It Was About Far More Than the Football for These Four Tiger Greats
BY JAY GREENBERG
It is hard to find a season where any of the eight schools have puts five players on the All-Ivy first team, yet routine to find them thriving extraordinarily in business and life.
“I have worked with a lot of Princeton football players–Roman Wilson, Jon Veach, Jim Freeman–of all varieties in the last 25 years,” says Michael Lerch ’93, the co-founder of Evolution Capital, a portfolio or alternative investment companies that employs 500 in ten global locations. “And the thing that sticks out the most is that under Coach Surace the program hasn’t stopped producing the same kind of people as Coach (Steve) Tosches did.
“Steve Verbit (currently defensive coordinator, assistant under four head coaches since 1985) has done an amazing job in connecting people who keep the culture alive as well. Ultimately, that means a lot to me.
“The program is in a very good spot right now. I’m very excited there are more kids who will be able to experience the same things me and my classmates did.”
Four of them in a long line, stars from the ’92 Ivy League co-champions, were honored at the 26th Annual Princeton Football Association Golf Classic Monday night following a day of golf and old stories at Springdale Golf Club. Keith Elias, a junior that year, was a fifth All-Ivy first teamer on that title club, the middle of three –with 1989 and 1995 – produced by Tosches in one of the most successful periods in Princeton’s Ivy League era.
We will have much, much, more on the ’92 team in a two-part series to be posted here soon. But for Lerch, the diminutive and indomitable wide-out, return specialist, and, in a pinch, pass rusher; Keith Ducker, the hard-hitting safety; Aaron Harris, the relentless middle linebacker, and Chris Theiss, the pancaking offensive tackle; Monday night was about friendship as much as football.
“There are 15-20 kids here out of 35 in our class, acting like kids, who are not kids anymore,” said Joel Foote, the quarterback of the 8-2 team of ’92. “It all comes flooding back; we’re like we were 25 years ago, making fun of each other and our antics in college.
“The experience of the season was amazing. The wins and losses are how people are remembered and judged. But the ongoing relationships that have endured over the years are most valuable to me, particularly as I raise a whole bunch of kids (six) myself.”
Elias was the leading rusher in I-AA in 1992, averaging 157.5 yards per game, even after getting just three carries on a gimpy ankle against Holy Cross. And even as an All-American he still might not have been the best guy at what he did on that team.
Lerch, a mighty-mite at 5-9, handled everything, including lining up as a defensive end in obvious passing situations, recording three sacks against Harvard, and snuffing out Penn’s last threat with a sack on the game’s final play. In ’92 he recorded seven touchdowns– four by pass, two on kick returns, one running and another on a fumbled kickoff.
Against Brown in ’91, Lerch had an astonishing 370 yards and four touchdowns receiving. “Because of Elias, they almost always had to cover him with one,” recalls Verbit. “And one couldn’t do it.”
In returning a punt for a touchdown against Harvard in ’92, Lerch ran the last ten yards backwards. “He was a brash, (Clearview) South Jersey guy,” recalls Ducker. “Get him on the field, he was going to show you up.
“Bravado is part of being a good receiver. We loved it; generally when that was going on, it meant we were scoring. But he never got a penalty that hurt the team, and like Keith, was studious, much different, off the field. He was not a ‘me’ guy; he was willing to do anything to win. And you can’t find a more likable person on the planet.”
Harris was the strong, silent, giant, middle linebacker and captain, “The consummate leader,” recalls Elias, “Encouraging and a little intimidating.
“He had a long, wide, spread, and really laid the wood. The A-Train, I called him. You really got hit by the A-Train.”
In middle age, The A-Train has pulled into the station at Burlington, VT., where after a run of managing hugely successful funds on Wall Street, Harris has returned to his home state. “What I really wanted to do was help Vermont companies grow so I am very invested in everything maple-candy, syrup, beverages, cream–to help companies grow their businesses,” said Harris.
On campus, he overcame an ankle repair that took away his sophomore year and, despite missing the Yale game, averaged 12 tackles a game in 1992, making All-Ivy first team for a second consecutive season.
Theiss was a dominant offensive tackle whom Elias nicknamed Rolling Thunder — after the roller coaster at Great Adventure. “Keep your arms and legs inside and enjoy the ride,” explained the running back.
It was a bumpy one at first at Princeton for Theiss, today in IT-pre-sales for Cisco, in the Chicago area.
“I started out as an engineering major and I hated it,” he recalls. “It was a pretty big culture shock coming from a small school in Northeast Ohio.
“A lot of the guys I knew at Princeton–playing football or otherwise–were coming from schools where there were kids going to Ivy League schools every year. That was not the situation I grew up in. It took a while to grow into it. I don’t think I was really prepared to do the academic load of engineering and football.
“I seriously thought of transferring after my freshman year. I sat out the year. But after talking to a bunch of guys in the program and family, I decided to go back and switched to history, a better fit in the long run. I’m so glad I did.”
Ducker, the chief investment officer for TORA in the Bay Area and a long time business partner of Lerch, handed out more punishment as a strong safety than even the indomitable Lerch took. From an Indianapolis suburb, Ducker was committed to Purdue as a quarterback when he was convinced by recruiters Verbit and Mike Hodgson that he had nothing to lose by using the last of his five allowable visits at Princeton. He fell in love and made a hard call to Purdue Coach Fred Akers. “I want my own kid to go to Princeton,” Akers said.
More kids have wanted to go to Princeton because of what Lerch, Harris and Theiss and Ducker did on the field and their networking thereafter. Elias says that Ducker’s closing speed was “really great and he was super smart and aggressive,” traits that he took into trading. But for all the millions these guys have made, they still can’t put a value on what they have meant to the program and to each other.
“Lerch had the same attitude I had, just a little more understated,” recalls Elias. “To this day, we are buddies.
“Keith and Aaron were great players. They were even better roommates.”
PFA President Steve Simcox estimated approximately $200,000 was raised for the program in donations and auction bids. “Most ever,” he said. Clearly, it’s good to be the champs. After two titles in four seasons, Coach Bob Surace was introduced to a standing ovation by the alums. . . Jim Petrucci ‘86, founder of the J.G. Petrucci Company, where Kurt Holuba is interning this summer, introduced Harris and had the line of the night, about Verbit. “It’s unbelievable all these years later, no coach is more beloved,” said Petrucci. “I don’t know how this works. When you are playing for him, it’s ‘Verbit grrrrrr,’ We have horrible memories. Now he comes to our weddings. What is that?”. . . Training camp opens August 21.