Before Alan Schwarz exposed the severity of concussions among football players of all ages as a Pulitzer Prize-nominated reporter for the New York Times or hosted ESPN’s Baseball Today, he helped save the toast toss at Penn.
At least that’s how Schwarz remembers the response to an act of toast-smuggling defiance he and three of his friends pulled off back when they were students in September 1988, a time when Penn Athletics not only didn’t provide toast for students but, according to Schwarz, security guards confiscated any toast that students brought on their own.
“We do not have a policy regarding toast,” Carolyn Schlie Femovich, then-Senior Associate Athletics Director, told The Daily Pennsylvanian at the time. “[But] security has the leeway to confiscate any items that they deem to be safety or health hazards, as well as any items that could disrupt the competition.”
On the Thursday prior to a home football game against Bucknell, a column written by Schwarz ran in the DP encouraging fans to “bring a few slices for yourself — or a whole loaf if you can think of a good way to find it.” Schwarz and his fellow toastmasters led by example.
“We brought in 3,000 slices in duffel bags,” he now recalled, 24 years later. “Think Brad Pitt in ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ outside the casino.”
But fellow toastmaster Bill Kimmel remembers their smuggling spree with one regret.
“Looking back, it does make me uncomfortable that we were wasting all that toast when Penn was in the middle of such a poor community,” he said.
At the end of the third quarter, they threw many toasts in protest of dear old Penn Athletics.
The Quakers defeated Bucknell in a 38-35 shootout en route to a 9-1 record and an Ivy championship. But for Schwarz, the real victory that day was the survival of the toast throw.
“Had [Penn Athletics] had their way, there would have been no toast to throw,” Schwarz said. “We made it so that they just couldn’t do anything about it.”
Schwarz recalls Penn Athletics, led by then-Director of Athletics Paul Rubincam, buying its first toast Zamboni before he graduated in 1990 and thus finally embracing the ritual, which began in the mid-’70s.
Nearly a quarter-century later, the tables have been turned. Students now throw toast funded by Penn Athletics, which had to step in to save the tradition after no student groups planned to provide their own bread before the first home game against Villanova this season. Schwarz is bemused that students now rely on Penn Athletics for toast.
He doesn’t see why students should expect toast to be provided for them and thinks it’s “hilarious” that Penn Athletics now provides it.
“Our predicament was that they wouldn’t allow us to throw it or even bring it in to the stadium,” he said. “To think that now the issue is students can’t get it for free. The whole point of the column was for students to take it upon themselves to keep the tradition alive. It sounds like that message really needs to be heard again.”
After graduating from Penn, Schwarz wrote for Baseball America for 16 years and was a columnist for ESPN.com. In 2007, he joined the New York Times and focused on sports concussions, beginning with a front-page Times story on brain damage found in former Philadelphia Eagle and suicide victim Andre Waters. He also wrote a story shedding light on the brain damage of former Penn football captain Owen Thomas after his suicide in April 2010.
Schwarz wrote stories credited with opening up the national dialogue about concussions and forcing the NFL to admit that concussions can lead to long-term cognitive impairment. He left the concussion arena last year to become a national correspondent for the Times.
“I knew if I stayed in sports, every dead football player was going to wind up on my table,” Schwarz said. “It was extraordinarily unpleasant to deal with not only the parents of dead children but also the NFL for a number of years. But … I did what I had to do, and now I’m trying to do something else.”
Schwarz wants to see a similar change of direction at Penn regarding the toast throw. Decades after turning up the heat on Penn Athletics about the tradition, Schwarz wants to see students’ toasters get a little warmer on upcoming fall Saturdays.
“Or steal it from Commons,” Schwarz said. “How hard is that?”