But there is a football tradition at Swarthmore. In the 1980s, the college twice shared the Centennial Conference championship. It had not beaten Gettysburg in five years, however, and the game was expected to be close and tough.
While the players taped up and dressed, coach Fran Meagher worried about the weather—rain would hurt his pass-oriented game—and talked about the common theme of programs like his: "These kids have a lot on their plates. We can't expect them to make every practice, so what we do ask is that they let us know when they're going to be missing. A phone call goes a long way. But because they're highly motivated, a lot of them will do the little bit of extra work. I've had kids ask me for the key to the weight room so they could come down and lift after they got through studying at 10 at night.
"We even have conflicts with the games. Last year, one of our best receivers, Bob McCann, had to take his law boards on a game Saturday. He scheduled them over at Villanova [like Swarthmore, a suburb of Philadelphia] and had his father drive him. When he finished, they jumped in the car, and he dressed on the way down and got here in time for the second half. Caught two balls. One was a 75-yarder for a touchdown. We might have won that game if we'd had him in the first half. But what are you going to do?" Swarthmore lost to Ursinus, 31-25. McCann got into law school.
At this level of football, it seems, there is never any question about priorities.
For Gettysburg, Meagher had his full squad, and except for one short shower, the rain held off. In spite of a low sky the color of an old bruise, 300 or 400 people were in the stands for the kickoff.
"O.K., men," one of the Swarthmore players shouted, "animal-instincts time."
Swarthmore took the ball the length of the field on its first possession, largely on the running of senior cocaptain Billy Martin, an experimental psychology major who had been worried when he enrolled at Swarthmore that he wouldn't cut it academically with his modest 1,090 SATs.
From the sidelines, the game had the feel of any other football game. You shared the frustration of the contain man against the option when the opposing quarterback waited until just the right moment and pitched to the trailing back. You concentrated with the cornerback, trying to stay step for step with a wideout, waiting until he looked back before you tried to find the ball. It was good, competitive football.
On another Swarthmore possession, wide receiver Chris Walsh saw that a pass on its way to him was sure to be picked off, so he timed his hit precisely, and when he collided with the intercepting defensive back, the sound seemed to go straight to your bones as the ball popped loose. This is a contact sport, and when the contact is good, the size of the stadium and the name of the conference and even the ability of the players seem unimportant. The hitting is the thing.
In the second quarter, with the sky getting lower and the wind picking up, Gettysburg began to move the ball. But Walsh, who was now playing safety, stepped in front of a Gettysburg receiver and took an interception 90 yards to put Swarthmore up 18-0.