“I’M HYPE AS HELL!” yells Marvin Moore, No. 77, as he runs out on to the soggy practice field. “LET’S GO!”
It’s Friday, Oct. 2, and it’s raining hard in Princeton, New Jersey. Hurricane Joaquin is threatening. Soon, the storm will take a sharp right, and drift harmlessly out to sea. But there’s no way to know that, given the present conditions. It’s cold, and windy, and damp. Just a nasty day.
You’re a sprint football player at Princeton University. Sprint football. Your friends and family don’t even know what that is. “Spring football?” They ask. No, sprint football. It’s exactly like regular football. Four quarters. Eleven man sides. Same penalties, same timing, same everything.
There’s only one difference between sprint football and regulation football. In sprint, each player must adhere to a 172-pound weight limit, everyone from the quarterback to the nose tackle. One hundred seventy-two pounds. Not an ounce more.
That number, 172, is constantly hanging over your head. You see it in your sleep. You’ve got to make 172 twice a week in advance of a game. And you might walk around at 180, which means you’ve got to drop 8 pounds in a very short amount of time. You do this by “cutting,” just like boxers do, or jockeys. You progressively decrease your water consumption, and lay off the salt and carbs in order to get to the magic number.
And if you’re still a little bit over, you pull out the scissors.
“Last year (before a game), I stepped on the scale at 172.2,” says Max Skelly, a Princeton captain. “I shaved my head and my beard, and I literally made weight. That made the .2 pound difference.”
Sprint football originated in 1934, created by University of Pennsylvania president Thomas Sovereign Gates, who wanted to give smaller kids a chance to play the sport. Michigan, Rutgers and Villanova once fielded sprint teams, but no longer do. Princeton has played since the very beginning. Right now, nine schools, all based in the Northeast, participate in the Collegiate Sprint Football League. But recently, the sport has gained some traction with smaller schools. Since 2008, four have joined the CSFL, and more are considering it.
President Jimmy Carter played sprint, then known as “lightweight football,” at the Naval Academy. So did Patriots owner Bob Kraft at Columbia. George Allen, the Hall of Fame coach, began his career as a sprint assistant at Michigan. Still, most people have never heard of this game you bust your ass playing.
On top of the cutting, your body aches. A number of your teammates are sitting out practice due to injury. The sideline was basically a MASH unit during the last game. Many on the roster play both ways out of necessity — wide receivers become DBs, guards become linebackers. As a result, you’re all gassed in the fourth quarter. You’re in great condition, but your body takes a pounding.
As if that isn’t enough, you’re sacrificing damn near every minute of your free time — not that you had that much to begin with. After all, you’re carrying a full course load at one of the toughest academic colleges in America. On top of that, there are job interviews to prepare for, crucial internships to land. Not to mention your social life. A date would be nice every once in a while, you know?
“For sprint, there are certain hours you have to put in every day,” says Kris Garris, a standout junior who plays guard and linebacker. Just like the varsity squad, there’s practice, mandatory workouts and meetings. “Less priority on sleep is pretty much how it works out.”
And here’s the thing: This team that you’re making all these sacrifices for — this team for which you are giving up your body, your Friday nights, your hair — this team hasn’t won a game in 16 years. That’s right. Sixteen years. Zero victories. The Tigers have lost so many games in a row that everybody has lost count. Ninety-eight? But what about forfeits? That would make it 102, or maybe 103. Truth is, no one counts consecutive losses as closely as consecutive wins.
And forget winning: scoring is a hard enough chore most weeks. Last season, the team put up a grand total of two touchdowns. Two. That’s equal to the number of games forfeited. The season highlight film showed those two touchdowns from every conceivable angle — and every other play of merit — set to the requisite, moody Friday Night Lights music.
The final scores aren’t pretty. You played Army last week. Got your ass kicked, 86-0. Could’ve been much worse. They emptied their bench. Fair-caught almost every punt. Probably could have returned many of them for touchdowns if they wanted to. Their special teams are really good. Yours try hard.
It’s not your fault the score was so lopsided. Army and Navy are, perennially, the best teams in the league. One of them has won at least a share of the league title 15 of the past 17 years. They specialize in finding great, undersized athletes, and get a fair number of hard-nosed guys who could compete at a higher level somewhere if they chose to.
Really, the team is not without talent. Although a few have never played before, most players on the roster have a football background, and many were very good high school players. Lack of depth is the problem. Army played 50 cadets in the game. Your team, on the other hand, played 25 walk-ons. Every other team in the league recruits at least a few players to their teams. Not Princeton. Your school chooses not to recruit. Academic standards are not relaxed.
No one feels sorry for you. It’s Princeton. In a few years, you and your classmates will run the world. Yet here you are, in the midst of one the biggest losing streaks in the history of college sports. Varsity athletes are supposed to be rock stars: You’re a campus joke. The college’s student paper, the Daily Princetonian, once wrote that to get a win the team should schedule “the Princeton Powderpuff All-Stars.”
But you practice anyway, in these dreadful conditions, working towards that long elusive victory. You’re not fired up to be out here, but you’re here nonetheless. An inch and a half of rain will fall on the Princeton area by day’s end. A few hundred feet away, the lights above Princeton’s 27,800 seat football stadium are on. The varsity football team, the “heavies,” as you call them, will take on Columbia in a couple of hours.
The team is milling about, warming up individually and preparing to organize. You introduce yourself to a man you don’t recognize on the sidelines, and shake his hand.
“Are you a new coach?” You ask.
“No,” the man says. “I’m a writer.”
Your guess was based on the fact that assistant coaches are always coming and going. That’s just the way it is around here.
One of those coaches is John Wolfe. He started just two weeks ago, right before the first game of the season. But Wolfe is not a stranger. This is the seventh straight year he’s been with the team in some capacity. He played for five, including an extra year on a medical hardship waiver. Now, he’s coaching his second season as an assistant.
He’s got the look of a hotshot coordinator: Clean-cut. Youthful face. Energized. If this were, say, a MAC school, he’d be the type of guy you’d expect to get poached by Alabama or one of the other big boys. He’s just 25, but he moves around the field with a commanding presence, totally at ease around this team. Above all, he absolutely loves busting chops.
“Do you want an umbrella?” he asks. Before you can answer, he screams, “NO YOU DON’T!” loud enough for the whole team to hear.
You shake your head. Fuckin’ Wolfe. You still can’t get over the fact that this goofball is actually a coach now.
Head coach Sean Morey approaches. He looks like an athlete, 5’11, muscular, strong-jawed. Everything about the ex-NFL Pro Bowler oozes football. He is, clearly, where he belongs. His head is totally uncovered. No hat. No umbrella. He’s getting soaked. And the man is wearing shorts. Shorts! It’s barely 50 degrees. The 20 mph gusts of wind make it feel substantially less. And this maniac is out here in shorts, without a hat.
He stops when he reaches you, and leans in.
“Are we gonna get better today?”
There’s only one answer. Yes sir, you tell him. He’s the coach. What are you going to say? And besides, this man is worthy of respect. He lasted nine seasons in the league as an ace special teamer. Won a Super Bowl in 2006 as a member of the Steelers. Played for Belichick in New England. This team could use some of that winning aura.
He’s also the most one of the most relentlessly positive people you’ve ever met. For the life of you, you can’t figure out why. Coach Morey is very sick. He suffered dozens of concussions over the course of his career. Now, he has post-concussion syndrome, which often makes it hard for him to function. Dizziness, loss of focus, headaches. All are a constant part of his life. It’s a wonder he can make it out of bed in the morning.
He pats you on the shoulder. “Let’s get better,” he says, and walks away.
“Thinking about the streak, and how long it’s gone, and how much longer it will go, is a really trying process. But there’s an opportunity to do something historic … and prove that all the hard work that all my friends and all my coaches put in over the last five, 10, 20 years will have paid off.” — John Wolfe
Princeton’s season opener takes place on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania — 15 miles north of the Liberty Bell. It’s Sept. 19 — a day two years in the making for Chestnut Hill College, a tiny Division II Catholic school in Philadelphia. This is their first ever sprint football game, and first ever football game of any kind, in fact. A crowd of 737 people, mostly seated in the bleachers behind the Chestnut Hill sideline, actually paid five dollars each to watch, cheer when prompted, and generally seem excited. For home games, the Princeton Tigers are lucky to draw 50 fans, and admission is free
The Tigers enter the game with the historic losing streak at somewhere just north of 100. In Chestnut Hill, many see a golden opportunity to finally break it. But when asked if the Chestnut Hill game is circled on the schedule because of a perceived better chance for a Princeton victory, Wolfe explains that this is a common query — and one that he doesn’t really like.
“Every year, people find the new team that they think is the worst,” Wolfe says. “And they ask us, ‘You guys excited for that game?’ We don’t appreciate that. For us, the most important game is always the next game.” Despite their record, he says this with total conviction.
Chestnut Hill passes for a touchdown on its first possession, converting a fourth down on the drive’s final play. They tack on another touchdown with 2:34 remaining in the opening period. Already, the Tigers are deep in the hole, down 14-0.
Princeton’s sprint team has very little going for it. But one thing it does have is that its best athlete plays the most important position on the field. Junior quarterback Chad Cowden is extremely fast, with a strong arm, and good instincts. He is lean (naturally), and at 6’2, tall by sprint standards. He’d play both ways, too, but Morey can’t risk losing his quarterback to injury.
Following Chestnut Hill’s second score, Cowden gets hot. He hits a 32-yard pass play for a touchdown to put Princeton on the board with 0:52 left in the quarter. He follows with some positive plays in the second. Though they trail, Princeton is not overmatched. They are moving the ball on offense, and holding their own on defense.
On third-and-8 from the Princeton 40, Cowden prepares to take the snap from the shotgun. He drops back, passes to his right, and is picked off by a Chestnut Hill defensive back. But Cowden stays with the play, and forces a fumble.
In regulation football, a scramble for a loose ball usually features little guys at the bottom, and big guys piling on trying to inflict some damage and pry the ball loose. Well here, they’re all little guys, fast and agile, but small. No one’s really big enough to stand out. The nose tackle and safety are the same size.
Think of an NBA game in which all of the players are guards. Imagine Stephen Curry spending the entire night posting up John Wall in the paint. That’s kind of what sprint football is like. Here, 172-pounders are tasked with watching the quarterback’s blindside, trying to stuff the gap on a fourth-and-1, and many other things normally done by players twice their size. A lot of skill position players in high school find themselves playing on the line for the first time.
“It’s the purest form of the game, I really believe that,” Wolfe says. “Everybody has to be an athlete. They have to play different positions. They have to be versatile. It’s really based more on skill, technique, and on speed than it is on pure size.”
Nick Barnett emerges with the ball, to the delight of Princeton’s sideline, but they fail to capitalize. Later, Chestnut Hill connects on a few deep passes — one a 58-yarder, and they run out to a 28-7 advantage just before the half.
A good kickoff return, and a 51-yard strike down the right sideline gives Princeton a chance to cut into the lead before intermission. They stop the clock with 0:07 remaining, leaving them time for, perhaps, two plays. As Morey and Cowden discuss the play call, the familiar chorus of Kanye West’s “Stronger,” blasts through the sound system.
“N-now th-that that don’t kill me. Can only make me stronger.”
The Tigers need a touchdown to keep Chestnut Hill within reach. After a long offseason to ponder the streak, this is not the first half that they were hoping for. They had 16 grueling practices before the first game. Hours upon hours of film study. Meetings, team lifts, walk-throughs. All in an effort to get better.
Yet here they are again — desperate to stick one just to keep the game close.
Cowden drops back and throws a fade to receiver Manraj Singh in the left corner of the end zone. But a Chestnut Hill defender breaks up the play. There’s time for one last shot. Cowden, this time, locks in on one receiver, and when he sees him covered, is forced into a desperate heave, which falls incomplete. The half is over.
Morey tries to encourage his squad as they head for the locker room, but there are already slumped shoulders and long faces among them. They know they’ve let this one get away. They also know, deep down, the streak will last at least another week.
At Princeton, narrow losses are recalled like big victories for other teams. It’s been a while since the last truly close call, since they pulled defeat out of the jaws of possible victory. In 2012, on the road against Ivy League rival Cornell, Princeton fell behind by 20 in the first half, but closed the margin to 22-15 in the second half before a failed onside kick attempt with 1:42 to play marked the end of the rally.
It was a tough loss, even by Princeton sprint standards. The games against Cornell and Penn, the two other Ivy League schools playing sprint, always mean just a little more than the others. The locker room was devastated, particularly the seniors.
Skelly, then a freshman, went to take a shower. He remembers seeing Wolfe in tears. Wolfe gave an intense look and then delivered a message that Skelly has carried with him throughout his Princeton tenure.
“Don’t you fuckin’ leave this program,” Wolfe said. “Don’t you quit. Play this all four years. Promise me that you’ll play all four years. Bring a win to this program.”
On the rare occasions that he’s questioned why he’s here, Skelly has remembered those words.
“I can’t walk away after that,” Skelly says. “To feel that raw emotion coming out of somebody is the single-handed reason why I’m still here.”
The following week, Princeton managed to lose even more painfully. In a home game against Post University of Waterbury, Connecticut, the Tigers drew even, 26-26, with 10:45 left in the fourth on a 27-yard touchdown reception by Wolfe, and a successful two-point conversion. That was the last score in regulation. Princeton got the ball first in overtime, and kicked a field goal to go up 29-26. All they needed was a stop — one lousy stop — to get the long-awaited W.
Word spread around campus that the sprint team actually had a chance to win. People wanted to see it. All over campus, students stopped studying and abandoned kegs and raced to the field. A crowd of 25 or so at kickoff grew to more than 500 for the final moments.
Post completed a 23-yard pass to get down to the Princeton 2. But on first and goal, Wolfe forced a fumble. The officials unpeeled the pile, one by one. On the sideline, in the crowd, they were hoping — pleading — for a favorable call. A Princeton defender emerged from the pile with the ball. ECSTASY! The players rushed the field. The day had finally come.
But the referee gave the ball to Post. None of the Princeton defenders were ready for the next play. On second-and-goal from the 5, Post walked in for a score. The streak lived.
The players, coaches, and fans were all stunned.
“I swore we won that game,” says Mulay Sarbanes. “I think the ref messed up.”
“Every player that was on the team then is still salty about it,” Skelly adds.
For Sarbanes, then only a freshman, it was only the fourth loss of his career. He didn’t yet have a full appreciation of just how difficult it was going to be to break through. Three years and 19 defeats later, the close call against Post stings that much more.
“That feeling, to be robbed of that …” Sarbanes’s words trail off, his eyes look for an outcome he can only imagine.
But he has not quit. Neither has Skelly, Cowden, or most of the others. They have an opportunity that many Princeton students don’t often get— the chance to learn about themselves, not through success, but through failure. Maybe that will be the key in creating the next Bob Kraft, or Jimmy Carter. After all, “the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton,” right? No Princeton grad has occupied the White House since Woodrow Wilson. Maybe that which hasn’t killed this team, and these young men as individuals, will make them stronger.
It’s a nice idea, anyway.
The Tigers come out flat to open the second half against Chestnut Hill. Playing both ways takes a toll. Princeton gives up scores on their opponent’s first two possessions of the third quarter, and they go on to lose 48-13. In three hours, Chestnut Hill has exceeded Princeton’s win output over the past 16 years.
“At times in the game, we had too much emotion,” says Kris Garris. “We were too ready for the game … That manifested itself in little things — like not finishing drives in the red zone.”
It’s another disappointing outcome for Princeton sprint. A game that seemed to offer a reasonable chance for a victory ended in a lopsided defeat.
“You know how awesome it’s gonna be when we win?” Max Skelly says with a smile. “That’s why I come out here every day.”
And two days later, even though he has a broken collarbone and can’t play, that’s why he’s still back at practice.
“When I explain to people that I was a nose guard, and I weighed 175 pounds, they laugh.” — John Wolfe
One by one, the black helmets of the Army sprint football team emerge from beneath the Princeton Stadium tunnel.
“Uh oh,” Piper says to her mom, Sean Morey’s wife, Cara. “Uh oh.”
Six-year-old Piper Morey, Sean’s daughter, already knows the Princeton Tigers are in trouble. The cadets take the field like the military unit they are, a highly organized group who outnumber the ragtag Princeton group by more than two to one. They look focused and determined. They appear well conditioned. They eat nails for breakfast.
It’s Friday, Sept. 25. And it’s going to be a long night for the Princeton sprinters. Sometimes, against opponents like Chestnut Hill, outside observers who are rooting for this bunch can talk themselves into believing that they could win. But when Princeton takes on one of the service academies, not even the die-hards can operate under any such delusion. Army and Navy rule sprint football. Princeton doesn’t have a chance. It’s like the US Army invading Liechtenstein.
Fifty players will see the field for Army before the night is done. None will have to play both ways. Half that many will see action for the grossly undermanned Tigers. Many of them, including four starters, will play both offense and defense.
If Princeton can even last all four quarters tonight, it will be a victory. Last season’s contest was forfeited due to Princeton not having enough healthy, active players on the roster.
Princeton’s offensive highlight comes on its very first play. Cowden hits wide receiver Peter Shu for a 20-yard completion, and hearts momentarily soar. Then Army counterattacks, relentlessly, with overwhelming force. Princeton will end the contest having gained a net total of just 2 yards — 81 yards passing, minus 79 yards rushing (most of those coming on eight sacks). Two positive yards for the whole night, an average of 18 inches per quarter.
As Army substitutes waves of fresh personnel, Sean Morey rotates the same tired bodies. He likens it to changing lines in hockey. He’s got to try and have his best players out there for as many of the key plays as possible. They just don’t have enough guys.
Identifying a potential sprinter is not easy. They must be athletic, and weigh less than 172 pounds (or be close enough to where they could come in under that number, with training). Not many of the approximately 2,700 male undergrads at Princeton qualify. In order to spot the ones who do, the captains must keep their eyes open at all times.
“We always joke that, when we go out on the street, we check out the guys and the girls,” Skelly says, laughing.
Finding a prospect is hard enough. Convincing one to play is even harder. Some have never played football before and don’t want to. Others have, but worry now about concussions. After all, they are at Princeton to exercise their intellect, not their bodies. It is up to the guys already on the team to articulate the reasons why they should give up most of their free time, risk injury and suffer the humiliation of playing for an outfit that hasn’t won a game in almost two decades.
One attractive talking point, according to Kris Garris, is Morey himself, who joined the team in 2014. The Princeton sprint team has never before had a coach with such an extensive football background.
“I think the sales pitch has been made easier by the arrival of Coach Morey,” Garris says. “The kind of football knowledge he’s been around, and he possesses himself, is intense.”
“It means a lot, honestly,” Chad Cowden adds. “Here’s this guy, played in the NFL, has all these accolades, and he wants to help us — this team that’s never won before … . He just cares about us as people. And he’s here for us regardless.”
Mostly, though, the pitch reverts back to the camaraderie surrounding the sprint football team. Because of the losing streak, this is an extremely tight bunch. It’s them against the world, a very big world.
“(Sprint) gives you an unbelievable friend group,” John Wolfe says. “Guys that you’ll be really close with. Guys that you’ll be close with for the rest of your life.
Wolfe is Princeton sprint football’s beating heart. He can be a little over the top at times, but he is beloved by the young men who were once his peers and are now his charges. He’s been with the team for nearly half of the losing streak. And one of the lessons he’s learned during that time is that the final score is only one metric by which to judge performance. Yes, the goal is to win. Always. But sometimes … .
“If we obsess over the outcome of everything we do, we might as well not do it,” Wolfe says, convincing himself, sounding wiser than his years. “A lot of times, the outcome is out of our control. And the really important part is what we do in the meantime … . It’s really about, ‘Can I be proud of the effort I put in? Can I be proud of the way I conducted myself?’”
Against Army, the answer is still yes. Down 37-0 with less than five minutes remaining in the first half, Princeton continues to fight on every down. Despite the score, the players are so excited they repeatedly cross the sideline boundary onto the field. Keith Harper, the team’s strength and conditioning coach, has to keep the players back so they don’t draw a penalty.
“GIMME THAT LINE!” Harper yells repeatedly. “I NEED THAT LINE!”
It’s second-and-12 for Army at the Princeton 14. The Army quarterback drops back to pass and it’s broken up on a nice play by junior Marvin Moore.
“LET’S GO, MARVIN!” Sarbanes says, clapping his hands.
Now it’s third down. Army looks to the end zone to convert, but the pass is too tall for the receiver. The Princeton sideline is fired up, not giving Harper that line.
Army tries a 31-yard field goal. The kick misses wide left. The Princeton sideline erupts. They’ve made a stand. They STOPPED ARMY. There are fist pumps and high-fives as the defensive players return to the sideline, then turn right around to play offense. Usually, such a reaction from a team trailing by more than five touchdowns would appear inappropriate. But in this instance, the celebration is perfectly justifiable. The team kept their heads up, kept fighting, and earned the right to enjoy the moment.
The final is 86-0, but Princeton can take a measure of pride in the fact that they finished the game and collected a few more small victories over the course of the night. They lost, but they did not surrender.
Wolfe heads to the handshake line to congratulate the cadets. He’s close to wrapping up his coaching career. He’s just taken a job as an editor at a news website for college students — based in Brooklyn — and will be unable to return next season. After seven long years of sprint football, Wolfe is down to his last three games.
“It’s really difficult to picture my life without sprint,” he says. “And I think even after I graduated … every opportunity that I’ve had to come back and help in some capacity, I’ve taken advantage of. I really think it is the most rewarding endeavor I’ve taken on to this point in my life.”
“Often times, mostly when I’m suffering, I ask myself why the hell I’m coaching football, a career that caused me disability, and affected my family. I come away telling myself that the educational experience is benefitting the students I coach.”- Sean Morey
One day after practice, Morey and his four assistant coaches return to their shared office, located in a forgotten corner in the bowels of Princeton’s athletic complex. Here, they will upload the film of the session and analyze it.
On a bookshelf in the disheveled office, one title stands out: “League of Denial,” the 2013 book by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru about concussions in the NFL.
The coaches sit down at their desks and get ready for their post-practice work. Before they start, they take a moment to bust each other’s chops.
“Let me ask you, Coach,” Wolfe says. “Did you ever block a kick?”
Morey smirks. Wolfe is fully aware that Sean Morey blocked a punt in overtime of a game in 2008, when he was with Arizona, resulting in the first and only time in NFL history that a game was won on a blocked punt in overtime, teammate Monty Beisel running the block in for a score to beat the Cowboys. A wide receiver, Morey primarily made his living as an all-world special teamer, a missile on target. Peter King of Sports Illustrated named him special teams player of the decade for the 2000s.
The coaches, pleased with the intensity of practice, tell stories from their own careers, clearly missing those days on the field. Several indicate their desire to strap on the helmets again. Not Morey.
“Didn’t you feel like going back out there?” Wolfe asks the head coach, a rare serious query.
Morey pauses. The room goes quiet.
“Not even a little,” he says, in a whisper-soft voice. “Not even a little.”
A heavy silence follows.
“You know how they say, ‘I left it all out on the field?’ I left it all out on the field.”
Sean Morey is in conflict. Football has given him a lot. But he has given the game a lot more. Winning a Super Bowl is nice. Going off on random, explosive tirades in front of your wife and three young daughters is not. He appreciates what football did for him, and what it’s doing for his kids on the Princeton sprint team now. But the aftereffects cause him to question whether it was all worth it.
He has good days and bad. On the good days, he jumps around on the field, and provides a spark to the whole team. On the bad days, it takes everything he has just to function. And the bad days are way too frequent. They cripple him, and require him to pare down his schedule to the bare bones. Due primarily to his headaches, Morey was forced to postpone an interview for this story six different times over the course of a full week.
Even on the good days, he has lapses in conversation, long pauses as he searches for words. He frequently goes on lengthy tangents. His mind seems continually to alternate between going everywhere and nowhere.
He claims that, over time, he has been improving.
“I’ve gotten botox,” Morey says, referencing drugs used to treat his symptoms. “I’m taking gabapentin. I’m taking the right medications. And I feel like I’m managing it the best I can.”
Following his retirement from the NFL in 2010, Morey, a Brown graduate, studied the science behind brain injuries in football. He served as head of the Mackey-White Traumatic Brain Injury Committee for the NFL Players Association, then broke away to become an independent advocate. A vocal critic of the NFL’s $765 million class-action settlement with the players, he joined six other NFL retirees in formally protesting the agreement.
Now, Morey is doing what he can on the collegiate level. As coach of Princeton sprint, he’s vigilant in his attempts to diagnose and treat concussions. Yet Morey says that one of his players sustained a concussion during the game against Army, the result of a blindside hit, one he did not know about until after the game. He feels like he failed.
“He shouldn’t have been playing,” Morey says. “I should have ensured that he was in a position where I could limit his reps.”
Player transparency is crucial in this process. Morey drums it home to his players repeatedly: they must report any type of concussion symptoms they are having immediately. Self-reporting was crucial in helping Skelly determine that he’d suffered a concussion last season.
“It was something where I wasn’t sure,” Skelly says. “I’d never had one before. So I reviewed the list of concussion symptoms we have in our playbook. And I was like ‘you know what? I think I do.’ The next day, I went to (trainer) Shelby (Hoppis). And I said, ‘Hey, can you check me for concussions?’ And she did. And I ended up having one.”
The recovery protocol under Morey is very strict but simple. The prescription for getting over a concussion includes rest, rest, and more rest. Skelly was eager to get back on the field, but Morey wanted him to take it easy — he wrote notes to Skelly’s professors asking them to excuse him from his classes.
“I slept 16 to 18 hours a day, just trying to get better,” Skelly says. “For about two weeks.”
“Everyone should have the same protocol and err on the side of caution,” Morey says. “That’s the future.”
Sprint football does appear, at least in some respects, to be a much safer alternative to regulation football. Since the sport was founded in 1934, there has never been an on-the-field death known to occur in sprint football. Compare that with high school regulation football which, this season alone, has seen four players die from injuries sustained on the field.
In fact, the same night Princeton played Army, 17-year-old quarterback Evan Murray suffered a fatal injury while playing for Warren Hills Regional High School— just 45 miles north of Princeton. According to the website of the Summit High School team — Warren Hills’ opponent that night — the average weight of their starting defensive linemen was 265 pounds, nearly 100 pounds greater than the limit for sprint football.
“I’m not yet confident the game could or should be sustained the way it’s currently being played, and revered blindly, especially at the youth level.” Morey says. “I think they’re starting too young.”
So could lightweight leagues become more popular at the high school level going forward?
“Football, I think, is at a big turning point,” says Wolfe. “People are becoming way more aware of all these serious injuries. My parents always (said) they were way more comfortable with me playing sprint than they were (with me) even playing high school … You’ll still have big-time collisions. You’ll still hit hard. But there’s never a 150-pound guy getting hit by a 300-pound guy.”
Though the weight limit makes on field collisions somewhat less violent, it ultimately doesn’t matter whether players weigh 172 or 272 — contact is contact and concussions are concussions. Given the exhausting amount of research he’s done on the subject, and his own experience, Morey is as qualified as anyone to weigh in on the future of the sport — both the sprint and regulation versions. Despite everything that he’s going through as a result of the sport, Morey still views sprint football as a net positive for young men — based on the most current medical information.
“I feel like it’s an incredibly unique sport. It’s almost impossible for someone to articulate that appropriately — or even positively — unless you’ve played it, and experienced those benefits. If you haven’t played the sport, and haven’t benefitted from it, it’s hard to justify it.”
But in order to fully enjoy those benefits, the kids must stay healthy. And the responsibility of keeping his players safe on the field weighs heavily on Sean Morey. Staying safe is more important than winning.
“I’m so afraid of someone getting seriously injured,” he admits.
You’ve been out here for an hour. It took a while, but you’re finally hype as hell. Everybody is now. With every reason imaginable to mail this practice in, the team has collectively decided to make it special. Something to remember.
The rain has not let up. If anything, it’s more intense now. You stopped noticing a while ago. What’s the difference? You’re wearing your helmet and pads anyway. What about coach? He’s been out here all this time with shorts and no hat. His hair is soaked. He hasn’t complained.
One of your teammates launches himself at a tackling dummy with all the force 172 pounds can deliver. You laugh. He sees this, and smiles. He waves his arms in the air, as if to pump up a crowd.
Of course, there is no crowd. The only crowd nearby is the one a few hundred feet away in the stadium. Kickoff for the heavies is a little more than a half hour away. Their pregame warmup music, AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck,” blares over the speakers.
Most of the team gathers together for the final drill. Step-over dummies are lined up diagonally over a 20-yard stretch along the middle of the field. Directly in the center are three levels of defenders, all of whom are trying to work past a blocker. After being told which way to go by one of the coaches, Cowden, the quarterback and fastest player on the team, takes the ball and tries to get past the defenders.
The whistle blows. He glides down the line — with a long, effortless stride somewhat reminiscent of Colin Kaepernick — hugging the dummies along the left side. He gets good blocks. The defenders don’t stand a chance. Cowden passes them all as though they are standing still.
“WE GOT A SCORE!” Coach Morey says, jumping up and down, making like Jim Valvano. “WE GOT A SCORE!”
You laugh at coach’s antics. If the team ever wins, you can’t begin to imagine his reaction. God, you’re having fun. This is so cool. A practice for the ages. You’re on such a high that you want to march right into the stadium and play against the heavies. You guys can take ‘em. They ain’t so tough.
But just then, a sobering thought hits: what if all this gets taken away?
You hear the rumors. You hear them every season. The muckety-mucks at Princeton want to cut sprint football. They’re Princeton, after all. They’re winners. They want to wash their hands of you. They’re embarrassed. Princeton is not for losers. And that’s all the higher-ups see. For all their brain-power, they can’t look past your won-loss record. They don’t get it.
You will cry if they take this team away from you. You love these guys. They have become your family. While many on campus laugh, your sprint teammates have had your back. All you want to do is play. That’s it. Just play for each other. You’re not a drain on the budget — the team is largely funded by private donations. You just want to play, and you’re not playing just to win. You have each other. That’s all you need.
“We’re not bad at football,” Max Skelly says. And dammit, as crazy as it might seem, he’s right. The program may not have won a game since Bill Clinton was in office, but you ARE winners. You’ve been kicked in the teeth over, and over, and over again. And you’ve gotten up every time. The team has dealt with tremendous adversity, and responded by working even harder. All the character-building talk at a lot of other places is just nonsense disguising greed and selfishness. Here, it’s real. You are a success at everything football is about, absolutely everything, except the final score. Isn’t that supposed to be the point of the game? That you learn to measure success by effort as much as by the result, by what you give to each other collectively?
But deep down, you still have questions. Of course you do. You’re at Princeton, and you question everything. You think about the medication that coach has to take. About the four concussions he told you he once suffered in one game. About all the ways in which his life has become difficult because of all those hits he took. You think about these things and the sport you love to play, and wonder if everything really important about what football gives can survive in a different game.
It’s 6:30. The sky is rapidly turning from gray to black. Practice is coming to a close — there are no lights for the sprint team. You’re running a couple of times from sideline-to-sideline to conclude the workout. There are more words of encouragement from coach, who, as always, is building his guys up.
After the drill, a huddle is formed — leaving an opening for Cowden, who’s going to get a running start, and jump in the center. The team watches with anticipation as he circles, and prepares to approach. You rhythmically clap. You’re ready for him to break it down. Here he comes.
And just like that, it’s over. High-fives are exchanged as the team storms off for the locker room, soaking wet, yet satisfied. Before you can join them, coach stops you. He wants to go over one last thing. You follow him to the end zone, where you get down in a 3-point stance, and you work on getting off the block faster, on rushing the passer.
Darkness is falling. You’re the last two men on the field. It’s still pouring. Doesn’t matter. You don’t want to leave. You sense that he doesn’t either. And there’s your answer: You are both right where you want to be. You want this feeling to last forever.
Today was a good day. A good day for him, and a good day for you.
He’s proud of you. You both got a little better.