So many pajamas dragging, hangovers lingering and scrambled eggs stacked on top of each other. So little patience for the Penn Band.
After all, this is the Hill House cafeteria on a Saturday morning, not Franklin Field. Nonetheless, Hill is next on the band’s list of dorms to take by storm on a Penn football morning. The Quakers are set to play Yale at 12:30 just a three-minute walk away. But it’s up to the Penn Band to remind residents that there’s a football game happening in an hour.
So the band sets up on various floors directly above the cafeteria and starts playing at full volume. The logic must be that if there’s a football game happening just three minutes away, you’re entitled to a 10-minute musical reminder of that fact, whether you like it or not.
And many students do not like it. A few clasp their ears. A few others give the band dirty looks in between bites of sausage. One girl playfully asks her friends while the band blares out “Call Me Maybe,” “Why do they have to play so loud?”
Then a guy a few tables over explains to his female friend that the band is almost done playing.
“How do you know?” the girl asks him.
“I have a friend in the band,” he replies. “Besides, this is how they always do it. They’re about to play ‘The Red and Blue.’ It’s good.”
True to form, that’s exactly what the Penn Band plays, and suddenly the girl who just asked why the band has to play so loud is now singing along with the lyrics to the song, also waving her arms in time to the refrain.
“Hurrah, hurrah Pennsylvania! Hurrah for the Red and the Blue! Hurrah, hurrah, hurrah, hurrah, Hurrah for the Red and Blue!”
She giggles while she’s doing it, but it’s clear that she’s having fun. Then the band leaves, and she promptly goes back to eating her eggs and toast.
PUBLIC ADDRESS PREGAME
“They’re calling for you, John!”
John Alexander’s sister Linda knows it’s time for him to get the name pronunciations for Yale’s players. This is Alexander’s third season as Franklin Field’s public address announcer, a role that his father C.T. filled for 50 years before that. Situated, as always, in the North Stands makeshift press box, he’s carrying around a binder with an October 2010 game program featuring the then-just deceased Penn coaching and mentoring legend Dan “Coach Lake” Staffieri slotted on the front cover.
Alexander already knows that Penn starting quarterback Billy Ragone is going to be out with an ankle injury, Ragone’s name and pronunciation scratched out in black ink on Penn’s official roster sheet. The Yale pronunciations come in, and there’s the Penn Band again, back on the field for another rendition of “The Red and Blue.”
“All right, let’s show ‘em!” Alexander cajoles his three daughters, ages 11 to 16, who also happily join him in moving their arms to the refrain of “The Red and Blue.” The North Stands press box sits a few levels above the Yale crowd on the visitors’ side, but no one feels more at home cheering on the Quakers than the Alexanders, many of whom have grown up in the stands at Franklin Field for the last half-century.
HE’S SEEN IT ALL
There’s plenty of longevity on the home side as well, even though there are very few students in attendance as the game begins. Sitting at midfield in section SF, row 10, seat 3 is Shelly Erwine, an 80-year old superfan who has attended every home and away Penn football game but three since 1956, the same year Penn joined the Ivy League.
The 80-year old Erwine finally got his due last month, after Penn coach Al Bagnoli’s wife Maryellen learned of Erwine’s 58-year Penn football fidelity. Maryellen told her husband about Shelly, and he was named an honorary captain for Penn’s Oct. 5 home game against Dartmouth.
“It was very nice, but I wanted to come up back here where I could see the game,” Shelly said. “You can’t see anything down there.”
It doesn’t take long before Shelly makes note of the empty stands in the student section to his left.
“The students don’t come out to see them anymore. Some days I bet the library has more kids than here.”
Shelly is wearing his customary blue Penn football cap, a blue 2003 Ivy championship sweatshirt and blue jeans, a uniform of his very own.
“When new coaches come in, I make it a point to introduce myself,” Shelly said. “Up until four years ago, I knew well over half the players.”
He still knows that sophomore wide receiver Cam Countryman’s parents fly in from California to watch their son play in every home game. He still knows that Kyle Wilcox has “great speed, great vision” as a running back.
And apparently he knows what’s about to happen before it happens. The play after he compliments Wilcox, the junior tailback gets behind a Yale defender for a 29-yard touchdown catch to put Penn ahead, 7-3, late in the first quarter.
“See? I knew it!” Shelly exclaimed.
Early in the second quarter, Erwine calls it again. After Penn quarterback Ryan Becker overthrows wideout Ryan Mitchell on a fade pass in the right corner of the end zone, Shelly suggests, “Put Conner [Scott] in on that play. He’s tall, he’ll catch it.”
Sure enough, later in the quarter, Becker finds Scott streaking out on a fade pattern to the right corner of the end zone for a 29-yard touchdown strike. It’s as if Shelly really has seen it all.
And yet Shelly never really had a solid reason to be a Penn football fan at all. Raised in the small town of Shickshinny, Pa., near Wilkes-Barre on the Susquehanna River, Shelly’s father died when he was 8, and his mother worked three jobs to support him.
In 1956, Shelly moved to Abington to become a teacher in the Abington School District. Shelly’s future brother-in-law decided he should join a group of guys going to Penn football games at the time since he was new in the area.
“That was when Penn just joined the Ivy League,” Shelly remembered. “People were upset when we joined the Ivy League.”
And Shelly stayed — at Abington School District, where he taught history and subsequently became principal for 33 years before retiring in 1996, and at Franklin Field, where he sat in the upper deck when seats were still sold there.
And ever since, he’s been going to Penn football program golf outings, team banquets and road trips.
“It’s great,” he said. “I love it here.”
RUNNING A “BUTT HOOK”
Meanwhile, in the North Stands press box, John Alexander’s 8-year old son Jackson loves it too. He’s wearing the same Penn hoodie he wears to every game and has his friend Daniel Brockman at his side.
“I love that I can go on the field after the game is over,” he says excitedly.
Jackson got to be on the sideline with an injury-carted Billy Ragone after Ragone’s ankle was dislocated and his fibula fractured in Penn’s Ivy title-clinching win over Harvard Nov. 10.
“That was pretty cool,” Jackson remembered before explaining, after Yale finally scores a touchdown early in the fourth quarter, that the score will be made 28-10 after the extra point, “because nobody ever misses an extra point.”
Unlike Shelly, Jackson doesn’t have the power of prognostication just yet. Yale’s Kyle Cazzetta misses the extra point.
Jackson responds by explaining how he and his dad execute a “butt hook” receiving pattern.
“What’s a butt hook?” Daniel asks Jackson.
“It’s when you move like this, and then you roll off the defender this way,” Jackson shows Daniel with his right-hand fingers on his left palm.
When senior Sam Chwarzynski comes down with an interception in the fourth quarter, Jackson and Daniel both yell, “Chwarzynskiiiiiiiii!” at the top of their lungs, dancing around. But when Daniel asks Jackson if he wants to go to Penn when he grows up, Jackson gets serious.
“I hope,” he says solemnly. “I really want to.”
After the game, a 28-17 Penn win, senior guard Steve Szostak poses for celebratory pictures with his family. So does senior linebacker Joey Grosso.
But it’s Jackson who gets the glory at game’s end, frolicking in the end zone with Daniel and his three sisters. Jackson goes for what could very well have been a butt hook route and catches a touchdown with a mini-football in the end zone. He throws the ball through the goal posts and raises his arms in victory. This, too, is Penn football.
Age 8 or age 80, there’s something for you at a Penn football game. But unless you’re a 58-year ticket holder or the son of the public address announcer, you have to dig a little deeper for that something, and you’re not likely to do that. That’s your choice. In the meantime, Shelly Erwine chooses to stay young with Franklin Field, and so does Jackson Alexander.
BACK TO THE GRIND
So many burgers, so little study time. After all, this is the Hill House cafeteria on a Saturday afternoon after Penn’s win over Yale. Two freshman guys talk about picking classes for their second semesters while in the dinner line.
“Did you go to the game?”
“Nah, too much work to do.”
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