The author with fellow letterman Ron Dayne.
Like a lot of UW-Madison alums, I get a warm squeeze from the song "Varsity." It didn't mean a dang thing the year I earned my varsity letter in swimming three decades ago. In fact, I never even wore the jacket during the years I competed for UW. Wearing sports stuff just wasn't my thing. It had nothing to do with the shame some on campus felt over how bad the UW football team was in the late '70s.
How bad was the football program back then? Real bad. Not Veer offense bad. Worse. The team was so crappy they didn't even have a name for their offense.
Yup. The football players laid eggs on the field, but that didn't keep my fellow swimmers, cross-country runners, fencers, wrestlers and gymnasts from supporting them. After all, they supported us.
I don't mean that football players showed up at swim meets. I'm talking about NCAA bottom-line realities. If it weren't for the "income sports," namely football, there wouldn't be "non-income" sports. Swimming and cross-country and so forth.
In our minds the football players weren't pampered, overhyped sides of beef. They were the reason we had sweat suits and Speedos. Hell, they paid for our travel and even helped cover chunks of our scholarships. We never took them for granted. But I never felt a varsity-size physical connection to the football program until the Michigan home game last month.
That's when the National W Club, the organization made up of UW varsity letter winners past and present, threw their annual homecoming for Badger athletes. As part of the festivities we old-timers were invited onto the field before kick-off. It's like when the alumni marching band takes the field each year, only without any of the performance anxiety.
It was a Badger beauty of a day. The sun kept the late autumn temperatures at bay, if only for a few more hours. We were asked to wear our letter jackets to gain admission to the north end of the field. Since we were running late, my wife, Peggy, and I had to dart and dash through the knotty crowd on Breese Terrace like we were giddy freshmen.
I was sucking wind when I scurried out onto the emerald turf. The bright colors of the stands from the vantage point of the field were eye popping. I felt like I had stepped out of the black-and-white farmhouse into Munchkin land.
Generations of letter winners were shaking hands, back slapping, taking pictures. And not just teammate to teammate. It was a true brotherhood and sisterhood scene. It didn't matter what sport or what year. It only mattered that we wore the "W" on our jackets. Or, in some cases, on the faded front side of a moth-eaten pullover sweater.
That's what the shrunken old fellow next to me was wearing as we began to form the two columns of letter winners through which the current day Badgers would run to take the field. "What sport were you?" I asked as we pumped hands. "BOXING! 1948!" he rasped like Burgess Meredith in Rocky.
The only athlete not participating in the hoo-ha stood over beneath the goal posts, the revelry swirling all around him. Maybe he had other things on his mind, things like having his number retired at halftime. But it seemed to me that Ron Dayne's fellow letter winners were giving him his space out of respect and because we were all so gaga to see the Heisman Trophy winner up close and personal.
But there he was, fists shoved into the pockets of his own varsity jacket, gap-toothed smile on full display. It didn't look to me like the football hero wanted to be ignored. In fact, I got the sense that he was feeling left out. I tapped my old swimming buddy Beazer on the shoulder and told him to get his camera ready.
"How about a photo with a fellow letterman?" I asked Dayne. "Bring it on," he laughed.
Immediately after the Beaze snapped the shot, the football team emerged from the tunnel. Seniors first, since it was the last home game of the season. Those players, many of whom hadn't seen 30 seconds of action in four years, jogged past us straight toward their parents who awaited them at midfield. The seniors looked dead ahead, even as they reached out to slap our hands.
Americans love their athletes, and most collegiate athletes will tell you that their college sports experience played a big role in shaping who they are. Those seniors didn't know that yet. They had one more home game to play. But we knew it. The old boxer. The tall, gray-haired crewmen. The wrestlers. Ron Dayne. Beazer and I. Beazer's dad, too, who was with us and who swam in the early 1940s.
And while the win over Michigan that day was icing on the cake, it didn't really touch the emotions of our pre-game experience. We all felt pretty important out there forming the corridor for those seniors, literally guiding the way from their college careers into the world.