November 13, 2006

Fridays With Toads

Nov. 13, 2006

By Steve Conn

Many have described the experience of walking through a Yale Bowl portal for the first time as like entering the Roman Colosseum. Imagine being a young teenager and Yale football fanatic in the late 1970s entering the Bowl from field level and then taking part in the team's pre-practice routine the day before home games.

My friends, Bill McNeil and Ken Moscovics, and I got dropped off on Central Avenue on fall Friday afternoons in the late 1970s to encounter a football bonanza, the perfect thing for kids with the gridiron bug before the days of high school varsity practice would get in the way.

Five or six Saturday home games each autumn were not sufficient for Yale fans like us.

Head coach Carm Cozza held light, Friday afternoon workouts in the venerable stadium with very little fanfare. I don't believe the Bowl was actually supposed to be open, and my friends and I certainly felt we were not supposed to be there but jumped on the opportunity.

Fridays in the Bowl meant Yale offensive linemen playing "Toad Ball." In Cozza's era offensive linemen were known as Toads; a toad jumps forward out of a squatting stance. Other players had field-goal kicking contests or just fooled around before the coaching staff arrived to blow its first whistle. The players allowed us to compete in their kicking contests, but we were too small and probably too fast to play with the Toads.

"Fridays were the best since we actually had the opportunity to touch the ball," said Mark Noetzel '79, a 6-foot-1, 215-pound guard and three-year letterman from Ohio. "Toads could be transformed into princes on Fridays. We had the chance to be skill players for a moment."

Cozza was not enamored with the idea of his big linemen pretending to be skill players. In fact, he was very worried about the consequences of a wrong turn or tumble. We were glad he didn't like to watch them play because it gave us more time to play with the Bulldogs.

"I watched them play one time and that was enough. It was like watching a circus," said Cozza, who left Toad Ball in the hands of his offensive line coach. "I remember telling our offensive line coach, you better not get any of these guys hurt. They were not very good and they even looked dangerous to each other."

We wore jeans and football jerseys, which was often not enough for those days when a large open space can be very windy and cold. We always felt we were trespassing because we were the only kids in sight each time we ventured out to the Bowl area. We were certainly the only people not in some type of uniform; in contrast to the coaches, players and other athletic department staff members moving about the Bowl.

It was always fun to watch the reaction of the Yale players when one of us would split the uprights off a tee from 30 yards or more, wearing our Converse All-Star high-tops and kicking one of the team balls. We always brought a few of our own balls in case we arrived early and the players had yet to show up. Many of the Elis got a kick out of seeing our collection of footballs: plastic, rubber, cowhide and even a bright yellow Chiquita Banana ball.

Just being on the field with guys like receiver John Spagnola, quarterback Pat O'Brien, tight end Bob Krystyniak and linebacking star Bill Crowley as they goofed around was worth what ever time we were allowed to stay. In fact, I would bring a camera and those players would organize themselves into a crazy, posed action scenario. Later in the season I brought black-and-white prints that I made in our dark room. I gave some out and had some signed.

I still get a smile out of Spagnola, who earned two Ivy championship rings and became an 11-year National Football League player, when I bring up those odd formations.

"The day before the games was always the best day. There was no conditioning afterwards and we got an opportunity to frolic a bit," said Spagnola. "It was a great way to get rid of the pre-game stress and take our minds off the game a little. I remember doing the funny poses for the photos but I'm not sure how we came up with those."

Our length of stay at the Friday practices seemed to depend on the emotional state of the man in charge of athletic security, who was tall and intimidating and drove a blue pickup truck. We knew at any moment he might start yelling that it was time for us to take off. It was never done delicately and always shook us up a little. We never quite understood how he came to this decision (maybe it was Cozza giving him the sign) but figured we were just lucky to be there at all.

When it was time to go, we reluctantly scooted out the players' tunnel, peeked inside the halftime room while wondering what Cozza's speech the next day might sound like, and then raced across Central Avenue to watch a different type of Yale football.

For many years and up until 1992, tackle (not flag) intramural games known as inter-college football were played among Yale's 12 residential colleges. There were six teams, each a combination of two colleges, which squared off on Friday afternoons. The officiating crews were more than happy to have volunteers work the down markers as part of the chain gang. These spirited contests were amazing displays of emotion and desire but lacked enough medical training help to cover all the injuries suffered by poorly conditioned bodies.

I recall seeing a much older man banging heads with young college kids and wondering why he would be out there putting his body at great risk. I recently discovered that man was my first athletics director at Yale, Don Kagan, the Sterling Professor of Classics & History.

"It was a fulfillment of a life's love of playing football. I was in reasonable shape and could play without getting killed," said Kagan, who played defensive tackle and linebacker up until the age of 45 for the Timothy Dwight-Silliman squad and served as interim Yale A.D. in 1987-88. "I also got to play against my son (fullback for Pierson-Davenport), but I don't remember tackling him."

The action of the games going on around the Armory, which culminated every other year with a fantastic showdown with the Harvard intramural teams on these fields, was a nice consolation for being chased from Bowl.

If there was any time to kill before or after these games, we would head to the blocking sleds and goal posts of the varsity practice fields across Derby Avenue to test ourselves. It seemed like a lot of walking for short legs to get to these three locations around the Bowl, but it was worth it.

Toad Ball, frolicking Fridays and house football are all things of the past. Yale offensive linemen are no longer called Toads, and there are fewer players on the roster, thus not enough of the big fellows to play a game. The biggest guys on the team are now really large (Yale currently has four players over 300 pounds) and injuries are an even greater concern. Medical and financial issues forced the end of residential college tackle games, which have been replaced by flag football.

Those of us who were lucky enough to experience the era of the Toads and inter-college ball have great memories.

Steve Conn, who grew up in Orange attending games at the Bowl, is Yale's Director of Sports Publicity and an assistant A.D.

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