Princeton Wins One for Gip

  • June 5, 2017

BY JAY GREENBERG

Having grown up in a practically all-white New Jersey suburb, Hayward Gipson enrolled at Princeton in 1963 more wary of fitting in with a Preppie environment than a bigoted one.

As it turned out, his class was the first that had more students of public schools than private ones. And indeed his football teammates proved colorblind.

“I always thought Gip was Polish,” laughed Stas Maliszewski ‘ 66 on Friday. Even five decades later, John Claster ’67 was surprised to learn that Gipson was Old Nassau’s first African-American letter winner.

“There was a celebration last season of our classes and the (Ivy) championship teams (of 1964 and 1966),” said Claster. “Gip was sitting at the banquet with me, Dave Martin (’67) and Ron Grossman (’67).  I found out what these guys already knew, that Hayward was the first.

“I drove home to Philadelphia thinking, ‘We ought to honor this.’ I called Ron and got Dave into the conversation too, wanting them to say whether it was a good or a bad idea. But first Ron said, ‘We have to call Hayward and see if he is willing.’

“Not only was he in agreement, but touched. From that point, we called Mollie (Athletic Director Marcoux Samaan) and asked about erecting some kind of wall display.

“We kept saying we had to get it done for our 50th anniversary, when so many teammates would be here. There is a lot of red tape at Princeton. Mollie became an incredible force in getting this achieved.”

Recalls Grossman, “We thought maybe we could put it in the hallway by the steps leading to the (second floor) football office (at Jadwin Gymnasium), so players going up there could see it.

“Mollie, Caroline Kelly (athletic administrator) and Kim Meszaros (executive assistant), worked with a display company (Fathead Design). They did a couple of mock-ups, one with a single picture of Gip, the other with multiple pictures, and we decided the single picture spoke volumes, along with the team pictures (from 1964-66).

“When we saw it, we were blown away. It was better than we thought it was going to be.”

The unveiling took place late Friday afternoon, with Gipson’s classmates standing and sitting on steps now symbolic of those that Princeton took to break down first racial, then, a few years later, gender, barriers.  On the left is a big picture of a packed Palmer Stadium, above a plaque noting Gipson’s place in history, two Ivy championships, and two CEO positions. On the right are the pictures of his three teams that lost three games combined, and an image of Hayward back in the day. We would call it larger-than-life except that the real thing was standing in front of it Friday, accepting a tribute of enormous magnitude with his standard grace.

“Being part of a particularly outstanding period in Princeton football history is the thing I am most proud of,” Gipson said.  “Two championships and we never lost to Harvard or Yale.

“My comfort level at Princeton was not just a case of teammates rallying around me for the sake of the team. There were only 10 African Americans at the entire University—five in my class– and I still never felt out of place anywhere on campus.

“That came back to the area (Scotch Plains, NJ) where I grew up. There were about three African-American families out of 500 there, so Princeton was exactly what I had experienced for the previous 15 years of my life. From my experience, there were no issues, no friction. That doesn’t suggest it wasn’t there, or that there weren’t some resentments harbored by some folks, but nothing that I saw.

“My Dad was a real inspiration to me. He realized that to get the best education for his kids he was going to need to be in a community where education was valued highly, so we moved a couple times early in my life. Scotch Plains was a working class bedroom community for New York City commuters, with an excellent school system and a sense of structure.

“My father also stressed self-reliance and being a man who could be trusted.”

Trust Walt Kozumbo ’67, Hayward Gipson Sr. did the job. “Words used by teammates to describe Hayward (Jr.) were ‘friendly, unassuming, authentic, honest and considerate,’” said Kozumbo. “He also had a great sense of humor and a knack for one liners that raised the spirits of his teammate. We called them Gip quips.

“He was readily accepted and easily assimilated. “

Princeton had huge graduation losses heading into 1966, then severe injury hits as the season went along, But with an experienced defensive backfield anchored in part by the hard-hitting Gipson, the Tigers rallied from behind to beat heavily-favored Harvard and turned around everything.  Gipson had a key block when Larry Stupski returned a blocked punt for a touchdown in another late comeback victory at Yale, then recovered two fumbles as the Tigers survived Cornell, 7-0, in the final game to get a hard-earned share of a three-way title.

For all those reasons, the ’67 class is a particularly close one that deserves to be particularly proud of how it embraced Gipson.

“Civil and racial unrest was escalating on campuses across America,” recalled Kozumbo.  “It is hard to image that Gip would have been unscathed by such turmoil and, within that context, to me his football achievements were even more remarkable.

“In the passage of time, the appreciation has only been enhanced.  This honor was a long time coming and perhaps overdue.”

But once minds were set on it, things came together fast.

“John Claster was by far the most persistent, although gentle with his persistency,” said Marcoux Samaan.  “John said, ‘The class of ’67 had my back.’”

And Gipson, the steady and heady No. 15, had theirs. May the 2017 team and all future Princeton teams know that he was no token of a time when the University was committing to diversity, and Friday’s dedication guaranteed Gibson no longer will be just a footnote to the best era Princeton football has enjoyed since the Ivy League was formed.

“All our football recruits are going to come up these stairs,” said Marcoux Samaan.  “And this will be the first thing they see.”

TIGER TAILS

Trevor Osborne graduates Tuesday. Thursday he will be off to Australia as the first member of the championship football Class of 2017 to find a place to keep playing.

The wide-out filled in his resume on Europlayers.com, which exists as a clearinghouse for American imports to under-developed football nations. Osborne narrowed his search to clubs looking for a receiver and sent a video that drew interest from teams in Germany and Brazil. However their seasons started before Commencement so Osborne was thrilled to hear from the coach of the Croydon Rangers, even if a few weeks ago he never heard of the Croydon Rangers.

Bob Surace had told the Rangers coach that Osborne, who caught 57 balls and five touchdowns at Princeton, was a good bloke who never considered it beneath him to get Down Under opposition shoulder pads for a block.

To the Aussies, the game played at Princeton is “Gridiron” Football, so that it is not confused with the Australian rules version “They sent me their playbook,” said Trevor. “All the plays are named after Star Wars characters. Yoda. Vader, Skywalker.”

“I talked to the quarterback, a guy named Jamie Strafford. He is said to be the best one they have in that league. He sounds happy I’m coming. Another guy on the team that I talked to is a big 49er fan.  I asked why and he named some players who played there a while ago.

“They don’t have high school gridiron teams there. They don’t have their own facilities, they use parks and public places and have barbecues afterwards. But the guys playing American football are really into it.

“They’re paying my transportation and housing.  I’ll have to get a job, like as a waiter, but minimum wage is like $30/an hour there.

“If there is a better opportunity in Europe next year, I’ll be able to go when those seasons start.  Opportunities to play won’t be there in a few years; l have to take advantage of them now.  I’m looking at this as a chance to see the world.”

* * * *

The Orange and White teams in the alumni two-hand touch game played Friday afternoon were painstakingly matched by Orange Defensive Coordinator Steve Verbit. Or, at least he claimed.

Not so, insisted White team coach Frank Vuono ’78 before the contest. “Verbit has tried to conspire against me five years running,” Vuono insisted.  “He tries to run the clock quickly, will do anything to win.

“Good thing I already have the victory sewn up.”

Indeed, thanks in part to a circus catch by not-quite-yet alum Osborne, Vuono’s team won, 21-6, for what he claimed was the fifth straight year, although only he seems to be counting.  Asked for the secret to his success, Vuono said; “I try to keep the old guys off the field as much as possible.

“It’s hard to get people to play the line. All the linemen who played here now think they can be a quarterback or a receiver. Everybody thinks they’re a star.”

The oldest lettermen on the field–well, Lynn Sutcliffe ’65 was sort of on it, but not exactly playing–were Tim Yaggi ’82 and Kurt Thompson ’84.

“I was a corner here,” said Yaggi.  “I’m a linebacker now.

“Actually, I just came for a shirt and next thing you know I was playing linebacker.   I got burned a little but hung in there. When they ran by me, these guys were all excited. I said ‘Don’t be, it’s not that big of a deal. I’m 56 years old.”

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