Category Archives: Football

A memorable weekend for Penn sports

What a weekend.

From overtime heroics to last-second goals to penalty shootouts to routs of Princeton, these past couple of days simply had everything you can ask for if you’re a Penn sports fan. And best of all, it all came at home.

If you missed any of it, here’s a recap of Penn’s remarkable 5-0-1 record over the weekend, and what it means going forward as the fall season begins to wind down.



Despite record-breaking quarterback Billy Ragone being sidelined with a foot injury, the Quakers remained perfect in the Ivy League with a 28-17 win over Yale on Saturday at Franklin Field. Fifth-year senior Ryan Becker, who usually platoons with Ragone, completed 77 percent of his passes and threw for two touchdowns in the win, Penn’s seventh straight against Ivy competition. Running back Kyle Wilcox contributed 158 total yards and receiver Conner Scott caught a TD while eclipsing 1,000 career receiving yards.

Men's Soccer

Men’s Soccer

In one of the most dramatic games of the weekend, the Quakers beat Yale in overtime, 3-2, on the strength of a 94th-minute goal from senior Stephen Baker, who also assisted on Penn’s first two goals Saturday night at Rhodes Field. Goalkeeper Tyler Kinn allowed Penn to get to OT with a huge save in the final seconds of regulation. With a 3-0-1 record in the league, Penn now sits all alone in first place in the Ivies.

Women's Soccer

Women’s Soccer

It was the only game of the weekend that didn’t end in a Penn win – but it still produced one of the most thrilling moments. With time winding down and the Quakers about to drop a 1-0 decision to Yale on Saturday at Rhodes Field, Penn was awarded a penalty kick. And senior Kerry Scalora delivered, scoring the PK goal to tie the game at 1-1, which is how the score would remain through overtime. With a 3-1-1 Ivy record, the Quakers are tied for second place with Brown, behind only unbeaten Harvard.

Field Hockey

Field hockey

The new stadium continues to pay big dividends for the Quakers, who improved to 3-1-1 in the Ivy League and a whopping 10-1-4 overall with a 1-0 win over Yale in penalty strokes Saturday at Ellen Vagelos Field. Goalie Carly Sokach finished with 15 saves, tying a career-high, and led the way in what was the program’s first penalty stroke shootout since 2002. Penn currently sits just one game behind defending national champion Princeton, who they play, at home, in the regular-season finale on Nov. 9.



This one didn’t have the same kind of last-second heroics as some of the other games but the Friday night sweep of Princeton was just as satisfying. Alex Caldwell had 24 assists and four different Quakers had eight kills as Penn beat its rival, 25-19, 25-22, 25-20, at the Palestra on Friday night to even its Ivy League record at 4-4.

Sprint Football

Sprint football

Speaking of handily beating Princeton, Penn’s sprint football team hammered the Tigers, 72-29, under the lights of Franklin Field on Friday night, improving to 3-3 in the Collegiate Sprint Football League. The 72 points scored were the most in a single game since Penn put up 70 on Princeton in 2010. Quarterback Mike McCurdy led the way with 352 passing yards – the fourth most in Penn history – and four touchdowns.

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Penn’s Super Bowl connection

Flacco_1982 (3)When the Minnesota Vikings (who have former Penn safety Kevin Stefanski C’04 on its coaching staff) lost in the wild card round of the NFL playoffs and then the Green Bay Packers (who have former Penn offensive lineman Greg Van Roten W’12 on its roster) lost a week later, it looked like Penn wouldn’t have any representatives in Sunday’s Super Bowl pitting the San Francisco 49ers against the Baltimore Ravens.

But fear not, Penn football fans. There is, in fact, another connection. Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco’s father, Steve Flacco W’83, played football at Penn – and may have had one of the most important catches in program history.

Earlier this week, Philadelphia Daily News columnist and Penn graduate Rich Hofmann W’80 penned a great piece on his memories of the elder Flacco, who’s been interviewed a lot recently as media outlets around the country are trying to paint a picture of the Ravens starting QB. (The quote that’s getting the most attention is from a New York Times piece that quotes Steve as saying, “Joe is dull. As dull as he is portrayed in the media, he’s that dull. He is dull.”)

Hofmann focused on Penn’s 1982 win over Harvard for the Ivy League championship – which was dubbed “The Miracle on 33rd Street.” The game is best known for kicker Dave Shulman W’84 missing a game-winning field goal attempt as time expired but getting a second chance after a Harvard player was called for a roughing-the-kicker penalty. With no time left on the clock, Shulman made his next kick to send the Quakers to their first league title since 1959 — which, in many ways kickstarted, a sustained period of Ivy dominance at Franklin Field that still lasts today.

1982 Harvard FFI Cover

But what people may not remember from that legendary game is that it was Flacco who made the last catch of the drive right before Shulman took the field, getting Penn from the 33-yard-line to the 20-yard-line to put the Quakers into field goal range. You can watch the catch-and-run at the 2:00 minute mark of the video below.

And just three weeks before his heroics vs. Harvard, Flacco made another huge play, running for an 83-yard touchdown in a 27-14 victory over Yale. You can watch the video of that run here (the announcers say it was teammate Steve Rubin but it was actually Flacco.)

And finally, thanks to Eric Dolan in the Penn Athletics office, here are a couple of old photos of Flacco from his days at Franklin Field. Take a look at these and then raise a glass to dear old Penn as you watch the big game Sunday.
Flacco_1982 (1)Flacco_1982 (2)

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Here’s a toast to dear old Penn

This past year was a great one for Penn sports, as I tried to document with this list of memorable games. But it was also a sad one, as a few Quaker legends passed away. Here’s a brief tribute to some of the ones we lost in 2012:

George Savitsky Ed’48 D’54 GD’59

July 30, 1924 – September 4, 2012

George SavitskyA four-time All-American from 1944-47, Savitsky was one of the greatest football players ever to play for Penn – during one of the program’s greatest stretches.

Led by the bruising offensive tackle, the Quakers were ranked 10th in the nation in 1945, 13th in 1946 and seventh in 1947 (which stands as the program’s highest finish ever).

Savitsky, who was also a member of the track and field and wrestling teams while at Penn, was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1947 and won NFL championships in 1948 and 1949 with the Birds, before returning to Penn to study to become a dentist. He lived most of his life as an oral surgeon in New Jersey.

He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1991 and was also a member of the second class to be inducted into the Penn Athletics Hall of Fame in 1998.

Bob Odell C’43

March 5, 1922 – December 15, 2012

Bob Odell 1Another standout football player from the 1940s, Odell did it all for the Quakers as one of the last great iron-man players. He ran, passed, punted, received, returned kickoffs and punts and played defense from 1940-43, winning the Maxwell Trophy and coming in second in the Heisman Trophy voting as a senior in 1943.

He was drafted into the NFL in 1944 but instead served two years in the United States Navy, before giving up football due to a knee injury. But he only gave up playing football and quickly got into coaching, compiling an overall record of 136-95-5 as the head coach for Bucknell, Penn and Williams.

He was the head coach at Penn from 1965 to 1970 before taking over at Williams.

He was inducted into the College Hall of Fame in 1992 and was a charter member of the Penn Athletics Hall of Fame in 1996.

Dick Harter Ed’53

October 14, 1930 – March 12, 2012

dick harterA basketball lifer, Harter is perhaps best known for coaching Penn to a perfect regular season in 1970-71 that ended in devastating fashion.

Before that, Harter played for the Quakers as a reserve guard, was an assistant coach for Penn after graduating and returned to his alma mater as head coach in 1966 after a brief stint at Rider. His 1969-70 and 1970-71 teams were two of the best in program history – and his Marine-like intensity was a big reason why.

In 1971 Harter left Penn to coach the University of Oregon, where his teams were known as the “Kamikaze Kids” because of their fast-paced defensive style. He later coached at Penn State and then spent many years as an NBA coach (for the Detroit Pistons, Charlotte Hornets, Indiana Pacers, New York Knicks, Portland Trailblazers, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers).

Harter was inducted into the Philadelphia Big 5 Hall of Fame in 1993. Three years later, he was a member of the inaugural class inducted into the Penn Athletics Hall of Fame.

Albert Richmond “Boo” Morcom

May 1, 1921 – October 3, 2012

Morcom2A track and field star at the University of New Hampshire and an Olympian, Morcom came to Penn in 1948 to be an assistant coach for the Quakers’ track program.

Two years later, he was recalled for duty in the Korean War (where he served as an office and jumpmaster in the 101st Airborne Division known as “The Screaming Eagles”) before returning to Penn, where he spent 35 years as an assistant coach, a head coach and, finally, the director of intramural athletics.

During his lifetime, Boo was elected into seven halls of fame, including the Braintree High School Athletic Hall of Fame, the UNH Athletic Hall of Fame, the Pole Vault Hall of Fame, the Massachusetts Track Coaches Hall of Fame, and as a coach in the Women’s Track and Field Hall of Fame.

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Winning a championship for Billy

There are certain images that remain indelible when thinking about Penn football’s championship-clinching games.

For the 1982 team, which was honored at Franklin Field on Saturday, it was the roughing-the-kicker penalty on Dave Shulman W’84, which allowed him to get a second chance to give Penn its first Ivy title since 1959. For the 2002 team, which was also honored, it was probably famous football analyst Lee Corso dressed in a Ben Franklin suit to mark the occasion of ESPN College GameDay’s first visit to an Ivy League school.

Thirty years after one of those moments and ten years after the other, the Quakers again welcomed Harvard to Franklin Field with the opportunity to win another Ivy League championship and produce another unforgettable image.

They did both.

As Penn put the finishing touches on its thrilling 30-21 victory over Harvard, standout quarterback Billy Ragone watched from the sidelines, sitting in a cart, his left leg completely in a cast. The NBC Sports TV cameras found him and he smiled. It was an image that won’t soon be forgotten for anyone that watched Saturday’s game – and it was one that seemed unfathomable less than an hour earlier when Ragone suffered a severe dislocated ankle that head coach Al Bagnoli called “gruesome.”

“It meant so much for him to come out of the locker room and be on the field with us,” said senior running back Lyle Marsh, who rushed for 130 yards in the win. “I’ve been there before and have had a couple of gruesome injuries. It really meant a lot to us. It was great to see.”

While the injury to Ragone, which happened on the final play of the third quarter, could have derailed Penn’s chances of beating a powerful Harvard team, it instead only seemed to motivate them. Moments after Ragone banged his fist against the turf and was carted off the field, senior quarterback Andrew Holland, who’s been sharing snaps for much of the season with Ragone (which now seems like a genius move by Bagnoli), fired a touchdown strike to put the Quakers ahead 28-14.

After Harvard sliced the lead to 28-21, the Quakers’ defense, led by senior captain Brandon Copeland, stopped the Crimson on three consecutive drives. Copeland, still seething about Ragone’s horrible injury, sacked Harvard quarterback Colton Chapple for a safety in the final minutes to secure the win.

“I was enraged,” Copeland said. “That hit just fueled us. I think our whole team felt the same way. You could see our guys get a whole new life and a whole new type of energy on the sideline. It just enraged me to see him have to go through that type of pain on the field on senior day.”

But although Copeland felt a mixture of anger and sadness about his friend and teammate, Ragone himself seemed in excellent spirits as watched his team win at least a share of the program’s 16th Ivy League championship, even doing TV interviews afterwards.

Just take a look at the photo above that was shared with me by Franklin Field P.A. announcer John Alexander. On one side there’s John’s son, Jackson, standing there in his Penn cap, clutching a miniature football. Then there’s Ragone, stretched out in the cart, all bandaged up, puffing a victory cigar, smiling, his arm around Jackson.

It’s an enduring image that captures the athletic spirit in so many ways.

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Anniversary party at Franklin Field

On Saturday afternoon, the Penn football team will host Harvard with an Ivy League championship hanging in the balance.

That scenario shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, considering the two powerhouse programs have played for a share of the Ivy title in 11 of the last 13 seasons. But while the rivalry has seesawed during that time, with both teams claiming six victories in the last 12 years, the Quakers may have a little bit of good karma on their side this weekend.

That’s because two legendary Penn teams will be honored at Franklin Field on Saturday for their respective Ivy League championship anniversaries – the 1982 squad and the 2002 squad. Both teams beat Harvard to capture their titles in what have to be considered two of the most memorable days in the Quakers’ storied history.

Let’s start with the 2002 team, which has a personal connection for me. I was a senior student-journalist at Penn at the time and still have vivid memories of Penn losing its chance at a title the year before at Harvard Stadium. But led by two of the best competitors I’ve ever covered – linebacker Travis Belden C’03 and wide receiver Rob Milanese W’02 – the Quakers stormed back to go 7-0 in the Ivy League in 2002, punctuated by a 44-9 demolition of Harvard.

For most, that 2002 game is remembered for College GameDay paying a visit to Franklin Fied, the first time the popular ESPN show filmed live from an Ivy League school. That was a lot of fun, especially Lee Corso dressing up as Penn founder Ben Franklin (see above). But for me, I mostly remember the surprisingly lopsided game between two teams that came in unbeaten – and Penn fans chanting “You have two points” while the Quakers held a commanding 34-2 lead. Here’s the overly dramatic column I wrote for the Daily Pennsylvanian 10 years ago.

As for the 1982 game, it happened only one year after I was born, but I still remember often hearing about it. It truly was one of the greatest games ever played at Franklin Field – and if you don’t believe me watch and listen below to the call of the final drive by Philadelphia Eagles play-by-play man Merrill Reese. (To put it into context, Harvard had scored three fourth-quarter touchdowns to take a 21-20 lead, before Penn drove down the field to give kicker Dave Shulman W’84 a chance to win it. He ended up getting two chances. Watch below to see why.)

That game ended up clinching Penn’s first Ivy championship since 1959 and began a period of sustained dominance that has mostly lasted until today – when Penn and Harvard will once again play for an Ivy League championship.  We’ll soon now what drama lies in store for the 2012 game.

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Penn vs. Princeton: the best Quaker wins in a long-standing football rivalry

If you’re a Penn student or a younger alum, you might not realize the extent and magnitude of the Penn-Princeton rivalry on the football field. That’s because the Tigers haven’t been particularly good in recent years, with Harvard emerging as Penn’s biggest threat for Ivy League supremacy.

This year, however, is a different story as Penn and Princeton both come into Saturday’s game tied for first place in the conference (read my game preview, which focuses on Penn captain Brandon Copeland’s not-so-friendly relationship with Princeton, here).

But the truth is, it isn’t that much different at all, at least not in a historical context. While the football rivalry has slightly waned in recent years, the two nearby programs have still engaged in many memorable and ultra-competitive games in a series that dates all the way back to 1876.

Leading up to this weekend’s huge contest, here are five of Penn’s most dramatic victories – spanning five different decades – over Princeton.

Nov. 5, 1892: After 27 straight losses to Princeton, including three in the 1887 season in which the Quakers lost by a combined score of 194-0, Penn finally toppled its biggest rival, 6-4. There aren’t many details from these before-the-turn-of-the-20th-century games, so let’s just assume this 6-4 Penn win in Manheim, Pa. was filled with late drama and the Quakers’ players carried head coach George Woodruff off the field when it ended. (By the way, Penn went 15-1 that year with its only loss coming to Yale.)

Oct. 17, 1936: In what was later called the “Stalingrad of Penn Football” by author Dan Rottenberg C’64,  the Quakers prevented Princeton from scoring a touchdown all five times the Tigers got inside the Penn 10-yard line, while Lew Elverson W’37, part of what was called Penn’s “Destiny Backfield,” returned a punt 57 yards for the game’s only touchdown, one of his defining moments in a long career in football. That TD and the Quakers’ staunch defense gave Penn a 7-0 victory, its first win over Princeton in 42 years (the two teams did not play each other from 1895-1934). Spurred by that early-season win, Penn went on to beat four nationally ranked teams that year – Navy, Michigan, Penn State and Cornell – with the Quakers allowing only 44 combined points through all eight games.

Nov 2, 1985: A half-century after Elverson’s legendary punt return, dual-sport star Chris Flynn C’88 delivered one of his own against Princeton. After initially signaling for a fair catch in the second half of this Ivy League showdown, Flynn picked up the punt after a Princeton player touched it, and proceeded to race 79 yards to erase what was once a 21-0 Princeton lead and tie the game at 21-21. Later in the game, Ray Saunders drilled a 29-yard field goal to send the Quakers to a 24-21 victory, their 13th consecutive league win, which tied the record at the time. Penn would end up capturing its fourth of five straight Ivy titles that season.

Nov. 6, 1993: Penn fans love to hate pretty much any Princeton athlete, but Keith Elias may have been in a class by himself. Leading up to this 1993 showdown between undefeated teams, Princeton’s record-setting record running back and future NFL player said that none of the Penn football players were smart enough to have gotten into Princeton. But Elias then crumbled on the field, getting held to just 59 yards in a 30-14 Princeton loss, telling reporters afterwards, “They took me out of my game, and that’s never happened before.” Meanwhile, Penn’s less-heralded, 165-pound running back Terrance Stokes C’95 scampered for a whopping 272 yards, which to this day remains a Penn record. The Quakers would stay undefeated and capture their first of two straight Ivy titles under a new head coach named Al Bagnoli.

Nov. 6, 2004: With the ball in the air, many players on the Princeton sidelines put up their arms, ready to celebrate a game-winning kick from Derek Javarone, who had already drilled three field goals on the afternoon. But Javarone’s 41-yard attempt sailed just wide in the final seconds, allowing Penn to escape with a thrilling 16-15 victory by a matter of inches. Minutes before that, Penn kicker Derek Zoch W’08 capped a 12-play, 59-yard drive with a go-ahead field goal, which helped the Quakers win their 20th consecutive Ivy League game, the longest streak in conference history.

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On This Date — 1921

Leading up to the Penn football team’s home opener Saturday, some Penn players got the chance to pose with the Heisman Trophy, one of the most prestigious prizes in sports (see above). Even better, the Heisman Trophy, which is given to the nation’s best college football player every year, was also on display for Saturday’s game (a 24-8 loss to Villanova), as it will be all season.

This all makes sense because Penn is the rightful home to the man who the award is named after: John Heisman L’1892, a player, coach and legendary innovator. Heisman – who played for the Quakers in 1890 and 1891 (after earlier playing for Brown) and then coached at his alma mater from 1920-1922, among many other stops, including Auburn, Clemson and Georgia Tech – is credited with promoting the sport across the nation during its infancy.

And even though he only coached at Penn for three seasons, where he owned a relatively modest 16-10-2 record, Heisman still produced some memorable moments. Here’s one: On this date in 1921, Heisman coached Penn to an 89-0 rout of Delaware, which to this day remains one of the two most lopsided wins in the program’s 136-year history.

Heisman in his Penn uniform, circa 1891

That 89-0 shellacking was the first game of Heisman’s second year and captain Rex Wray C’22, a 139-pound quarterback, made the most of it with the New York Times calling him the “scintillating hero of the slaughter.” Ray finished with four touchdowns and nine goals for a total of 33 points and, according to the Times’ game report, scored TDs twice on kickoffs, the first player to accomplish such a feat at Franklin Field.

Remarkably, Penn scored 41 of its 89 points in the third quarter. And the Times also recognized other players for getting in on the scoring, including tailbacks Mike Whitehill and Jimmy Lukas.

Delaware did not get a first down all game (while Penn got 19) and only tried two forward passes, both of which failed. Meanwhile, Heisman – who helped legalize the forward pass, one of his most important contributions to the sport – had Penn throw the ball nine times, with three being successful. That was a lot back then and surely helped contribute to the 89-point victory (which was only matched two years earlier when the Quakers, then coached by Bob Folwell, beat Delaware by the same score).

And if you think winning by 89 points is running up the score, then you might not want to look at what Heisman did five years earlier, when the famed coach led Georgia Tech to a 222-0 victory over Cumberland College, the most lopsided game in college football history.

According to a Daily Pennsylvanian article written by my friend Dan McQuade in 2003, Heisman told his players at halftime, “Men, we’re in front, but you never know what those Cumberland players have up their sleeves. So in the second half, go out and hit ‘em clean and hit ‘em hard. Don’t let up.”

They were up 126-0 at the time.

The man knew how to win, and win big.

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By the numbers: the rise and fall (and rise again) of Penn football

One of the best parts of running this blog are the responses I get from passionate Penn alumni, many of whom have been watching Penn sports since long before I was even born.

Some time last year I received a note from a former Daily Pennsylvanian sportswriter named Lew Smith W’57, who wrote me a three-page letter (sent via snail mail!) with an interesting perspective and terrific historical analysis of the Penn football program.

With another season set to kick off tomorrow at Lafayette, I thought I’d share some of what he wrote to display Penn’s dominance over the past three-plus decades. (For more topical material, check out my article in the Gazette and the Daily Pennsylvanian’s always impressive football preview supplement.)

  • While Penn’s 2011 football season was largely viewed as a disappointment because the Quakers failed to win their third straight Ivy League title and saw their 18-game conference winning streak snapped, the Quakers actually achieved something quite impressive. With their 37-9 win over Princeton on Nov. 5, Penn passed the Tigers in the all-time Ivy League standings. From the league’s inception in 1956 through 2011, Penn owns a 209-179-4 record, just ahead of Princeton’s 208-179-5 mark.
  • Although Penn’s overall record puts them in only fourth place in the all-time Ivy League standings (behind leader Harvard, Yale and Dartmouth) the Quakers’ rise into the top half of the league is a considerable feat. Following the 1981 season (when the Quakers won just one Ivy game), they were in seventh place in the all-time standings. They moved into sixth the next year, passed Cornell and into fifth in 1998, and crossed the .500 mark in 2002, before zooming by Princeton last year.
  • Penn is still 32.5 games behind Harvard (239-144-9), 21 games behind Yale (228-156-8) and 19.5 games behind Dartmouth (226-157-9) in the all-time standings, but that’s mainly due to a period of decline from 1956-1981, which Smith calls “The Dark Ages.” Penn’s record during those 26 years was an unsightly 62-117-3, good for a .349 winning percentage. And they only captured one league championship (in 1959) during that span. Their record since then? It’s a whopping 147-62-1, which is the best mark of any other Ivy League school. Only Harvard, at 133-75-2, is close.
  • It should also be noted that before the formation of the Ivy League, Penn was among the nation’s best teams – but not as good as Yale and Princeton. In games played among future Ivies, Yale boasted a .656 winning percentage, with Princeton coming in at .625 and Penn .583 (despite a 5-45-1 start, which included 27 straight losses to Princeton before the turn of the 20th century). Harvard, which owns the best Ivy record since the league was officially formed, comes in fourth with a .534 mark.
  • Finally, during Bagnoli’s 20-year tenure, Penn has gained 34.5 games on Princeton to get into the upper-half of the all-time Ivy League standings. “Is that more significant than not winning another championship last fall?” Smith asks in his letter. “It is. It means a lot because Dartmouth, Princeton, Yale, and Harvard had a lock on membership in the first division in the long-term standings from 1961 to 2010 – half a century – and Penn broke their grip on it with Princeton as the fall guy. Meanwhile, as Penn’s longtime treasurer William Richard Gordon used to say, in years when the football team beats Princeton, donation to the University seem to go up. So, maybe we should let the fans know about these enjoyable happenings.” I believe we should.

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From Franklin Field to Lambeau Field

When lining up under center, Penn quarterback Billy Ragone would often hear a voice coming from the left side of his offensive line. Without looking up, he knew exactly who was talking. It was just left tackle Greg Van Roten W’12 offering a not-so-friendly reminder to the other team.

“He’d talk some smack to the defensive line, saying they’d never get close to me,” Ragone said. “I like that kind of talk when my linemen are confident that no one is going to get through. And they rarely did.”

A three-time All-Ivy offensive lineman, Van Roten certainly backed up his talk with his play on the field. And he’s since been rewarded for his confidence and talent, joining the Green Bay Packers in training camp after signing a deal with the iconic NFL franchise late last month.

The undrafted rookie out of Penn played his first game at legendary Lambeau Field last night when the Packers hosted the Cleveland Browns in a preseason game. He even made a tackle (yes, a tackle!) in Green Bay’s 35-10 loss. Take a look here and watch for No. 54.

“It’s a great reflection on the program and it’s a great reflection on his individual success and work ethic,” said Ragone, who will return as Penn’s starting QB for the upcoming 2012 season. “During the offseason, he was working hard, if not harder, than we were. He was just trying to get a shot and it was great to see him do that. I think he’s going to be in a situation where it’s going to be hard to let him go.”

While it still may be a long-shot for him to make Green Bay’s 53-man roster by the time the season opens in September, a couple of reports out of Packers camp have cited Van Roten as a player that’s impressed in training camp.

And if it’s work ethic the Packers are looking for, the Wharton alum definitely has that. According to Penn football coach Al Bagnoli, Van Roten arrived at Penn as a 235-pounder and left school weighing over 300 pounds while maintaining all of his quickness and athletic ability – which he showed at the NFL combine (see below).

“And that was without the benefit of a redshirt year, which most guys in college get,” Bagnoli said. “It shows how much he had to work and how much he likes the weight room.”

Penn standout defensive lineman Brandon Copeland agreed.

“He was literally one of the hardest-working guys,” Copeland said. “A lot of people always say that about people and they don’t really mean it. But he was always in the weight room, always pushing everyone else on the team. It’s great to see him get that shot and I’m sure he’ll impress them.”

Whether or not he makes the team, Van Roten is thrilled just to have the opportunity, especially after the San Diego Chargers didn’t offer him a contract after he went there for mini-camp. And he can also take great pride in the fact that he’s already gotten further than most Ivy League football alums get.

For Penn, both tight end Luke Nawrocki W’ 12 and linebacker Erik Rask W’12 participated in rookie mini-camps – with the San Francisco 49ers and Jacksonville Jaguars, respectively – but didn’t earn a spot in training camp. The last Penn grad to sign and participate in training camp was Jake Lewko W’10, who was cut before the Tennessee Titans’ first preseason game.  And the last Penn alum to play in an NFL regular-season game was Jim Finn W’99, who had a visible career as a fullback for the New York Giants until injuries forced him out of the game in 2007.

Bagnoli admits it’s hard to go from the Ivy League to the NFL, in part because players have “so many other things they have to deal with on the academic side” while in school. But it’s still something he loves to see – and wants to see more of.

“That’s what we’re trying to get,” Bagnoli said. “We’re trying to get kids with that kind of ceiling who have that kind of work ethic and that kind of determination.”

In other words, he’s trying to get future Greg Van Rotens.

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Important sports documentary about the ‘concussion crisis’ screens at Penn

Last Thursday evening, gasps could be heard inside the Rubenstein Auditorium at Penn Medicine’s Translational Research Center. A sneak peek of the documentary Head Games was being shown, and each time a crushing helmet-to-helmet hit flashed on the screen, some people in the audience squirmed in their seats or let out an audible groan.

That’s probably the effect the producers wanted to see for their documentary on the ever-growing concussion problem in sports – a problem people in the Penn community know all too well.

Heavily featured in the film are Alan Schwarz C’90 (the New York Times reporter who’s written groundbreaking articles on the subject), Owen Thomas W’11 (the former Penn football player who committed suicide and the first amateur football player ever found with CTE, a degenerative brain disease linked to depression and believed to be caused by concussions or sub-concussive blows), Eric Laudano (the head athletic trainer at Penn who was on the Ivy League committee that took measures to limit football head injuries) and a number of Penn Medicine doctors.

Following the Red Carpet premiere of Head Games, which was put on by Penn Medicine and Penn Athletics, a group of panelists, including Laudano, fielded questions from the audience. According to panelist and executive producer Steve Devick, the film – which was directed by Steve James of Hoop Dreams fame – will have a “worldwide distribution” and is scheduled to hit theaters in September.

From left to right, panelists Andrew Brandt, Steve Devick, Chris Nowinski and Eric Laudano listen to a question following the screening of Head Games (courtesy of Penn Medicine).

Without giving everything away, here were a few of my favorite parts of the film:

  • The documentary begins and ends with children playing football, and that’s not a coincidence. As the concussion problem continues to grow and more and more former NFL players develop brain disease and other neurological issues, at what point will parents forbid their children from playing contact sports? And if kids stop playing football, what will happen to the NFL? “If I had a six-year-old playing football, I would be freaked out,” said Chris Nowinski, the author of the book Head Games, of which the film is based. “Because you’re playing Russian roulette with their future.”
  • Nowinski, a former Harvard football player and WWE wrestler, discussed his brutal job of calling the families of ex-football players who committed suicide to ask for their brain to study. But he’s done very well in helping expose CTE in deceased athletes while working with living ex-NFL players who are suffering from dementia and memory loss.
  • Not everyone wants to believe Nowinski, though. When he went to speak at a high school, he got into a shouting match with the school’s head athletic trainer who argued that he didn’t talk about the people who weren’t getting head injuries – to which Nowinski responded, “What about all of the smokers who don’t have lung cancer?”
  • Perhaps Nowinski’s biggest crusade is getting teams and athletes to recognize concussions, many of which are going undiagnosed. What people don’t realize is that any time you are woozy or see stars after getting hit you are concussed. And yet many players treat it like a battle scar, remaining in the game and subjecting themselves to further brain damage. Nowinski estimated that about half of all NFL players have had at least one concussion, with some having as many as hundreds.
  • Schwartz also came off as a crusader, having published stories on CTE and concussions at a time when few other writers did. And the exposure his New York Times articles received helped force the NFL – which at first tried to claim concussions did not have any long-term heath effects – to create rule changes to make the sport safer.
  • Former NFL player Gene Atkins survived a suicide attempt but said “I’m a mess right now.” When he went to see a doctor, he couldn’t repeat back a series of numbers or name the months of the year in order. It was frightening to watch.
  • Former Flyers captain Keith Primeau said he felt “relieved” after doctors finally told him he couldn’t ever play again because of concussions. But now he’s grappling with a new issue: his kids suffering the same fate. One of them has already had a concussion while playing hockey but, like his dad, he loves the sport. What would you do as a parent?
  • Concussions are also a serous problem among female athletes, particularly soccer players. To demonstrate that, the film featured Cindy Parlow, a former US national team star who estimates she had more than 100 concussions in her career and now needs to use GPS even in her own neighborhood because she forgets where she is.
  • The most touching part of the film was almost certainly the segment on Owen Thomas and his grieving parents, Kathy Brearley and Rev. Tom Thomas (both of whom were in attendance for the screening and received a loud ovation afterwards). For the cameras, Brearley played a phone message from Thomas the day before he committed suicide (in which he sounded completely normal) and Thomas choked up as he visited his son’s gravesite. Powerful stuff.
  • Dr. Robert Cantuthe co-founder of the Sports Legacy Institute, which is dedicated to researching sports-related head injuries – was prominently featured in the film, suggesting at one point that nobody under the age of 14 should play contact sports and also marveling at the fact that some longtime football players have told him they never before had a discussion of what a concussion was.
  • In addition to Cantu, a couple of Penn doctors have roles in the documentary. Dr. Steven Galetta discusses the new concept of “sub-concussive blows,” which was perhaps the cause of CTE in Owen Thomas, who never had a diagnosed concussion. And Dr. Doug Smith, director of the Penn Center for Brain Injury and Repair, has the best line of the film. When someone asks him how long they should wait to get back on the field after getting a concussion, he replies “50 years.”

Afterwards, the members of the panel – which featured Wharton professor, ESPN analyst and former NFL executive Andrew Brandt, Devick, Nowinski, Laudano and Smith as the moderator – touched on a variety of subjects, including the lawsuit former NFL players filed that day in which they accused the league of concealing information about the long-term health affects of concussions.

And while everyone made good points, perhaps the most intriguing one came when Devick told the audience, “I hope you didn’t get any answers. You’re supposed to leave with a lot of questions.”

When those questions will get answered, if at all, we still don’t know.


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