Dec. 9, 2004
By Sam Rubin `95
It's 9 a.m. on a fall Saturday at Yale Bowl, and Yale senior wide receiver Ralph Plumb is getting taped, one of the last steps in the week-long process to prepare for a game. He'll spend the next few hours mostly on his own, thinking through the game to get himself mentally ready.
Several hundred yards away, in lot F of the Yale Bowl parking lot, Plumb's family is getting ready as well. For them, game preparation also begins earlier in the week, with phone calls and planning for their contribution to the Yale football parents' tailgate: 125 of their legendary steak sandwiches.
At 7:30 a.m. they began their trek to New Haven from Portsmouth, R.I., bearing the steaks, buns and all the fixings. After the game, Mr. Plumb - also named Ralph - gets behind the grill to cook for the players. It's a task he and his family accept gladly.
"Tailgating is a way to keep busy before the game," Mr. Plumb said. "It's great for the social aspects, and it's good to put our energy into something."
It's also a natural for the Plumbs, as Mr. Plumb and his wife Pat have owned the Brick Alley Pub & Restaurant in Newport for 25 years. They have made it to every one of Ralph's games and have been part of the tailgates since he was in high school. When they first began showing up at Yale games in 2001, the senior parents welcomed them and introduced them to the ever-expanding tailgate which now runs up and down the fence at the back of the lot.
"This group has been the most welcoming, friendly group we could have asked for," Mr. Plumb said. He rattled off contributions that various parents have made over the years that range from a "Yale Football Parents Tailgate" banner to a trailer to store the grills and equipment. The group is also a well-organized one. Like any great team, the Yale parents have meshed to the point where communication is barely even necessary to put together this weekly feast for hundreds. The parents that fly in from far-away states such as California and Texas order KFC or pizza to augment the efforts of locals such as the Plumbs, who have the time and the resources to put together a `home-cooked' meal. Like a proud coach, Mr. Plumb gives credit to his kitchen staff for getting everything ready, leaving him and his wife with a straightforward task every Saturday: get the steaks into the hands of the players. "Our contribution is to haul it down here and cook it," he said. "With us, it's effortless."
That also leaves the Plumbs, often accompanied by 30 family members and friends, with time to enjoy watching their son play. Their presence does not go unnoticed.
"It's incredible to have that kind of support," Ralph said. "Neither one of them has missed a football game during my career."
The younger Plumb has given them plenty to cheer about. He's currently second on the Yale career receptions list (158, 23 behind Eric Johnson '01) and career receiving yards list (1973, 201 behind Johnson). You could say his accomplishments are the result of an old-fashioned recipe that mixes hard work and dedication.
"Ralph is a kid that you love to have on your team," senior offensive lineman Rory Hennessey, the Bulldog captain, said. "He's a hard-nosed, in-your-face type of receiver. He'll make all the big plays, he'll make all the blocks and he'll do whatever it takes to win."
Senior free safety Barton Simmons echoed those sentiments, albeit from a defensive back's perspective.
"He's the kind of guy who you hate playing against, but you love having him on your side," Simmons said. "He's going to block you to the whistle every time."
Hennessey noticed Plumb's attitude early on in practice as a freshman. Plumb came in as a quarterback but quickly made the move to receiver and began working his way up the depth chart.
"He had a sprained ankle that was swollen to the size of a grapefruit," Hennessey said. "You come off the practice field and you have kids saying they're sore and this or that, and Ralphie's out there during doubles as a freshman trying to prove himself, playing hard with a busted ankle." There's no doubt that part of Plumb's work ethic was engrained in him from growing up around the family business, where he first started contributing before he was even a teenager. He worked at the pub through high school in a wide variety of roles, and even now he'll occasionally make an appearance at 7:00 a.m. to put away deliveries. Ralph also credits his older brother Matt with influencing his development.
"As a sophomore [in high school], I was the backup quarterback and he was the starter," Ralph said. "I was able to learn the offense very well. He was an incredible leader. That was probably his best attribute."
In fact, the Plumb family was planning to split up for tailgates on Saturday when Matt went off to the University of Rhode Island a few years ago, but an ACL injury ended his career. He remains involved with the game, coaching at Salve Regina.
Meanwhile, Ralph is trying to make the most of his last few games as a Bulldog - and his teammates are trying to enjoy their last few helpings of steak sandwiches. The Plumbs mixed it up once a few years ago by bringing meatballs and sausage and peppers instead, but the outcry from the players quickly convinced them that steak sandwiches were the way to go. Now, after every game, the Bulldogs make the trek from the Smilow Center over to the tailgate for the food and the socializing (ironically, Ralph himself is too spent to eat after games).
Some Bulldogs have even been fortunate enough to make the trip up to Rhode Island to visit the pub. What they find when they get there is a local hangout that serves steaks, local seafood and more in a casual atmosphere. Brick Alley has been honored with Wine Spectator's Award of Excellence, Newport Life magazine's Best of Newport County award and more.
"It's the best food I've ever had," Hennessey said, speaking with the authority of a 300-pounder. "They've got everything you could think of." Hennessey recommends the buffalo chicken pizza and 24-karat gold ribs. Just as important as the food is the atmosphere the Plumbs have created, one that includes plenty of Yale football memorabilia on the walls. Over the years, the family has played host to many Bulldogs - players and family members - traveling in New England.
"It's like a second home for us, and for me especially," Hennessey said. "They welcome everybody. They love having people up there." And while the restaurant will continue on, the Plumbs might have to make some changes in their weekend tailgating plans next year. While Ralph is ultimately eying a career in finance, he has drawn the interest of pro scouts as a tight end.
"That's a once in a lifetime opportunity," he said. "If it's there, it's there. If it doesn't work out, it doesn't."
And no matter what, Plumb can count on his family being there - along with some really good food.
Sam Rubin '95 works in the Yale Sports Publicity Office and is the author of Baseball in New Haven.