Band of brothers
Published: Tuesday, February 5, 2008
Updated: Tuesday, May 31, 2011 23:05
The Brandeis football team literally limped towards the finish line of the 1959 season. Bitten by the injury bug, the team's record was 0-7-1-the worst of the program's brief nine-year history-and a far cry from the sterling 6-1 mark accomplished just two seasons prior in 1957. With a talented group of underclassmen set to return for the 1960 campaign, the next season was supposed to be the one to get the program back on track.
But the team never got its shot at redemption.
Soon after the conclusion of the 1959 season, head coach Benny Friedman called a team meeting in the athletics office of Shapiro Gymnasium.
"Nobody had any idea of what the meeting was about," Martin Zelnik '61 said. "Nobody had a clue, including the captains and captains-elect [for next season]."
Friedman's message would be far worse than any loss experienced during the forgettable 1959 season. A somber head coach, the pioneer of Brandeis football delivered a very simple message to his players: The administration had cut ties with the football program.
"Everybody looked around and was shocked," Zelnik said. "There hadn't been any indication to any of us that this was going to happen."
Understandably, players were outraged.
"I was quite angry," end Mike Long '60 said. "I always wanted to look forward to attending football games [as an alumnus] and homecoming events."
"It was a heartbreaking situation. We were shattered that [Brandeis] would drop a program like that," Jim Stehlin, '57, a quarterback during his Brandeis career, said. "To be very honest, some of the football players felt used. Maybe at the time [football] was right for some publicity but when we had done what we were supposed to do, they wanted to go in a different direction. It still hurts today."
Football, after just nine years of existence at Brandeis in which it had helped bring an identity to the young university founded in 1948, soon faded into oblivion. There was little outcry from the student body. The Justice had planned a series of articles looking into how the loss of football would affect the school, but only ran one story.
Half of the bleachers surrounding the football field were sold, and the once brand-new press box became rusty, towering over a decaying scoreboard, according to a 1971 article in the Justice. Fast forward to the present day and the press box and scoreboard, along with the rest of the stands, no longer remain, and Gordon Field, home of the varsity soccer teams, is equipped with just a few rows of seating.
WHY WAS FOOTBALL DROPPED?
Abram L. Sachar, the first president of the University, wrote that Brandeis "reluctantly" decided to have a football program after its founding, according to his biography of Brandeis' inception, called "A Host at Last." Sachar wrote that he understood the importance of diversifying the student body while also raising funds for the University, and he felt one way to do this early on was through the addition of a collegiate athletic program that included a football team.
Sachar approached Friedman to serve as the school's athletic director and head football coach. A two-time all-American quarterback at the University of Michigan, Friedman is considered the sport's first great passing quarterback. He played eight seasons in the National Football League with four different teams and was named to the football Hall of Fame in 2005. When the Detroit Lions, Friedman's team, refused to trade him the to the New York Giants in 1929, Giants owner Tim Mara purchased the entire Detroit franchise in order to secure Friedman's services.
Friedman proved to be just as popular at Brandeis. Bob Weintraub '55, the student manager of the football team in the early 1950s, wrote in his 1998 article "More than Passing Greatness" that Sachar and Friedman "were a regular horse-and-pony show in those early years, traveling, like vaudevillians on the circuit, all over the country, going wherever anyone would give them an audience, promoting Brandeis as a nonsectarian university, enlisting supporters, and convincing those growing thousands of 'foster alumni' to donate generously."
Friedman used his notoriety to recruit players for his team, tapping into his native Midwest talent pool. In the early seasons, the team played games in Detroit, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, Fla. and Miami for fundraising opportunities.
But finances were not the ultimate reason for the program being dropped. In his book, Sachar stressed that as Brandeis became a more competitive institution academically, he did not want to be turning away "better-qualified applicants" in order to field a football team.
Friedman resisted the decision and served two more years as athletic director before stepping down.
Former players were equally taken aback by the University's decision. Myron Uhlberg '55, a defensive back, took offense to Sachar's reasoning, pointing out the success many of his teammates experienced as students at Brandeis or after they graduated. Dee Tyson '55 used to tutor non-football players in physics. Stehlin went on to teach, coach football and serve as an athletic director at the high school level. Long served as a foreign currency analyst in London and Paris. Zelnik, a five-sport athletic star at Brandeis, went on to a career in architecture and education. Bill McKenna '55, a wide receiver for the team, was a geophysicist for an oil company in Canada. Uhlberg himself is currently a successful author.
RELIVING THE PROGRAM'S PAST
Under Freidman's guidance, Brandeis enjoyed success beginning in its inaugural campaign in 1951. Typically playing in eight or nine contests per year, the Judges recorded at least five wins in a season four different times. They held their own against larger schools like Boston College, the University of Massachusetts and the University of New Hampshire.
Box scores and press releases, however, only tell a small part of the story, as some former players say.
"As the years go by, the statistics, wins and losses don't really mean as much as the opportunity to play and the people you played with," Stehlin said.
Stehlin had a strong relationship with McKenna, both on and off the field. With Friedman as coach, it made sense that Stehlin and McKenna combined to form a lethal quarterback-wide receiver tandem. Stehlin is the school's leader in nearly every statistical passing category, while McKenna paces the production for all Brandeis receivers in receiving yards and total points scored. After the duo enjoyed a successful 1952 season, they were primed to continue their chemistry into the 1953 season.
"Stehlin and I went away to summer camp together [before the start of the season] in the Pokonos and practiced literally every day together," McKenna said. "When kids were having their one-hour naps, [Stehlin] would throw me passes, and I would run pass patterns. I would run, run, run, and he would pass, pass, pass."
But, Stehlin received a draft notice for the Korean War, as many Brandeis players during this period were drafted into service. As a result, he missed the 1953 and 1954 seasons, and McKenna, after spending an entire summer bonding with the starting quarterback, found himself having to adapt to backup Tom Egan's '55 style. The two hit it off immediately, however and in just the second game of the 1953 season, McKenna had a school-record four touchdown receptions against the University of Bridgeport.
Still, even today, Stehlin wishes he got the chance to spend more than one year throwing passes to McKenna.
"If there was one thing I really felt bad about when I left for the army was I didn't have the opportunity to play again with Billy McKenna," Stehlin said. "We had an outstanding sophomore year together, just terrific."
But they were not the only ones who bonded with each other. Teammates often roomed together, and players convened in the "dungeon" of the Castle for team dinners, where a mysterious purple juice was served.
Uhlberg's father, who was legally deaf, would schlep a 50-pound care package filled with salami, other delicatessen and chocolate-chip cookies from Brooklyn, N.Y. to Waltham for the team to enjoy, despite having to change trains multiple times along the way.
"What took my mother a week to bake took an hour for the team to eat," said Uhlberg, who suggested his mother would have been horrified to know her hard work was consumed at such a rapid pace.
The team bonded on road trips as well. Traveling to parts of New York, Florida, Pennsylvania and even the Midwest gave many players a unique experience.
"As a generalization-but a valid one-99.9 percent [of the players], before they went to Brandeis, never went 10 miles outside of their hometowns. It was mostly because of financial reasons; we were not wealthy people," Uhlberg said. "To get on an airplane was a big deal. It was such a change of circumstances that you were thrown together and bonded."
Despite Brandeis' status as a new school, the football team had nice accommodations while on the road. Aside from going to movies the night before games, players got to experience firsthand large cities like Detroit.
"The night before the game we'd have the night off. Four guys would jump in a cab. In my case [I was with] Uhlberg, Bobby Domozych '54 and Dick Collins '54," McKenna said. "One time, we took the tunnel into Canada and did some shopping. It was my first trip to Canada; I was 19 years old. Who would have guessed I'd spend the next 50 years up here?"
Friedman also played a large role in the players' development. Quiet and reserved, Friedman still had the physique of a world-class athlete, even into his later years. He was known as a demanding coach, and he made sure his teams were mentally prepared for each game, regardless of whether or not the opposition was physically superior.
Despite his reputation, however, Friedman, in his own unique way, revealed his compassionate side as well, especially when he permitted Uhlberg's father to roam the sidelines of home games as if he were part of the coaching staff.
"It was just a small hint at what a decent human being this guy was," Uhlberg said. "At the time none of us gave him credit. This imperious, cruel, self-confident individual, who everyone therefore thought was arrogant, in fact, in his own quiet way, was a marvelous human being."
PRESERVING THE "GOLDEN AGE"
It's been roughly 50 years since their respective playing careers came to an end, but the bond still remains strong between Brandeis football alums. Although dispersed across the continent, the players keep in constant communication, whether it's by weekly phone conversations, going on vacations together, or attending family weddings.
With the creation of the Brandeis Athletic Hall of Fame in 1993 and the biannual induction ceremonies, dozens of former players flock to the Waltham area to honor teammates. Currently, 16 men associated with the program have been enshrined.
Recently, McKenna and Weintraub, along with other players, wrote letters on behalf of Uhlberg to the selection committee to try to ensure his selection, and as a result of their advocacy, Uhlberg is set to be inducted this spring.
Uhlberg was quite humbled by this news.
"It's quite a recognition," he said. "It's a physical expression of the love my teammates have for me and the love I have for them."
The players also worked together on two ambitious projects honoring Benny Friedman, who died in 1982 at the age of 77. The first came in 1998 during the 50th anniversary celebration of the University. No plans had been made to recognize Friedman, so a group of 20 players got together and coordinated an evening in his honor.
Besides writing More Than Passing Greatness, Weintraub helped produce a documentary about the coach, and Dick Baldachi '55, a distinguished artist, sculpted a bronze bust of Friedman which is now on display in the Gosman Sports and Convocation Center.
The group reconvened in 2005 to attempt to get Friedman into the National Football League Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Letters were sent to each of the 39 hall-of-fame voters to boost Friedman's candidacy, and once again, advocacy worked best.
Friedman was enshrined with the class of 2005, and fittingly, Dan Marino of the Miami Dolphins and Steve Young of the San Francisco 49ers, two of pro-football's finest quarterbacks in this generation, were part of the same induction class. Like they had done so many times before, the players, overcome with emotion, traveled as a group to Ohio to watch the induction live.
"We assumed, especially with a guy like Benny Friedman at Brandeis, football would go on. We were the foot soldiers, the guys who started it. We never thought it was going to end," Weintraub said.
Stehlin sees something unique about being one of the few students ever to play football at Brandeis.
"Had they continued football, if they continued it on a low level, maybe we wouldn't have had this strong bond," he said. "But the bond became stronger because football was dropped. It means something to us that we can retain that, so we do."
A few artifacts in the athletic center or in the University archives remain the only physical evidence that football ever existed at Brandeis.
Yet, while the football program ended before President Dwight D. Eisenhower left the White House, this group of teammates helps keep the memories alive today.