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18 Oct 2004

Confessions of a Football Junkie: Ivy Style

By Russell Levine

In the last 15 seasons, dating to my freshman year at Michigan, I can count on one hand the number of Wolverine games that I have missed, either in person or on TV. There were one or two that weren't televised or available on pay-per-view and a few other occasions that prevented me from watching. I can recall a total of four games that I didn't see in any form, and maybe one or two others that I had to watch on the VCR the next day.

So what could possibly possess me to miss Saturday's Michigan-Illinois contest in favor of attending Brown at Princeton? (A feat that I believe that put me one-up on all the Outsiders who are Brown grads in terms of number of games attended, or at least Aaron).

Simple -- it was the opportunity for my wife, Susan, and I to take the kids, four-year old Trevor and two-year old Lindsay, to their first football game.

The Levine family: (from left) Trevor, Russell, Lindsay, Grandpa, and Granny at the Brown-Princeton game on Saturday.

I have very few passions in my life beyond my family, my work, the sport of football in general and Michigan football in particular. And there's nothing I'd like more than to share that last passion with my family and pass it on to my children.

It's a work in progress. Last week I spent six days taking care of the kids while Susan attended a professional conference. We had a wonderful time, just the three of us, going to the park, going to the store, going to school, etc., but two of the best moments involved football.

Saturday afternoon I was watching Minnesota-Michigan (on TiVo, about an hour behind real time, after taking the kids to a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese). I had just gotten Lindsay down for her nap and turned the game on. Trevor was intently playing with his Matchbox cars, as he loves to do, when Michigan scored a touchdown on its first drive. Trevor, hearing the band strike up the fight song, blurted out "Daddy, it's the Hail to the Victors song!" and proceeded to sing the chorus at my urging, although it still comes out sounding like "Hail to the Victors giant."

The other moment came when Lindsay climbed into my lap and asked to watch football with me on Sunday afternoon during the Buccaneers-Saints game. She's fascinated by the helmets and uniform numbers. "Look Daddy, he's two just like I'm two!" she said about Chris Simms. She wondered why some of the people didn't have helmets on, but now she knows that the man with the headphones is the coach. And she decided she liked the team in the black shirts (the Saints) even though I told her they were going to lose.

I want my kids to pursue their own dreams in and interests, but I'd love it if they would share mine as well. I can't wait to teach both of them (Susan knows a lot about football -- it was no accident that she beat me head-to-head picking college games last week -- and I want my daughter to be the same) about the subtleties of the game, have them choose favorite teams, and experience the unique thrill of fretting over a big game.

So it was with all that in mind that we met my parents at Princeton Stadium for an Ivy League contest on Saturday. It was a trip that brought back a lot of memories for me. I grew up in Princeton from the age of eight and my parents still live there. We had season tickets for years and it was where I cut my teeth as a college football fan.

I was in Palmer Stadium (the giant antiquated bowl was replaced by a much more quaint venue in 1997 and renamed at the same time) in 1981 when Bob Holly, who would go on to earn a Super Bowl ring as a backup with the Redskins, threw for 501 yards and four touchdowns to lead Princeton to a 35-31 upset of Yale. I remember students storming the field and tearing down the goalposts after that game, the first time I learned of that tradition.

I served as a ball boy on the sidelines for a couple of years in the mid 1980s, which was pretty much like being in heaven for a football-obsessed kid like me. It was during those years that I decided I wanted to play football, something I did for two seasons in high school, though not very well. As a ball boy, I had the best seat in the house -- standing in front of the coach -- something I liked to point out to jealous friends.

I used to play catch on the sidelines with Jason Garrett, who was sitting out a year after transferring from Columbia. I tried to catch every pass with my hands as I had been taught and not show him how much his hard throws were hurting my fingers. I would bring Princeton defensive back (and future TV Superman) Dean Cain his towel and a cup of water each time he came off the field and see his girlfriend, then-Princeton student Brooke Shields, waiting for him outside the locker room after games.

My parents were both exposed to the unique attributes of Ivy League football as Cornell students in the 1960s and have never lost their love of those things that make the "Ancient Eight" game experience unique. There's the tailgating (think Mercedes SUVs and Volvo wagons instead of RVs, wine and cocktails instead of Natty Light, pate instead of brats) and stadium fashion (more fur coats than team jackets, more loafers without socks than work boots, and certainly no cold weather hunting gear like you find in the Big Ten).

The new Princeton Stadium is a gem, with all 27,800 seats right on top of the action. It was perhaps a little more than half full on Saturday, leaving plenty of room to move around with the kids. The last time I had that much open space at a Big Ten game, Vinny and I were sitting in the student section at Penn State on a day the stadium was packed with snow. As more and more snowballs found their targets -- the morons in the Michigan gear -- more and more fans moved away from the visitors who were under siege.

And then there's the football itself, which isn't bad. What you find in the Ivy League are kids that are maybe a step slow or a little small. There are probably a handful of kids on each team that could play Division IA but have the grades to get into an Ivy League school and chose that route instead.

The rosters of both teams are dotted with players from prep powerhouses like Mater Dei in Southern California, Cincinnati's Moeller High and Central Bucks West in Pennsylvania. Maybe they weren't standouts at those schools, but they certainly know big-time football at the high-school level.

The game was a tight 3-0 battle at halftime, before Brown capitalized on a turnover to grab a 7-3 lead. It doesn't matter what level of football you're watching, some rules, such as going deep after a turnover, still apply.

The score served as a wakeup call for Princeton, which is enjoying a resurgent season after suffering through at 2-8 campaign in 2003. The Tigers returned the kickoff 77 yards, leading to a touchdown by Jon Veach, and later turned an interception into another short touchdown. Princeton's final score came on a 50-yard pass from Matt Verbit to Brian Shields for a 24-10 win.

For the kids, the outing served as a positive introduction to the live game. I managed to teach them to watch the ball as it was kicked and to notice all the numbers on the field. Plus, it was "Community Day" at the stadium, with games, balloons, face painting and a moon jump, so there was plenty else for them to do.

One of these days, I'll take the whole family to a Michigan game, but it's going to be a few years. The kids will have to be really interested before I shell out some $200 for four tickets (Princeton tickets were $7). And the next time they have kid-friendly activities, or amenities of any kind, at Michigan Stadium, will be the first.

Given the chance to go home (and catch the end of the Michigan game on TV) with the kids at the end of the third quarter -- rain was approaching and their attention span had long since been exhausted -- I chose to remain at the game with my dad until the issue was decided.

Besides, it's not like I had no clue what was going on in Champaign. My Blackberry provided some spotty play-by-play updates and I called Seventh Day Adventure partner Vin for an halftime breakdown while taking Trevor for a walk around the stadium, so I knew that Michigan had struggled early but appeared to have things in control.

I'm not sure when our next family football outing will take place -- perhaps another Princeton game next fall. It may be a few years before the kids understand the complexities of the zone blitz, but you have to start somewhere.

* * *

We were all back at my parents' house in plenty of time to catch the college game of the day as Wisconsin faced Purdue in a battle of undefeated teams. Purdue is known for its offense, led by Heisman-candidate quarterback Kyle Orton, while Wisconsin came in with the nation's top-ranked defense.

It was tough to know what to make of this game, given that neither team had yet played a top opponent, but in the end, good defense beat good offense as Wisconsin bottled up Purdue and contained Orton all day.

Despite its defensive effort, it appeared that Purdue would salt the game away as Orton took a naked bootleg for a clock-eating first down with the lead in the final minutes. There was just one problem on the play -- instead of falling at the first-down line, Orton stayed on his feet and was hit by a pair of Wisconsin defenders, sending him head over heels. As he spun, he lost the football when it hit the knee of one of the tacklers, and it was picked up by Scott Starks and returned 40 yards for what would become the winning touchdown.

Purdue had a chance to send the game to overtime, but kicker Ben Jones missed a 42-yard field goal in the final seconds.

With the win, Wisconsin gained a leg up in the Big Ten race. The Badgers and Wolverines are the only teams undefeated in conference play, but they don't face each other this season -- which has been a frustrating accident of scheduling for the conference in recent years. Since Wisconsin went undefeated in non-conference play while Michigan lost to Notre Dame, the Badgers will get the conference's automatic BCS bid should both schools win out.

Purdue is still alive in the conference race, and Orton in the Heisman race, but the Boilermakers will have to rebound quickly because Michigan visits West Lafayette next Saturday. The Wolverines' athletic defense will provide another stiff test for Orton, and their new-found ground game -- true freshman tailback Mike Hart had 234 yards rushing against Illinois -- provides offensive balance. Unfortunately, with Purdue no longer undefeated, I'm not sure I'll be able to raise the interest of my Purdue-grad (and very casual football fan) brother this week.

That's too bad, because I spent part of last week trying to dream up a personal-humiliation wager for us. Jon if you're reading -- I'm calling you out. Purdue is going down and we need to have something on the line this week. If anyone has any suggestions for a creative and friendly wager, please email me here. I'm looking for something different. I've already sung the Notre Dame fight song in front of co-workers, had a Notre Dame grad record a glowing tribute to Michigan as my outgoing voice mail message, and worn a green suit with Michigan State tie on a casual Friday.

While I'm talking about the Maize and Blue, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the following: Ohio State is 0-3 in conference play this season. Trogdor, please discuss.

* * *

I may have to rename the Mike Martz Award yet again if Seattle coach Mike Holmgren keeps up his recent antics. You'll recall that it was Holmgren's clock follies that cost the Seahawks dearly in last week's meltdown against St. Louis. Lost in the hoopla over New England's win over Seattle this week were some more shaky decisions by Holmgren.

The Seahawks shook off a sloppy first half -- which often seems to afflict West Coast teams playing early starts in the Eastern time zone -- to get back into the game in the second half. Seattle trailed, 23-17, when it took possession with 6:38 remaining and all three timeouts. Moving efficiently down the field while conserving their timeouts, Seattle eventually stalled at the New England 12-yard line, where it faced 4th-and-9.

A field goal was the obvious choice, as there was plenty of time remaining to get the ball back, but Seattle should have been ready to either send in the field-goal unit or take its first timeout. Instead, the Seahawks allowed nearly 40 seconds to bleed off the rolling clock before Josh Brown connected on a 31-yarder to make it 23-20.

The Seahawks used their first timeout on defense, stopping the clock before a 3rd-and-7 play on which Tom Brady went on to hit Bethel Johnson for a 48-yard gain. Even though it lost the replay challenge, Seattle probably would have taken a timeout in that spot anyway. The next snap brought the clock to the two-minute warning, before Corey Dillon scored on a nine-yard run on second down.

This is when those wasted seconds before the field-goal try came back to haunt Seattle, but the Seahawks still had a chance at a miraculous finish had Holmgren made some different choices. Needing two scores to tie, Seattle moved to the New England 18-yard line with 29 seconds left, but kept taking shots at the end zone until the clock expired. Why not kick a field goal as soon as they got in range, then take a chance on the onsides kick and a Hail Mary pass? As I said, it still would take a miracle, but why not at least give yourself the option?

Holmgren's hide was saved this week by Jets coach Herm Edwards, who committed the sin of -- say it with me now -- going for two before the fourth quarter!

Edwards' undefeated Jets were flat for much of the game against San Francisco and trailed, 14-3, before scoring on a 17-yard Lamont Jordan run with 3:26 left in the third quarter. Edwards elected to go for two, despite more than 18 minutes remaining in the game. Jordan was stuffed, leaving the Jets with a five-point deficit, 14-9.

Two possessions later, the Jets scored another touchdown to take a one-point lead with 11:45 left. Edwards tried to make up the lost point with another two-pointer, but this one was also no good. Two extra points would have put the Jets up a field goal; instead they were in position to be beaten by a field goal.

That's exactly what might have happened if San Francisco coach Dennis Erickson hadn't trumped Edwards' bad call with one of his own. The 49ers reached the New York 27 with 5:17 to play when Erickson called for an end-around to Arnaz Battle. The exchange was fumbled and the play lost eight yards back to the 35. That's simply too risky a play call in that situation. End-arounds and reverses can be great plays, but they can fail just as spectacularly. Needing a field goal to take the lead, it was a needless risk of field position. The 49ers ended up punting from the Jet 35-yard line (another head-scratcher. How do you not attempt a 52-yarder for the lead with 4:30 to play?) passing up their last, best chance to win.

In a tight race, Erickson's end-around and "fraidy-cat" punt earn him the Martz nod over Edwards, with Holmgren second runner-up.

Third runner-up goes to yours truly, for allowing my football-knowing wife to make a fool of me in last week's Seventh Day Adventure. Vin, looks like you'll have to enjoy Vegas without me. I'll be watching Michigan-Ohio State with Trevor and Lindsay.

Posted by: Russell Levine on 18 Oct 2004

1 comment, Last at 23 Jun 2005, 3:30pm by jehpthan


by jehpthan (not verified) :: Thu, 06/23/2005 - 3:30pm

i well like to play football in england if you have any application pls mail me