take over on downs. The next play we catch them in the end zone for a safety. The half ends with the score 7-2.

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