It’s become nearly as much a staple of Penn sprint football as longtime coach Bill Wagner himself. But when and how did the annual sprint football alumni game come about?
Penn picked up the idea from Ivy League rival Cornell, which started pitting its sprint football team against a team of young alumni for a preseason exhibition game 25 years ago. The Quakers followed suit seven years later, holding their own version of the annual event for the first time in 1998.
Far from going easy on the alumni, the team and its coaches see the game as an important preseason tune-up and a chance to evaluate their new talent before the real competition starts.
“It’s a great way to get a preseason game against a couple bodies against someone other than your own players,” Wagner said.
In particular, since the team refrains from full tackling during practice to help maintain their bodies over the season, the players view the game as an opportunity to practice their form.
“It’s good to get that chance to get some form tackling in, even if it’s against people who haven’t played football in awhile,” senior defensive back Chris Colavita said. “It’s still great to get our techniques down and solidify some stuff before the season starts.”
In this regard, the alumni are more than happy to oblige.
“One year, [the game] wasn’t tackle — we had to play a flag game,” Wagner said. “It was terrible. My alums don’t want to do that.”
The tradition also serves as an opportunity for players across generations to meet each other. The game has expanded into an event spanning the entire weekend that includes a networking panel on Friday evening featuring sprint football alumni and a barbecue after the game in which the players and their families participate. Parents of both current players and alumni come to watch their sons play.
After all, it’s a special event for the alumni.
“You always have one football game to look forward to playing every year, because after you graduate college, you’re not playing football anymore,” current assistant coach and former sprint football captain Sam Biddle said. “It’s great to have one more you can play each year.”
“It’s nice to know that you have that option once a year to jump on the field and suit up and get your fix for the year,” fellow coach and sprint football alumni Dave Hubsher added.
Since graduating in 2011, Hubsher and Biddle have participated in four alumni games, but one in particular stands out the most.
“[In 2012], the year after I graduated, the alumni won. We were pretty stacked that year,” Hubsher said of the 20-0 victory.
“Half of them were single, still felt they were invincible, and they shut us down,” Wagner added.
The game has also been a financial boon to the team, serving as an important fundraiser for sprint football, as the alumni pay to play.
“Hubsher and Sammy [Biddle] have been going out, helping to push the return of players,” Wagner said. “[The alumni] have been so gracious, generous, and supportive in a lot of ways.”
The game features players from as long ago as the early 1970s suiting up, including 1973 graduate and current assistant coach Chuck Hitschler. The game spans multiple generations of families as well as players, as father and son Robert Shnider, a 1985 graduate, and Derek Shnider, a 2016 graduate, will both take the field for the alumni on Saturday.
The game looks likely to continue, as current players are already talking about playing for the alumni when the time comes.
“We’re already starting to talk trash to the younger guys, telling them we’re coming for them next year,” Colavita laughed.
“It’s been a very, very strong success,” Wagner said, “So we’re going to keep it alive for many years to come.”
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