Huge Yale Crowd On Hand
NEW YORK, N.Y. – John Gary Fencik '76 talks about all the broken noses he suffered between his four years at Yale and a dozen National Football League campaigns. The damage was eventually repaired by using cartilage from his ear. "I could hear with my nose better than anyone," says the former Bulldog All-Ivy League receiver.
Ironically, Fencik, one of the hardest-hitting players in NFL history, probably broke more noses than he suffered, and he had opponents hearing his footsteps at every level of the game, especially during his days as a Super Bowl shuffling safety for the Chicago Bears.
The Ivy Football Association honored the former Yale receiver and 1986 NFL Champion during a dinner at the Sheraton New York Times Square Hotel tonight.
Fencik, a partner and head of business development with Adams Street Partners, a Chicago firm that specializes in the type of trading that measures returns in billions, always produced big numbers on the gridiron. When he left New Haven, he owned the school record for career receptions (86) playing for teams that were relatively run oriented. He switched over to defense as a pro and is still Chicago's all-time leader in interceptions (38) and tackles.
Over 160 Yale affiliated people, including many of his teammates, gathered in the Metropolitan Ballroom to see the former first-team All-Ivy League wide receiver honored for his contributions to the Ancient Eight and the game of football.
Prior to the dinner, the large Yale contingent had its own, two-hour reception in the Sheraton.
The National Football League themed reception featured words from former Eli professionals Calvin Hill '69, John Spagnola '79 and the Bulldog of the hour.
"I'm glad I only played one game against Gary," said Hill, who played for NFL teams in Dallas, Washington and Cleveland. "I was playing for the Browns and looking forward to playing against him and showing him a thing or two about being a pro player. I caught a short pass from Brian Sipe and figured I would run right past Gary. It was scary the way he hit me, and I had been hit plenty of times by Dick Butkus and Jack Tatum (two of the legendary big hitters of the NFL). Gary extended his arm to pick me up and says, 'Coach Cozza said to say hello.' I'm thankful I only played one game against him."
Spagnola, who broke Fencik's Yale receptions record, had a similar post-Yale path. Like the receiver he preceded, Spagnola got cut by his first NFL team before landing with his hometown pro squad. Spagnola, who pointed out all of this and the fact one of them won a Super Bowl (vs. New England) while the other lost, made an interesting observation about Fencik's Chicago defense.
"That Bears' defense in the NFL today… nobody would be playing the second half, they'd all be thrown out of the game [they way they hit people]," said Spagnola, who played for the Eagles, Packers and Seahawks.
Fencik qualified that anecdote for the big crowd. "The Bears were not always winning. In those years, when we were down, my teammate, Doug Plank, would look at me and say, 'it's time to have fun.' That meant it was time to cheap-shot guys."
Tony Reno, the Joel E. Smilow '54 Head Coach at Yale spoke at the reception, along with Stone Phillips '77, a former Yale quarterback who went on to anchor NBC TV's "Dateline."
Phillips, who started on the 1975 Yale offense with Fencik, said a lot of his wide receiver's catches were like interceptions. "Gary was a quarterback's dream come true. I never threw a hail Mary at Yale, but I threw a load of 'hail Garys.' I'd just throw it his way and hope."
Chris Berman (Brown '77) served as master of ceremonies with his usual humor and intellect, but there were two Yalies behind the scenes making everything happen, Bill Primps, the IFA President, and Greg Hall '77, one of the IFA Directors.
Getting back to the main honoree, Peter Easton, Yale's Sports Information Director when Fencik was in school, had an interesting first impression of the future NFL hit man.
"My main memory about Gary was really my introduction to him, via film," said Easton in an email. "Now, I didn't make a habit of watching football film with the coaches, but one day, I was up in the football office and someone (it may have been Carm Cozzza or perhaps Dave Kelley) said to me, 'You have to watch this kid. He makes one block and then goes downfield and finds another guy to block. This kid never quits.'"
The kid who never quit had many opponents singing the blues. Fencik, on the other hand, didn't sing any blues, but he did make some highly noted singing appearances. The "old Blue" was awarded a gold record and a platinum video award for the 1985 Super Bowl Shuffle, and he has performed "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" at Wrigley Field during a seventh-inning stretch.
The early years of retirement from football for Fencik included gigs as an NFL commentator on CBS TV and on Bears' radio broadcasts. He was the perfect candidate for a career in sports media. However, he had already been planning to become a business man during his pro football career. In 1981, he enrolled at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management and then got his MBA and a Super Bowl ring, and met his wife, Sandy, in 1985.
His plan worked well, and this night was a testament to it. He joined past Yale IFA honorees Alexander M. 'Sandy' Cutler '73, Calvin Hill '69, Henry G. "Hank" Higdon '63, Stone Phillips '77, Jerome P. Kenney '63, Charles B. Johnson '54, Kenneth L. Wolfe '61 and Kurt L. Schmoke '71.
The other IFA honorees included Robert Pangia (Brown '71), Javier Loya (Columbia '91), Joe Holland (Cornell '78), Thomas Clarke (Dartmouth '66), Michael Corbat (Harvard '83), John Dornan (Penn '66) and Robert Casciola (Princeton '58).
Filed by Steve Conn, Yale Associate AD & Sports Publicity Director – firstname.lastname@example.org