A Busted Hand, Big Teeth, The Nerd: Remembering the Ivy Champs of 1999
by Peter Sarantos ’00
The record books show that the 1999 Yale football squad went 9-1 and captured a piece of the Ivy League title. The scores are all there in black and white, as are some very telling statistics: No. 1 defense in the Ivies, No. 2 offense in the league, Joe Walland and his 55 or so records at quarterback, Eric Johnson and his magical hands.
However, factual data that can be pulled from a sports almanac are not what we reminisce about whenever we find a victim who will listen to our tales. It’s the stories behind those numbers (many about things that didn’t occur on the gridiron) that will forever resonate with my teammates and me.
For example, any picture of the defensive unit from the 1999 squad will show defensive lineman Andy Tuzzolino with a cast on his right hand. The cast is unremarkable, and most people probably wouldn’t even notice it, but it’s hard to forget why he had to wear it: he broke his hand in preseason by punching an offensive lineman in the face. Repeatedly. It was a fellow Bulldog player, and he was wearing a face mask. I don’t know if you’ve ever been punched in the face mask while wearing a helmet, but it doesn’t hurt at all. Nice going, Tuzz.
And who could forget the seesaw of emotions in the Brown game? It was our season opener, and the game went back and forth all afternoon. The ending was something even Hollywood couldn’t script. In the last minute, we blocked a game-tying extra point, only to have the holder pick up the ball and advance to the end zone. We managed to bring him down short of the goal line, but not before he blindly pitched the ball back to a 400-pound guy who waddled in for a 2-pointer. We even managed to get in field goal range to win the game, but the kick came up short. Brown 25, Yale 24. It’s one I’d like to forget, but what a story!
In our third game of the season, we eked out a defensively-led win against the University of San Diego (I think our defense was on the field for 59 of the 60 minutes). I don’t recall the exact score, but I do remember that about half of the team slipped away to Tijuana after the game. No one knows for sure what happened in Mexico, but legend has it that an unnamed teammate punched a man over the railing on the bridge at the border. He vehemently denies the story, but we still call that teammate The Murderer. (I truly trust in his innocence, but man! What a catchy nickname!)
Before he was a star tight end in the NFL, Eric Johnson was terrorizing Ivy League defenses with his crisp routes and ridiculous hands. Eric was an Academic All-American and one of the nicest guys around. His nickname was The Big Nerd. Therefore, it was inherently more hilarious and completely unforgettable on the one occasion he managed to get into trouble. A freak snowstorm had blown through late in the season, and as we were waiting for the coaching staff to make their way to the field, Eric uncharacteristically tried to draw some laughs and lobbed a snowball in their direction. I’m sure he intended the projectile to come up short, but he blasted the strength coach square in the face from about 60 yards away. I’ll bet his athleticism didn’t help him much on the 10,000 miles he probably had to run as punishment. But he definitely got some laughs!
Another iconic figure from the 1999 Yale football team is the revered quarterback, Joe Walland. Joe had a magical touch, an uncanny ability to make spot decisions, and a pair of legs that helped him get out of dozens of sticky situations. Joe would be the first guy to tell you so.
However, if he’d tried to tell you so back then, you probably wouldn’t have been able to understand it. Joe had what could best be described as a unique dental arrangement. To be more specific, Joe had about 85 teeth in his mouth. Captain Jake Fuller swears that he had to act as interpreter in the huddle after Joe would make the play calls. I’m not sure if he grew all of those extra teeth to intimidate opponents, but I know he scared the hell out of me! He has since pared back to the normal 32 adult teeth and now has a model’s smile. But his mouthpiece still exists as testament to what was once freakishly awesome.
The most remarkable day in the 1999 season turned out to be one of the most remarkable days of my life. On Nov. 20, 1999, a crowd of nearly 55,000 showed up in New Haven to see Yale battle Harvard with the Ivy championship at stake. My legs surely weren’t the only sore set at the end of the day, because I think the fans were on their feet from beginning to end -- and with good reason! It was a great game from the opening kick.
On the defensive side of the ball, we continually frustrated the Cantabs and confounded their offensive schemes. No one on their team came out and said it, but I’m pretty sure they’ve never been hit harder in their lives. I could see it in their eyes. However, as potent and dominant as we were on defense, it was the Yale offense that captivated the crowd that day.
Joe Walland was listed as “questionable” for the game, suffering from a temperature somewhere in the 130s and a flu bug sent from Beezlebub himself. Joe spent Friday night in the hospital and looked even worse than usual. However, he rallied his spirits and rose to the occasion. Walland completed 42 of 67 (with 51 attempts in the second half alone) for an astonishing 437 yards. He connected with a host of receivers that magical afternoon, but one receiver outshone them all. Eric Johnson hauled in 21 of Walland’s strikes for 244 yards. In the history of Division I-AA football, only two guys (Jerry Rice was one) had caught more balls in a game.
Of the thousands of plays during practice and hundreds of plays during the games, one in particular stands out. It has become known simply as The Catch, and it’s only fitting that it involved the two most prolific performers of that afternoon. Trailing Harvard 21-17 with 0:29 remaining, Walland dropped back and spotted The Big Nerd slanting across the field. A Cantab defender managed to tip Joe’s pass at the line of scrimmage, and the ball appeared to be on its way to the grass. The entire Bowl was silent in anticipation. Although he looked to be out of contention to catch the deflection, Eric extended his arms by seemingly 10 feet and pulled the ball in with his fingertips. The crowd erupted on both sides of the stadium. Yale fans were blown away by the circus catch and the lead, while Harvard fans were frustrated and questioning the call. The crowd stormed the field as the seconds ticked off the clock, and the 1999 Bulldogs secured a place in Yale history. To quote myself, “It was the single greatest moment in the lives of every attendee of The Game.”
So there you have it. Even without knowing the players involved, the bare facts are enough for a Hollywood movie: Carm Cozza’s last recruiting class; being tagged “the worst team in Yale history”; going from 1-9 to 9-1 in two years; playing Harvard for the title; The Game decided by last-second heroics; Ivy League champions.
And while I will surely remember some of the numbers and the statistics associated with that 1999 Bulldog team, it’s the stories above and the hundreds like them that have burned an indelible place in my heart. To quote author Tim O’Brien: “Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story."
The writer was an All-Ivy defensive end for Yale’s 1999 Ivy League co-champions.