For Having Just Two Years, Rogerson’s Impact Is Ceaseless
BY JAY GREENBERG
Second of two parts
On the afternoon of Saturday, August 8, 1987, Tony Surace got off an unimaginable phone call from Bob Depew, the Princeton defensive coordinator, and called his 19-year-old son Bob to the living room to inform him of the unfathomable.
Ron Rogerson was dead.
“I bawled my eyes out,” remembers Surace, a sophomore-to-be center. “For an hour, I was just gone to the world.
“I had grandfathers who died but older obviously. I had never experienced anything like this.”
On his call, quarterback Jason Garrett dropped the phone. None of the Princeton Tigers could conceive of their 44-year-old head coach, the most robust of men, being gone. “If you had told me he had been struck by lightning I would have thought he’d survive it,” recalls Dean Cain, then a senior-to-be safety. “It was shocking, confusing.
“What was going to happen next?”
Next had seemed to be an Ivy League championship for the most anticipated Princeton team in almost two decades. It had built that belief for two years under the most charismatic leader and recruiter these young men had ever known. And now, in a phone call of less than two minutes, it was gone with their leader, three weeks before the start of camp.
Rogerson, his wife Ann, and the two youngest of their four sons, Lincoln, 10, and Joshua, 7, were at Ann’s parents place in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, where the coach had driven to the track at Kingswood Regional High School to follow the routine of practically every day of his adult life.
“You would be sitting at your desk in the middle of something, or in a meeting, and he would knock and say, ‘C’mon let’s go,’ take you right out for a run or for racquetball,” recalls Steve Verbit, once Rogerson’s student, then his fellow assistant coach at the University of Delaware and the secondary coach under him at Princeton.
In temperatures that would reach 91 degrees that day in Wolfeboro, Rogerson had finished his run and was walking to cool down when he collapsed. A couple walking on the track reached him when he still was conscious, but his heart soon stopped, doomed by a blockage of the left anterior descending artery, the classic widow maker. There had been zero indication of danger when the Princeton coaches had underwent physicals at Princeton’s McCosh Health Center a few months earlier.
“There were no bad signals,” recalls Steve Tosches, then Princeton’s offensive coordinator.” It had been awhile since the last one; we were happy to have finally taken care of it.”
Now Rogerson was lying on a track, waiting for an ambulance delayed by streets clogged because of a festival in the tiny town; the traffic diminishing his chances to survive upon arrival at Huggins Hospital. A heartbeat was revived briefly, only to fail again.
The police officer called to the scene followed the ambulance to the hospital, then went back to the school and found the address of Ann’s father in Rogerson’s car. The officer drove to the residence.
“He said my husband was in the hospital and he would take me there,” recalls Ann. “Everything is a blur from then on.
“I walked into the emergency room and somebody took me to another room where they had me wait. Nobody would look at me or talk to me. I don’t know how long I was in there; I would guess an hour but it might have been shorter.
“If you want to know how bad it was, I tried to take the faucet out of the sink. That’s how bad. Finally a doctor came out to tell me, ‘Your husband had a heart attack. I asked how bad it was, and he said, ‘He didn’t survive.’
“They didn’t let me into see Ron until my father came to the hospital. I don’t know why. My impression is that the small hospital was as overwhelmed by this as I was. They didn’t know who he was until I told them.
‘It was unbearable, really. Who is going to help my sons now? Greg (18) is on the verge of college and his professional life, Aaron (17) following close behind him. And now I have two little boys who are not going to have a Dad. Ron had made such a difference in so many lives.
“Such a loss. Such a loss.”
Indestructible one day, gone the next, from plaque hiding in his arteries. Rogerson, adopted at age four months from a Boston orphanage, had vowed never to look for his biological parents as long as his adoptive ones still were alive. So there was no family medical history to identify him at risk; nothing to warrant anything beyond the standard-for-its-day stress test.
“From my own experience with a blockage, I’ve learned [detection] wasn’t as sophisticated then as now,” said Greg. “A few years later, they probably would have caught it, done an angioplasty, and my father would have been fine.”
Ann found the strength to do what she had to that day. “Put your brother on the line, too,” she said when she called home to reach Greg–who had not gone to Wolfeboro because of a summer job–and Aaron, who was scheduled that day for a football recruiting visit to Rutgers. After the policeman had taken Ann to the hospital, Linc and Josh were left with her father’s wife, who couldn’t bring herself to tell her two stepchildren that their father was gone. Instead, she said he was in the hospital but was going to be okay. They went out to play.
At Huggins, Ann’s Dad couldn’t think of what to say either, other than “everything happens for the best.” For all the kindnesses offered to the devastated family by heartsick friends, former players, and co-workers over the next days and weeks, 31 years later Ann recalls more the words of the people who found the wrong thing to say, probably because the right thing to say didn’t exist. When Ann couldn’t reach her husband’s mother, and finally instead phoned his sister to tell her that Ron was dead, she said “Ron Who?”
Princeton Athletic Director Bob Myslik was no less shocked when Ann called him, but he didn’t hesitate over a line of succession. He phoned Tosches at his home in Cranberry Township with the news and told him to come to the offices in Jadwin Gymnasium, where the same day he was named interim coach.
“I had no doubt that Steve would have been Ron’s choice,” recalls Myslik. “It was one of the easiest choices I ever made.”
E-mail was a few years away and there were 100 players to reach. Verbit was at Disney World with his family, turned on the television set in the hotel room to learn from the crawl at the bottom of the screen that his mentor and best friend in coaching was gone. Other assistant coaches came in to the office to take their share of the list away from Tosches and Myslik. “Every call I made was almost identical,” recalls Tosches. “Just silence, as my reaction had been a couple hours earlier.”
Captain Matt Whalen was away from his Albany N.Y. home at a workout when his call came from linebacker coach Mark Harriman. It was taken by Whalen’s father Thomas, who was waiting on the front porch when his son pulled up.
“You need to sit down,” said Dad, who broke the news, then told him, “You have to get down there.”
He agreed. “I played defense, really didn’t know Steve Tosches to pass him in the hallway,” recalls Whalen. “I called him that day and said I thought it would be a good idea to come and did the next day.
“We got to know each other. And then I started to call the guys, one-by-one. I didn’t have a script. The calls to my class, the team leaders, were longer and much more meaningful. I heard a lot of shock still, but also a lot of resolve to honor Ron the right way and not hang our heads.”
The defensive players were surprised, even disappointed, that an older–and to them perfectly qualified Depew–had not gotten the job. Both coordinators had come with Rogerson from the University of Maine two seasons earlier. Each was almost a polar opposite from Rogerson in personality.
“Big contrast,” Tosches recalls. “I don’t have highs and lows, Ron would spike.”
Even the most fire breathing of coaches couldn’t have faked their way through trying to be another Ron Rogerson, whose greatest coaching strength was his sincerity. Tosches, a head coach for the first time in his life at age 31, could only be himself, although nobody really was in the weeks following.
“The goal of a lot of assistants is to be a head coach at a certain point,” Tosches recalls. “But more than my boss, my friend had passed away. We worked out together, had beers together. It was an emotional roller coaster.
“I had the foundation in football. I was prepared for the challenge and mature enough to handle it. Look, its football, not rocket science. But are you 100 percent ready for anything that’s new? You adjust and learn as quickly as you can.
“Suddenly I had to decide what time we ate, what kind of shoulder pads to order, be the organizer. Suddenly I was a team spokesman for the first time and we were going to be a story all season in how we handled this adversity.
“I had a good staff. I delegated. And then there was this interim thing. All I focused on was one day at a time.”
With no time to look for an offensive coordinator, Tosches would handle that himself for the season. The Tigers would go one coach short. Camp was all scripted, no need to change anything on the fly. “The mindset was that Ron was still here, follow the blueprint,” recalls Verbit.
There was no manual, however, for coaching 18-to 22-year olds experiencing for the first time the death of a loved one, even a father figure to most of the players. Rogerson, an offensive lineman at Maine, and still an offensive lineman at heart, was down in a three-point stance sweating with his guys through portions of most practices. The O-linemen would miss him the most, surely. But grief is personal and its effects vary.
“How important is a fumble or a missed tackle or block in the concept of what we were living through?” Tosches recalls thinking.
He called the only person he could think of who might know. Mark Duffner had become head coach at Holy Cross just 18 months earlier when the very successful Rick Carter had mystifyingly hung himself at home.
“I asked Mark to help me understand what the players will be thinking and he was great,” recalls Tosches. “He gave me some ideas, one of which I would implement: Change whatever little things you can, like mealtimes. If the receivers were used to meeting in one room, try another.”
Here was something no Princeton football team ever had done, certainly: On August 30th the Tigers walked together into Princeton University Chapel for a memorial service, before putting on the pads that afternoon.
Among the speakers was University President William Bowen. “The bond between Ron, Myslik and Bill Bowen was unlike any I ever have seen,” recalls Verbit.
Bowen told the congregation to “celebrate the life of a coach who taught more than how offensive linemen should block, or how to win football games, but the spirit within each of us to have fun, accept responsibility, and look beyond oneself.”
“It is a tragedy,” said Bowen, “that we only have intimations of what was ahead.”
James Petrucci and Anthony DiTommaso, the co-captains of Rogerson’s first Princeton team in 1985, also were asked to address the service by Ann. DiTommaso recalled the Sunday the Tigers dreaded their coach’s anger following his first loss, 34-13 to Lehigh. Instead Rogerson called the team together to say, “Courage is not how a man stands and falls but how that man gets back on his feet.”
Petrucci chose to reflect on life lessons, not football lessons, taught by a coach of such renowned integrity that he was the only one in 1-AA to be a member of the NCAA Ethics Committee. “He built his life around relationships,” Petrucci told the mourners. “We didn’t fear the man; more we understood how deeply he cared.
“Coach forced us to get in touch with our emotions and showed us the way to channel them. He always said. ‘I can’t do it for you.’ But he did it for us and we won’t forget.”
Hard as that day was for the Princeton family, five times more difficult was it for four devastated Rogerson boys and their mother, who first planned–then suffered– a service in the church of Ann’s childhood in New Hampshire, near where her husband had grown up. She had met him at the University of Maine, followed him to Colorado State, Lebanon Valley, Delaware, and back to Maine before Princeton, Ron leaving a trail of admirers and no trace of any detractors.
“He had so many connections in New England–friends, coaches, childhood–that Mom wanted to have something there, too,” recalls Greg.
“Did I decide that?” asks Ann “I don’t remember.
“I could do what needed to be done, like make sandwiches for my kids, but I was going through the motions. You look like you are alive but you are really dead inside. It’s an indescribable experience–like having a finger in a light socket and being unable to get it out for months.
“I wish I remembered more of the kindnesses. Jim Petrucci and Anthony DiTommaso were steadfast. Still are. Jim took Greg aside with an, ‘If there is anything I can ever do for you’ and, when he finished law school at Temple, hired him (at the J.G. Petrucci Company), where he has been for 23 years.
“I remember after the Princeton service, Anthony brought me cheese and grapes, the first things I could keep down in weeks. Tony Maruca (Princeton Vice President of Administrative Affairs) really understood the depth of my relationship with my husband and was amazingly kind and supportive without being patronizing. Princeton sent food and was wonderful and attentive.
“Somehow you go on. But there is nothing anybody can do for that level of grief, nothing that will change what happened or make you feel better. I was existing but it felt like I didn’t exist anymore. It was just overwhelming.”
Nevertheless, she found the strength to speak to the team. “I wouldn’t call it therapeutic,” she remembers. “But I would say it was important.”
The players thought so. “I remember her honesty in telling us about her confusion and that we were part of the family,” recalls Cain.” It will have an effect on me for the rest of my life.”
Tosches recalls a pre-season camp that may have seemed less drudgery-filled than usual, sudden death no longer meaning just breaking ties in overtime. “Maybe there wasn’t as much complaining as usual,” the coach says. “We tried to keep it as light as we could.”
The coaches used as their guide a Rogerson tenet remembered by Verbit: “If it feels good in here (chest), then it’s the right thing to do.”
Coming off a 2-8 record in 1986, the coaches and players walked a tightrope between closure and their ambitions for a season still to play. But once drills began there was no real conflict between them. “You can do both,” recalls Surace, then a sophomore center. “You are thinking about your next block, not that you are in mourning.
“Steve Tosches wasn’t emotional as Ron had been, but we had assistants who were fiery. And then we had Matt Whalen, which was like having Ron in the locker room every day. He cared so much, was so positive. He would have been huge for any team, but especially so under those unique circumstances.
Recalls Tosches, “There could not have been a better person” for a captaincy than Whalen that year. Garrett, who played eight years in the NFL, uses Whalen for a speaker at the Cowboy coach’s annual Princeton summer camp for disadvantaged youth. “One of the best leaders I ever have been around, with an amazing ability to connect with everyone, while holding everybody accountable,” recalls Garrett.
When drills began in 1987, the field became an escape.
“Even under ordinary circumstances, football practice at Princeton is where the players can get away for a couple hours from the academic pressure,” recalls Surace. “We didn’t have any (grief) counseling, like might be brought in today by an institution after a tragedy. Our counseling was from a very strong senior class and through each other.
“It brought people together in a way that might not have been otherwise. I don’t remember any ‘Win for Ron’ speeches. It was more an understanding that collectively, we needed to raise what we were doing to honor him.
“For me, the rallying cry was Tosches being only the interim coach. I can’t say I had a special bond with him. When he took over, I didn’t know him from (receivers coach) Mike Hodgson. Not kidding, I confused them. Had I seen them in a lineup, I would have picked the wrong guy.
“But I came from a coaching background (father at Millville NJ High School) and understood that if we go 2-8 again they will get rid of the coaches, which means a new offense and starting again at ground zero. That would have been awful, not good for anybody.”
Surace was a member of a precocious sophomore class that included defensive end Rick Emery, linebacker Franco Pagnanelli, defensive back Frank Leal, tight end Pete Masloski and safety Vince Avallone, all already challenging for starting positions. Among the returners, receiver Jeff Baker and kicker Rob Goodwin had been All-Ivy in 1986. Three Garretts–Jason, running back Judd, wide-out John–were eligible at last after having followed their father Jim to Columbia, then returning to Princeton when he was fired as head coach after just one season.
So a lot of talent was on the bus to Dartmouth for the opener, while everyone was waiting to see whether the Tigers had remembered to pack their hearts.
“The bus was quiet, less chitchat than usual, I thought,” recalls Tosches. “This was before cell phones but not before the Walkman, yet still, at the end of an academic week, there usually was a release.
“We got there and had a team meeting Friday night. We talked about our character and how we would represent ourselves in the memory of Ron Rogerson; said we had done everything we should to honor him (RAR patches had been sewn into the game jerseys for the season by equipment manager Hank Towns) and now it was time to play football and have some fun again. It was emotional. Yes, tears.
“Saturday breakfast usually is pretty silent. But it continued through the warmup, which was unusual. There was no emotion. I walked back into the locker with Steve Verbit saying, “We did something wrong; I don’t think they are ready to play.”
Did the Tigers even want to be there? Certainly Ann, who had been driven to Hanover by Petrucci and Joe Harvey ’86 because a moment of silence for her husband was going to be observed, would rather have been anywhere else.
“I went out of loyalty to Ron, respect for his players,” she recalls. “Princeton had been as supportive as it could be. And I can remember sitting in the bleachers there, looking into the woods and thinking I just wanted to run into those woods and stay there.”
In the locker room, Tosches wondered if his players felt the same way. “Usually, one or two guys get up and get everybody going,” he recalls. “But they are sitting there like they are in shock. My God, this is going to be bad. Are we even going to get a first down today?
“If we lost 55-0, everybody would have understood. We had that excuse. Was that what was going to happen?”
A penny for the 1987 Princeton Tigers’ thoughts: “I was a sophomore, about to play my first varsity game,” laughs Surace. “If I was quiet it was because I was scared to make a mistake.”
There was a knock on the door. Per normal procedure, it was the officials, asking for the captain to accompany them to the field for the coin flip.
“Matt gets up and all of a sudden it was like a match put to gasoline,” recalls Tosches. “There was all this noise, nobody waiting the few minutes as usual to follow the captain. They just rushed out.
“I had misread the whole thing.”
Recalls Whalen, “I’m a pretty vocal guy, but that game I was quiet on purpose in honoring Ron. It didn’t feel like the right environment to do rah-rah. But that doesn’t mean we weren’t jumping out of our skins to play.
“We knew we were good. We were tired of the preseason, just wanted to play.”
This was especially true for Jason Garrett, who, because of his transfers to Columbia and back, had not been in a game since freshman football at Princeton three seasons earlier.” These were my best buddies in the world and I was just happy to be playing with them again,” he recalls.
His first pass of the game was intercepted. So was Garrett by Tosches as the quarterback came back to the bench. “You know that will not be your last one,” said the coach. “Right?”
It was the last of the day, though. With 424 yards of total offense, the Tigers ruined the debut of Buddy Teevens as Dartmouth coach, 34-3. Judd Garrett ran for 134 yards on 18 carries and Jason was 14-of-18 for 219 yards and two touchdowns. Cain, a pre-season All-American nominee, set a school record with the 11th and 12th interceptions of his career.
Verbit’s eyes still well up when asked about the Tigers’ cathartic performance that afternoon. It puts a smile on Jason Garrett’s face at every mention. “One of my favorite days,” he says. “It was just so much fun to be playing again.”
On Monday, Tosches and Myslik took the game ball signed by every member of the team for Ann to her house. “It was very emotional,” Tosches recalls. “And then we went back to work.”
Davidson next fell, 42-6, the Tigers’ first road victory over a non-conference foe since beating Navy 36 years earlier. Princeton was 2-0 going to Brown, the first test against an Ivy title contender. The Tigers blew some scoring chances early with turnovers and largely were outplayed but, thanks to a 42-yard completion by Garrett to Baker, had the ball at the Brown six, behind 13-7 in the final two minutes.
On second down, the quarterback suffered a sack of 13 yards, but he hit brother John to get the ball back to the three. The fourth-down try to Baker in the end zone failed; the receiver winding up on the ground, Princeton bitterly complaining about pass interference. There was no flag. The Tigers had suffered a costly, early defeat towards their Ivy title hopes. But they had furthered their belief that they could play with the best teams in the league.
The following week, the media took a respite from the story of their grief, much more focused on Columbia’s winless streak, which went to a new NCAA record 35 games with a 38-8 defeat at Palmer Stadium. This was what could have been for the Lions: Judd Garrett ran 58 yards for a touchdown on the second play and John Garrett caught a 76-yard touchdown pass from Jason.
Princeton was 3-1, with much more serious competition imminent. Thanks only to a botched Lehigh PAT snap and a failed two-point attempt following the next touchdown, the badly outplayed Tigers were down only 15-10 at the half.
“We were getting physically manhandled,” recalls Tosches. “Garrett was taking five step drops and they were there waiting for him. Judd had (just 18 yards in 12 carries for the day). I think our players were intimidated.
“We added some things at halftime, appealed to them to play hard, and we started doing better.”
The Tigers shut out Lehigh in the third quarter and crept within two points when Goodwin hit a 38-yard field goal. With the clock under three minutes, Lehigh was driving to a put-away score but the Princeton defense made plays. A sack by Emery left the Engineers in a third-and-17 at the Princeton 33, needing an underneath completion of 10 yards to reach field goal position to extend the lead to six. Instead quarterback Mark McGowan threw to the goalline and Cain got there for one of his signature picks.
“He was a very good athlete with a football savvy; a great feel of where to put himself,” recalls Tosches.
Full disclosure, three decades later: This particular interception demonstrated Cain’s ability to recover. “In the film session the next day Verbit told me I had called the wrong side,” recalls Cain. “Maybe they didn’t plan to go away from me but probably they did and I was fortunate to be shaded to the wrong side.
“Better to be lucky than good. The guy hung the ball up there.”
Princeton started from its two with 2:25 remaining. Two passes to Judd Garrett got the Tigers off the goalline, and a throw to Baker for another first down put them on the 24. But a holding call left Princeton first-and-20 and then Garrett suffered his seventh sack of the day.
It was second-and-28. And then things got even worse. On the next play the blocking almost completely broke down, leaving the quarterback running for his team’s life, but he got rid of the ball.
It was now third-and-28 and Verbit recalls thinking, “There was just no way,” But the line held this time and a juggling catch-and-run by Judd Garrett on an underneath route got back 20 of the yards to give the Tigers a fighting chance. Such was the best characterization of John Garrett’s efforts when he caught another shorty and made it to the sticks and out of bounds to stop the clock.
“When he got a little time Jason was just phenomenal,” recalls Tosches. But another sack followed, the ninth of the day, although only of four yards. Judd Garrett caught the next one in the flat and high tailed it to the Lehigh 49, either barely making the sideline barely or not, Lehigh’s protestations regardless.
Jason went to Judd again for 15 yards and then, with no time outs remaining, threw it to his youngest brother one more time to get the ball to the 20, where the officials felt the need to measure for a first down, when, in the mind of Lehigh Coach Hank Small, one was obvious. The Tigers needed that clock stoppage to rush their field goal unit onto the field and Goodwin was not rattled. His 37-yarder was perfect for one of the most unlikely wins, 16-15, in program history, followed by one of its most jubilant on-the-field celebrations.
The victory was a metaphor for Princeton’s season.
“I was crying,” remembers Cain.
“Greatest drive I ever saw,” recalls Verbit.
Garrett says it was his favorite, too. “Those efforts to get out of bounds were just amazing,” he says.
Myslik was impressed, too. With Princeton 4-1, the athletic director removed the interim from Tosches by privately rewarding him with a five-year deal. “It was a relief, sure,” recalls Verbit. “Handshakes all around and then back to work.”
Sophomore cornerback Frank Leal was headed for the All-Ivy team, but attrition otherwise would take a toll on a good defense. Pagnanelli, developing into a dominating outside linebacking presence, went down, as did rock solid middle linebacker Peter Milano, necessitating Whalen moving to the middle. Also lost as the year moved along was the team’s best defensive lineman, end Dave Rose; and an ox in the middle in Kevin Lynch, plus another rapidly improving sophomore linebacker, Gary Kempinski.
Despite the presence of All-Ivy-to-be guard Mark Seilhamer and the fast developing Surace, the offensive line play remained the weakest part of the team. “Lots of bruises on Jason’s chest and ribs after games,” recalls Surace.
At 4-1 Harvard, the Tigers rallied from 10-0 down to tie the game on fullback Jerry Santillo’s seven-yard third quarter touchdown run but then promptly got hit for two big plays–a 40-yard TD pass from Josh Yoke to Tony Hinz and a 30-yard scoring run by Bob Glatz. The Tigers got back into the game on Judd Garrett’s 34-yard touchdown run, but missed the two-point try and the game ended on a Garrett sack. With the 24-19 defeat, Princeton’s Ivy hopes essentially were ended.
There was no letdown, though, thanks in part to the relentless energy of Whalen. “I don’t want to make it sound like I didn’t listen to teammates because I did,” he recalls. “But the biggest help I got was from my father.
“I recently went through the box of letters that he had sent me–one a week, through that season. It was pretty amazing how specific they were. When Rose blew his knee out, my Dad was telling me you have to help the sophomore replacing him to step up.”
“I get choked up thinking about my father. He was the second experience in my life with sudden death. He died in a car accident in 2001. Late at night, missed a turn on a country road, only 68. I should still be getting advice from both he and Ron.”
With the removal of Tosches’ acting title made public the week of the Penn game, his team gave its own vote of confidence with a grinding and hugely satisfying 17-7 win at Franklin Field over the 5-time defending champions. “They were good for a long time and we were coming up,” recalls Whalen. “We stuffed Chris Flynn, who had run all over the league for three years. That’s the win I remember most fondly.”
The offensive line had responded by clearing 120 yards for Judd Garrett. “He was shifty, had a great understanding of football and his receiving yardage almost equal to his rushing yardage,” recalls Tosches. “Judd was a phenomenal offensive weapon.”
Jason, who had thrown just three interceptions in the first seven games, was picked twice by Colgate, once for a touchdown, and the Tigers were overmatched. Losing 39-15, dropping to 5-3.
Yale was in a three-way tie with Brown and Harvard for the league lead when it came to Palmer Stadium, extra motivation for the Tigers as they attempted to secure a winning season. But Garrett was put on the run again and quarterback Kelly Ryan torched Princeton for three touchdown passes in rolling to a 34-6 lead on the way to a 34-19 win.
Two cracks to secure Princeton’s first winning season since 1981–and only the third since 1969–had failed badly. Cornell, which also had fallen out the race, came to Palmer Stadium at 4-2 in the league and representing last chance for the Tigers to not let their strong start dissolve into one more in an almost two-decade-long string of disappointing records.
“You lose your last game as a senior you never forget it,” recalls Cain. “And in our case, we wanted a winning season.
“I can’t put into words how badly I wanted that game.”
That also may have had something to do with his teeth still chattering from one of the coldest game days in memory. “In my recollection the scoreboards and clocks froze,” recalls Garrett. Nevertheless, Whalen went out for the toss with a half cut shirt and exposed midriff while the Cornell captains wore long sleeves and gloves. “I think that set a pretty good tone for the day,” recalls Whalen.
Cain had three interceptions, bringing his total to 12 for the season. Sophomore Vince Avallone added two more, running one back for a touchdown, as a 20-point second quarter propelled Princeton to 23-6 victory and the 6-4 record they had come to want desperately.
“Cornell was that whole season,” remembers Jason Garrett. “A lot of guys who cared a great deal for each other wanted to finish the season the right way.
“I think that game was big for what happened in the ensuing years.”
Out of tragedy had come ample triumphs to keep the 1987 Tigers proud into their middle age. “I look at it like we had some bad breaks that year and could have gone 9-1,” says Whalen. “But I don’t regret a thing. Everybody showed up.”
Recalls Tosches, “The Brown was there for us, we [botched] chances with turnovers early in the game and had a call go against us in the end. Then again, we overachieved to win the Lehigh game. So coming off 2-8 and the death of the head coach, I would say 6-4 was a very good year that moved the program forward.”
Another 6-4 that followed in 1988 is not nearly as well remembered. Bad weather, bad calls and just plain bad football doomed the Tigers to become Columbia’s first victim in 45 games, 16-13.
The Tigers had apparently beaten powerhouse Holy Cross on Chris Lutz’s field goal with two seconds remaining, only to fail to cover an overhand lateral off a squib kickoff and incomprehensibly lose as time ran out. In the final game Princeton gave up bombs of 97 and 59 yards in blowing a 10-0 lead to Dartmouth. The Tigers had earned a bonfire with decisive victories over Yale and Harvard, but had left too much on the table to be satisfied.
It became that much more fuel for 1989 and Princeton’s first Ivy title in 20 years, which was followed by two more–in 1992 and 1995–during the Tosches era.
“My Dad felt great about his two recruiting classes” says Greg Rogerson. “I felt he was going to finally get the recognition he had worked so hard for, not just in 1987 but years to come.”
“It just kills me that he didn’t get to see the rewards.”
The most important persons in Rogerson’s life know, however, and would have made him proud in how they carried on from a wrenching family tragedy. “Mom dug deep and found strength for her four boys,” recalls Aaron Rogerson, the second oldest. “She gritted her teeth like an old New Englander would do.
“Outside of the funerals, she never broke down that I saw. It was an amazing strength that she kept tapping into because this wasn’t something over in a day or a week. We were on a hard journey and she had to hold it together for us. If she hadn’t, I don’t know what would have happened.
“I was 17, tried my best to step into my Dad’s shoes and set the kind of example for my two younger brothers that he would have expected of me.”
Lincoln, who had just turned 10 when his father died, said “yes” and “no” and virtually nothing else for more than two years, therapy failing before a Boston terrier puppy brought him out of it.
“I don’t know if that had been sadness, anger or confusion,” Lincoln recalls. “Maybe all three.
“I loved playing football through high school, got recruited by a couple schools but I had gotten to the point where my interest fizzled out. Everybody else had Dads at the games. Mine would never see me play. I think that had something to do with it.”
Ron had never pushed his kids to play, only to be enthused about whatever their interests might be. Greg remembers the flame coming out of his father’s mouth at practice never combusting at home, even if there was passion in almost his every word. Josh, seven when his father passed, doesn’t remember much. But he recalls the energy.
“He worked a very time-consuming schedule and I remember the nights he would make it home for dinner, usually after the rest of us had eaten,” says Josh.
“He would sit down at the table and I remember just loving the stories he would tell from the day; how animated he was, how positive and intense. Whether I understood his concepts or not, the manner in which he told them was something I wanted to be around.
“From my time in the Marine Corp in Iraq and Afghanistan, I’m able to put in perspective death and dying. There are many things we can control but some we can’t. Greg had a health scare a few years ago with a clogged artery like the one that killed my father and it was almost completely missed by the cardiologist. There was just this one little indicator and fortunately Greg had the mindset to say, ‘We need to get this checked out.’
“They went in, found he had an 80 per cent blockage and put stents in. This was almost 30 years after my Dad’s death and they still almost missed it with Greg. So I recognize it as not perfect. And there is definitely no anger, not about that anyway.
“I just wish I had my own story about my father to add to all the ones I’ve read and heard about him. And, as I got older, I always wished that my Dad had gotten to know who I was. I would love to have had those pre-adolescence and teenage conversations about becoming a man, not so much for what he would have taught me, but that he would approve of the way I was developing.
“He kind of had this legendary status amongst our family and his close friends. It was a standard I wanted to live up to.
“Our friends–Fred Danforth and his wife Carlene–asked influential people in my father’s life to address letters about him to us boys that bound in s book for each of us. From that two-inch-thick book is how I know my father. It is a picture of an honest, intense, man who had such an impact on peoples’ lives.”
With Greg and Aaron in their college years, Ann took Linc and Josh and moved to Wilmington, near the University of Delaware that Ron served for 10 years. The money raised by Princeton alums for her kids’ educations left enough for her, too, to expand her nursing degree into a master’s degree in social work. For two decades plus, she has been helping people deal with trauma and grief, perhaps even her own.
She never even went on a date, let alone considered re-marrying. “When you have had the best, it would have been pretty hard, not that I gave anyone else a chance,” Ann says. “Pretty hard to follow that act. I have never encountered another person like him in my life. Not even close.
“I’m incredibly grateful for the 21 years I had with him. It doesn’t take the pain away, but if that’s all I could have, then I am thankful for that. I’m blessed he is the father of my children. Even if Linc and Josh have vague memories of him, Ron is in all my boys.”
It bothers Greg how thin is his father’s Wikipedia page; how the wins, losses and places in it don’t even scratch the surface of his impact. Gone too soon, from Princeton after just two years, but still, it was hardly a flash. It says something about Rogerson’s legacy that there is a greater concentration of involvement in the Princeton Football Association from that era-including Whalen ’88, Joe Harvey ’86, Petrucci ‘86 and presidents Anthony DiTommaso ’86 and Steve Simcox ’83–than any other.
Whalen, of course, received the first Ron A. Rogerson Award given every year to Tigers who were the “greatest inspiration to their fellow players.” Thirty-one years later, those two years still are being paid forward with every Princeton win.
“I’ve never thought I was another Ron Rogerson,” says Surace, for nine years the head coach. “But with every recruit, Mom, Dad, I speak with, or every player I meet with one-on-one at the end of a season, I just hope I can reach a few of them the way Ron reached me.”