Every year, more than 35,000 students apply to Penn, their hopes and dreams neatly attached in PDF format and emailed through the Common App website. Ninety percent of those dreams will end with a letter of rejection or deferral.
But a lucky 2,500 or so can eventually click through to a video once they realize they’ve just been admitted. They’ll be greeted by the smiling face of Penn Dean of Admissions Eric Furda, a one-man welcome wagon.
For two minutes, they’ll watch him hop around campus with a permanent smile. At one point, the entire student section at a basketball game shouts in unison with Furda: “WELCOME TO PENN” as he works to whip the new admitted students into a frenzy about the Penn story they’re about to create.
By and large, it works: 65 percent of students that saw “accepted” in 2014 took the plunge and committed to four years on campus.
To the new Penn student, Eric Furda can be one of a few things. For many, he can be a campus celebrity, a target to be photographed with while out and about. For a select few, he can be their boss, as evidenced by the dozens of students that perennially clamor to fill up work-study jobs in the Admissions Office.
But for Penn sprint football, Eric Furda is something else.
He’s a legend.
Even before he walked on campus, Furda was Penn sprint football’s center of attention.
When Furda arrived in 1983, it was a momentous occasion for the program. While the varsity football program could recruit players of all shapes, sizes and skill levels from far and wide, sprint football, which requires its players to remain under a maximum weight limit — 172 pounds today, 158 in Furda’s day — lacked the financial means at the time to do little more than accept walk-ons.
But Furda, an offensive line prospect from Amsterdam, N.Y., was a rare talent, a product of a high school that he helped lead to two league championships. The Quakers needed Furda and pursued him heavily.
“Literally standing on Locust Street bridge, looking down across campus, I’m like: ‘This is where I want to be,’” Furda recalls.
At 5-foot-9, the dean still fits the physical profile of the ideal sprint football player, even though it’s been 28 years since he last took the field. The bowl cut from his playing days is now close-cropped, but the disarming, toothy smile from old team pictures remains.
A good smile is a useful tool in any extrovert’s arsenal, and it certainly helped Furda win people over as he made the stressful adjustment to socializing at Penn.
While the prep-schoolers and Main Line products took advantage of familiar faces to carve out a niche on campus, Furda — alone and hundreds of miles from home — relied on the warmth of his new sprint football teammates to get acclimated.
“For athletes, I think you’re connected into a network right away, which is really helpful,” Furda recalls. “Otherwise, I really would have felt lost here.”
As his parents left and made the trip back to Amsterdam, Furda turned to quarterback Tommy Frankel, who guided Furda around when he first visited campus, in search of a place to work out.
The senior leader guided the freshman to Hutchinson Gym, and Furda knew then that he wouldn’t need to have classmates around from his high school in order to survive.
“Those first few days were really about finding a place where I was comfortable, because I knew how to play football,” Furda reflects. “I knew I was going to [play] a key role on the team, and there were upperclassmen that were there to help out right away.”
Tapped as a starter from day one, Furda soon faced the unenviable task of helping to lead the turnaround of a moribund program that had won only two games in three seasons since 1980.
On and off the field, though, Furda was knocked for a loop.
The Quakers went winless in 1983, and only improved their record by one game the following season. Blowout losses were commonplace.
Yet even in defeat, Furda found lessons in unlikely sources. During a brutal 35-6 loss to perennial powerhouse Navy, the then-rookie center couldn’t help but notice how the brutally strong defensive tackle that was pounding him into the turf play after play conducted himself.
“He just destroyed me and destroyed anyone in our backfield, [but] he was the nicest gentleman,” Furda smiles. “You do learn from those things, whether they’re lining up against you or whether they’re lining up next to you.”
Academics proved to be a slog in the early going as well. Juggling history, economics and political science classes, Furda started off his studies a few furlongs behind his classmates that had entered from far more prestigious high schools.
Rather than feel sorry for himself, Furda drew inspiration from the people that he practiced alongside every day, including two teammates that managed to balance ROTC duties alongside classes and football.
“That’s competition,” Furda says. “It makes you do better than you would if you were sitting there on your own.”
“You’re on the long bus ride back after getting shellacked by Navy or Army, you’re sitting on the bus, and you’re tired and everything. But some of you are cracking the books ... that’s the support network.”
Before the University opened up Meiklejohn Stadium for Penn baseball next to I-76 in 2000, there was a patchy, empty lot that cowered under the shadow of its adjacent power plant. The sound of the cars whizzing by blends together into a dull roar somewhat akin to TV static.
In the 1980s, that was where sprint football — the lowest of the low on the Penn Athletics totem pole — made its home.
But who would want to walk 20 minutes to the absolute edge of campus and practice till the sun goes down on a field reserved for second-class citizens?
Lots of people, apparently.
“You’ve got this sort of self-selection process,” recalls Sean Madden, a wide receiver on the team who graduated one year after Furda. “Everyone at Penn is motivated and talented and has a lot to do and has a lot of different opportunities at the University. And so you think about the kind of guy that’s gonna pick this obscure sport no one really pays attention to or cares about other than the people involved with it — and work hard at it.”
The relationship between Madden and Furda is one that goes far beyond the playing field. Their faces beam in photographs together — whether it be at the 2009 World Series or at a concert. Furda is the godfather of Madden’s son, Jack.
It’s hard for Madden to imagine what his experience at Penn would have been like without Furda around to help guide him onto the team as a transfer.
“Eric’s a guy who is a very welcoming, warm, sort of approachable guy,” Madden says. “He made it exceptionally easy for a new guy to step in, be comfortable and get integrated, which was great because I needed it and I really wasn’t getting it anywhere else.”
“I was exceptionally grateful at the time that this group of guys on this football team welcomed me with open arms.”
Without a positive win-loss record to bond around, the Quakers instead rallied around their shared experiences and brotherhood — even after graduation.
And it’s no coincidence that the program began to turn around once Furda and his classmates — who had suffered through defeat after defeat — had left their mark.
“They were guys like Eric who had a sort of quiet, strong leadership that led by example,” Madden says. “They were very positive and encouraging — even though I had never been on a losing team before, let alone one that didn’t win a game.
“And yet we played hard to the end, we had some close games. And we could see we were close to turning things around.”
The safety and security the program enjoys today is testament enough to that.
After 45 years coaching Penn sprint football, Bill Wagner is usually one for fond recollections. But this time, he’s drawing a blank.
“There are lots of war stories that go on, but right now, I really don’t have one,” he says when asked about Furda’s time on the team from 1983 through 1986. “I’ve been thinking: He’s not a hellraiser, you know what I mean? And yet he probably had a great social life here.”
Wagner’s office is cramped, with files on recruits seeming as if they’re about to fall down from the narrow shelf they currently occupy. All in all, the space is about a third of the size of the office that belongs to varsity football coach Ray Priore, if you’re being generous.
Today, sprint football is only still played at eight schools on the East Coast — a number that could shrink to seven if Princeton disbands a struggling program that had to forfeit its finale to the Quakers this year due to a lack of available players.
But sprint football at Penn has a tremendous groundswell of alumni support — with perhaps no face more notable than Furda himself, who sits on the sport’s Alumni Advisory Committee. With supporters from all walks of life, the program remains a visible presence at Penn.
If anyone understands the mystique of the sport, it’s Furda.
“He’s certainly an ambassador of our program,” Wagner says. “He’s not gonna hide it. In fact, it’s a highlight of his career if you ask him.”
In a way, Penn sprint football may have been at its best back then at creating memories off the field. Wagner is happy to point at a picture in the team’s 75th anniversary yearbook that shows much of the 1984 team surrounding George H.W. Bush in full uniform. As luck would have it, the then-Vice President was taking a pre-debate jog on Franklin Field at the same time as the Red and Blue’s practice.
Furda is instantly recognizable in the top left of the image, the same square jaw of today piercing through the black and white of the photograph.
And perhaps that wasn’t the only sign he showed of things to come.
“Eric had that knack to be able to communicate with people,” Wagner says. “He would talk to people and be honest with them, had a lot of loyalty, and he found a way to get the job done.”
There’s probably no event at Penn that brings alumni together quite like Homecoming. But instead of taking the morning off, Eric Furda has a job to do: He’s scheduled a 9:00 A.M. session with alumni and their high school-aged children to talk about college admissions.
Once settled in, it’s easy to take stock of “the good Dean,” as Madden refers to him. He gets style points for his choice of a red, white and blue checkered dress shirt — which just so happens to color-coordinate with the Admissions pamphlet that he and his assistant hand out with a smile to each nervous and chattering student that gets ushered in by their parents.
Toting along a few underclassman Class Board members, a Harry Potter robe and a “sorting hat,” it doesn’t take long for Furda to break the silence and win the auditorium over.
“I’ve never seen [Harry Potter] in my life,” he stage-whispers as he strides behind a skinny freshman and places the hat upon his head.
As the freshman repeats “not Wharton” on an endless loop, Furda fires back.
“It’s okay son, you’ll get a job.”
Cue the laughter.
It’s the one-liners that make the 90-minute talk go by in what seemed like a third of the time.
When he waits for volunteers: “I’ll admit you if you talk.”
It’s no surprise that immediately after the session concludes, a mob of 15 parents and students surround him, peppering him with questions about letters of recommendation and recruiting that he receives with a clerical level of patience and openness. The smile never fades.
There is a plaque on the third row of the bookshelf in Furda’s spacious office in College Hall, tucked away behind the ceremonial baton from the 2008 Penn Relays and baby pictures of his children. The plaque reads: “University of Pennsylvania Sprint Football presents to Eric Furda C’87 this recognition for having endowed position: Center. Dedicated on September 17, 2000.”
Position by position, the sport has been the beneficiary of numerous alumni endowments over the past 15 years that total just north of 2 million dollars. At this year’s annual Alumni Game, the biggest giving event on the team’s calendar, it was announced that the head coaching position would be endowed and named after Wagner.
From Furda’s point of view, his own personal financial investment in the program is a part of his commitment to the institution’s future.
“A sport like this, it would be very easy not to support it,” Furda says. “I don’t just expect that the University would do that, because there’s a lot of different priorities.
“It’s very, very easy in life to complain about something and to point fingers if something isn’t going the way that you want it to go. And then there’s the responsibility to take ownership. The Penn Sprint alumni group wants other individuals to be able to have that opportunity [to play].”
The players that strap on helmets for the Quakers today don’t have to walk parallel to the highway in order to reach their patch of dirt like Furda did. Franklin Field, once the near-exclusive territory of the varsity team, is now sprint football’s daily home as well.
A commercial for the NCAA maintains that the majority of its athletes “go pro in something else.”
In the case of sprint football, where the players are by definition too small to play varsity, that’s a universal truth. Furda’s teammates have gone on to become MIT engineering professors, CFOs and plastic surgeons.
And Furda is here as dean of admissions, invested in far more than a single sport. He’s invested in the whole university, in part because he made himself part of the whole university as an undergraduate.
Yet Furda didn’t know where the admissions office was until the day he walked into College Hall for an interview the summer after graduation.
Having already spurned an OCR offer from Saks Fifth Avenue, Furda entered the field he calls home now based on a tip from two friends in Mask and Wig that had graduated a year earlier and had worked in the office as undergraduates.
“They ended up hiring about six people that year, and I was clearly the last hire,” Furda recalls. “I was the most entry-level person that they hired.
“And from there, I think it does go back to sprint football and other things that you get involved with. I worked hard. I cared about it.”
Sprint football also taught Furda to fail.
The first admissions information session that the then-regional director conducted in the summer after his hire was, by his own estimation, an “absolute disaster” that lasted 20 minutes.
Though life on the road giving high schoolers the Penn spiel was less physically taxing than practice on the dirt patch, the learning process remained the same.
“I unabashedly say if I have one skill set, it’s public speaking,” Furda says. “And that’s because I got out there, I failed, I looked at people who did it really well, I learned from them.
“I think I was a good study of it. And as with anything, it’s kind of like [practice] repetitions. You have to get out there and keep doing it.”
It’s been seven years now since Furda returned to campus following a 17-year tenure at Columbia that included nearly eight years as its executive director of admissions.
Forever enmeshed in the fabric of the team that got him his start, he won’t be leaving anytime soon.
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