Greer Cheeseman heads onto the field at the end of the third quarter already knowing how this toast toss — the first of the 2013 season — is going to go.
As the director of the Penn Band, he’s seen his fair share of toast tosses.
The band strikes up “Drink a Highball” as Cheeseman watches on. As the song comes to an end, people throw their toast.
And then they’re gone.
“This is the part I just don’t understand,” Cheeseman says. “They throw their toast and then they leave.”
It’s not entirely an exodus, as a fair portion of the crowd stays and watches on despite the fact that Penn has opened up a sizable lead against Lafayette heading into the fourth.
But Cheeseman isn’t wrong. A large number of fans leave the stadium immediately after throwing their toast.
For them, Penn football is about tradition.
TO ABSENT FRIENDS
At Penn, tradition is everything.
From the Econ Scream, to Hey Day to Spring Fling, the four years students spend at Penn are enriched by these moments.
The toast toss is as entrenched in Penn’s history as any of its traditions.
The story students hear when they arrive at Penn is that for years, fans would drink a highball at the end of the third quarter. But in the middle of the 1970s, the University banned alcohol from being allowed in Franklin Field. As a response, fans started bringing toast rather than alcohol.
Unfortunately, the history is not quite so dry.
“I don’t know why they say that,” Cheeseman said.
As Cheeseman recalled, the tradition had nothing to do with alcohol being banned.
Instead, it started on South Street.
The Theatre of Living Arts is now a concert hall, but back in the 1970s, it was a movie theater.
The TLA had interactive midnight showings of Rocky Horror Picture Show, a cult phenomenon at the time. It featured the character Dr. Frank N. Furter, a transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania, as well as famous actors Susan Sarandon and Meatloaf. Audience members would scream at the screen in addition to doing various acts at points in the movie.
There’s a scene late in the movie in which the doctor raises his glass and asks for “a toast to absent friends.”
At that point in the film during those midnight showings, audience members would throw toast at the screen.
Cheeseman and a few of his friends were amongst those in the crowd and came away impressed.
“I thought it was clever,” Cheeseman said. “So me and a couple of my buddies decided to try it at a football game. So at the end of ‘Highball,’ we started throwing it.
“And from there it seemed to take on a life of its own.”
The tradition has less to do with alcohol being banned and more to do with a fictional doctor, donned in leather and fishnets, raising his glass.
And now, with attendance dropping every decade, the toast toss may be one of the most memorable parts of Penn football.
People don’t come out to watch Penn football any more.
Look back at tape from the 1950s, and the home side of Franklin Field, lower and upper decks, would be filled. The same can be said for the 1980s, when Penn averaged 29,992 fans at Homecoming.
The toast toss caught on quickly in the ’80s thanks to the large crowds, but the new tradition had no power in keeping fans coming to games over the decades since it began.
When Dan Shulman got a second chance for Penn to beat Harvard and take the Ivy crown back in 1982, the stands were filled. Conversely, when Penn upset Harvard last Nov. 10, only 8,910 fans were in attendance.
The ’80s were a resurgent time in Penn football. After being the laughing stock of the Ivy League for much of the ’60s and ’70s. Success had some hand in attendance during that decade, but the times have since changed.
After all, Al Bagnoli has been Penn’s coach for 22 years. In that time, his team has won nine Ivy League titles, yet still attendance has declined.
And Penn hasn’t played for anything but an Ivy League title since they joined the Ancient Eight in the late ’50s.
Now, those that want to watch football are staying home on Saturday rather than coming out to Franklin Field.
“Penn football’s great. They’re true amateurs. I love watching them,” Cheeseman said. “But if you’re a college football fan, you’re probably staying home, watching [games] on TV.”
In addition, there are simply other things to do on campus.
“A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, I have to do my dance group or go to my a cappella concert,” Penn Band secretary Josh Cooper said. “And [football] kind of gets pushed out of the way like a secondary thing.”
That’s why the toast toss is so important to Penn football.
The allure of witnessing a team compete for an Ivy championship, buying Chickie’s and Pete’s and spending a Saturday at a historic stadium isn’t enough to fill up even a fourth of Franklin Field’s capacity. It’s the toast toss that differentiates Penn from other schools, and it’s what Penn fans remember years later.
But that Youtube moment that brings fans out, that students hear about from the time they step on campus and remember for years after they leave, has been threatened many times.
OF SMUGGLERS AND BREAD
The first threat to the toast toss came in 1988, when security guards began confiscating toast that people attempted to bring into the stadium.
“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.”
As a response, Alan Schwarz, a former sports editor at the DP, wrote a column urging students to smuggle toast into the stadium. Had Penn Athletics had its way, there would have been no toast to throw that day, but thanks to Schwarz and his friends, the toast toss stayed alive.
For a long while after Schwarz’ “Ocean’s Eleven” moment, Penn Athletics started providing the toast for students, but still the tradition fell under fire.
Penn graduate Pranav Merchant wrote an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2010 criticising the University for promoting a tradition that is a waste of food. He argues that throwing $2,500-worth of food when just blocks away people are living in poverty is ignorant.
Three years later, he still believes his argument.
“I grew up with the mentality to respect food,” Merchant said. “To see people take food and just throw it like that is disrespectful.”
The article raised questions around the Penn community, questioning whether the tradition should be continued. Ultimately, Merchant’s claims fell on deaf ears and the tradition stayed alive.
Just last year, Penn Athletics decided to stop providing toast, calling for student groups like Red and Blue Crew to take the charge.
Head of Red and Blue Crew, Jonathan Cousins, presumed everything would work out until he arrived at Skimmerfest that day and saw that no one had toast with them.
“I said, ‘You know what’s going to happen? All the freshmen are going to come. No one’s going to have any toast. We’re gonna sing the song. There’ll be like 10 pieces of toast thrown by people that brought it,’” Cousins said.
“It could have died.”
Ultimately, Penn Athletics helped Red and Blue Crew have bread delivered to the stadium and the crisis was avoided, keeping the tradition alive for another day.
Penn Athletics Director Steve Bilsky is a fan of the tradition.
“I think it’s a great tradition,” Bilsky said. “I think it’s fun. I’m a big tradition guy, and when you have something that works, keep it.”
But for Penn Athletics, tradition and money are inextricably linked, serving as another potential threat to the toast toss.
“I’d like to sell every year,” Bilsky continued, “to the class that’s having its 25th reunion, I’d like to sell the [toast] zamboni to them that year.”
I CAME. I SAW. I THREW.
The third quarter comes to a close as Penn and Dartmouth are locked up in a tight battle on Oct. 5, with the Quakers up one touchdown.
As toast rains down from the stands, so do the fans. Not as many supporters leave as during the Lafayette game, but still a fair portion of the crowd vacates the stadium.
Those who stayed were treated to the longest game in Ivy League history, a four-overtime thriller including a blocked kick by senior linebacker David Park to send the game into overtime just when it looked like Dartmouth had it sealed up.
But the people that left after the toast toss weren’t there for the football anyway.
“I’ve seen it more and more over the last five or ten years,” Cheeseman said. “More and more people come for the first quarter, stay through halftime, stay for ‘Highball,’ throw the toast, and then there’s an exodus.
“It’s ‘I came, I saw. I threw. I’m outta here.’”
Had Cousins’ worst fear been realized that day in 2012, had no toast been thrown from the stands and slowly the toast toss had died, Penn football would have survived. It just wouldn’t be the same.
More than simply losing the percentage of people who come just to throw toast, Penn football would lose a piece of its soul.
Parents and alumni wouldn’t scramble to grab a few slices of bread before heading to the game. The band wouldn’t get together every week to make toast.
“It’s one of those fun things that, after the fact, my parents got excited about putting some bread in the toaster before they left and bringing it down with them,” wide receivers coach and former Penn player Mark Fabish said.
“It was important for them to be a part of the tradition.”
While Frank toasts to absent friends in Rocky Horror, Penn fans follow the lyrics of “Highball” to a T — they tell the story of glory of Pennsylvania.
Only that story isn’t of the heroics that happen on the football field, but the memories forged in the stands.
“My memories aren’t about the football team going 10-0 my freshmen year. It’s from being part of something that was fun and distinctive and memorable,” Schwarz said. “And when you remove the things that make you distinctive, it’s a dangerous game.
“Because when you take away those things, you move one step closer to being boring.”
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