Be careful where you toss your toast the next time you watch Penn football at Franklin Field.
If you don’t, you’ll be making life more difficult for head athletic groundskeeper Donald “Kell” Kelly, a 30-year veteran of Penn’s groundskeeping crew.
Many Penn fans and alumni breathed a sigh of relief when Penn Athletics reversed its decision to stop providing bread for the toast toss after the third quarter at home football games earlier this semester.
But no one has had a more up-close-and-personal view of the toast toss over the years than Kelly. As head athletic groundskeeper, Kelly oversees the maintenance, painting and layout of all athletic playing surfaces at Penn.
So Kelly knows better than anyone that all that toast has to go somewhere.
“We clean up several thousand pieces of toast every game,” Kelly said. “We clean them off and put them into yellow dumpsters and put them in a plastic container for recycling. Two years ago we started doing that, [we] had put it outside or in trash bags and [we would] take it up to Irvine in a yellow trash can. Now for the next game I think we’re gonna have a couple trash cans here, fill them up and then return them on Monday.”
Thirty years of putting pieces of toast into trash bags during two-and-a-half-hour postgame cleanup sessions has given Kelly a unique perspective on the toast toss. So does he like the tradition?
“Man, I’ve been waiting 30 years to answer that question,” Kelly said. “I think it’s a total waste of food. The way the world is right now, people starving, I think that Penn students could take the loaves of bread and give it to a homeless shelter. Give it to food banks or homeless centers to make a better gesture from the Penn students.”
While several canned food drives and collection jars atop the toaster have been implemented in the past to mitigate the wastefulness of the toast toss, Kelly still sees too much waste firsthand every fall for his liking.
At least he can take comfort in the fact that he’s seeing much less of it than he used to.
Kelly remembers crowds of 30,000 people in the Franklin Field stands at Penn football games in the late ’80s after the Quakers enjoyed a five-year string of Ivy championships from 1982-86. He estimates that the toast toss routinely generated at least 60,000 bread slices back then.
“One year they had a Gumby and Pokey toss,” Kelly said. “They just threw them out of the stands, all these little Gumbys and Pokeys, rubber figures all over the track. That was just one time, must have meant something. That was in the mid to late ’80s.”
The toast toss may not be Gumby and Pokey, but it still works for many Penn faithful.
“I remember back to freshman year, the first home game,” senior running back Lyle Marsh said. “At the end of the third quarter what seemed like a hailstorm of toast coming down. No other school has a tradition like that.”
All Kelly wants people to note is that the toast toss isn’t target practice.
“It is a pain because you’re going to get hit with a piece of toast at some time, and you don’t know if you’re going to get hit in the face with it or what,” he said. “You try to do a job and pick it up and they’re still bombing you. The people who throw the toast, they throw it at you. They aim it at you too. I sat in the game once and parents — graduates of Penn — would sit with their kids and say, ‘Throw it at that guy!’ You get a bag of pretzels from the upper level, that hurts.”
But Kelly is hardly a Penn Athletics grouch. He fondly remembers the Penn-Cornell Thanksgiving Day football battles of the ’70s as well as a Penn State-Temple matchup that filled Franklin Field to capacity. He doesn’t see as much toast on the track or students in the stands as he used to, but he has watched Penn athletics live on.
“Basketball started turning around again last year,” Kelly said. “I like the head coach [Jerome Allen], I worked here when he was here, he remembered me. He came walking in here the first day and said, ‘Hey, Kell, how are you?’ That caught me off guard. I was like, ‘The head coach, yeah! That’s right!’ Pretty cool.
“Some of the past football players will be back for Homecoming. They’ll come right over, remember me and introduce their kids to me. That feels good.”
So although the toast toss may die someday, long live Penn athletics.
“I love doing what I do,” Kelly said.