Roger Subramani stands in the tunnel at the University of Pennsylvania’s Franklin Field, gazing out at a near-empty stadium and the greenest astro turf he has ever seen.
The events that have led him to this point are the stuff movies are made of, and this movie feels like a cross between “Any Given Sunday” and the “Little Giants”. Subramani stands 5-foot-4, a cheeseburger or two away from 110 pounds.
He was too small to play on his high school football team; he never even tried out. He hasn’t taken the field in an actual game since Pop Warner, when he was about the same size as he is now. Yet somehow here he is, bouncing up and down with his teammates in the tunnel of the oldest and one of the most historic stadiums in the country.
They are awaiting the signal from an oversized assistant coach to charge onto the field in preparation for a real, live college football game, the first one in Post University history. Roger Subramani is ready to hit somebody.
Subramani is suited up in one of the fresh new hunter green uniforms his school had purchased just three months ago. Four hours earlier, he was suited up in well, a suit at the pregame meal, scarfing down a sub, Gatorade and a bag of chips.
About twenty minutes before kickoff, head coach Pete Ewald delivers a rousing pregame speech, the kind that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up even when the only pads you have on you are equipped with spirals and little blue lines.
There are trainers, writers, P.A. announcers, and SIDs in attendance, and just for clarification, the players are about to charge onto Ben Franklin Field, as in that Ben Franklin guy who invented electricity and signed the Declaration of Independence. This is the same stadium that hosts the Penn Relays, was home to the nation’s first scoreboard, the first-ever radio broadcast of a football game, and for years, the Philadelphia Eagles, who just so happen to be Subramani’s favorite NFL team.
So how can a kid five-foot nothing, a hundred and nothing, possibly be in this position without Charles Dutton standing nearby?
Well, Subramani and his Post teammates are about to take part in a tradition that goes back 77 years; a tradition that former president Jimmy Carter, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft once took part in. It’s called sprint football, and it’s the greatest loophole in American sports.
Sprint football is regular football, only with a player weight limit of 172 pounds. That means there are no hulking linebackers, no running backs who could bench press a Buick, and no 300-pound linemen who put buffets out of business. It’s just small to normal-sized college kids running around on the field, trying to take each other’s head off. Everything about the game is the same—the field is still 100 yards long, there are still four downs, the coaches still scream maniacally from the sidelines.
Teams still travel in buses, practice on the road, and study film right along with their chemistry homework. Coaches still uproot their families to take jobs at different schools and stress over every minute detail of the game plan (and with the comparative size of these guys, every detail is minute). But there are no bands, cheerleaders, or television contracts. The sport brings in no revenue to athletic departments, and in many cases is financed by donations from alums.
Still, there’s a certain charm to a brand of football that allows for normal-sized guys to become gridiron heroes. “It’s an exciting brand of football,” said former Post and current Franklin Pierce head coach Pete Ewald. “The weight limit makes it unlike anything else because every play is so competitive. Everyone’s in the same boat.”
He’s right— in sprint football, defensive linemen routinely out-run wide receivers. Running backs may be bulkier than the offensive linemen blocking for them. “You really can’t win individual battles based on just pure strength,” Ewald said. “So you have to be intelligent as a football player in order to succeed.”
I know what you’re thinking—where was this when I was in college? Why couldn’t I have experienced this kind of everyman gridiron glory? Well, the sport has been around since 1934. So yeah, this could have been you. Except you’ve never heard of it, and that’s okay—because neither has anyone else.
On Friday nights at the campus of Cornell University, sprint football is met with a passionate intensity that is only matched by every event, ever. Tens of fans line the 25,500 seat stadium, raucously cheering a touchdown with the same passion as when they found that book they were looking for at the school library. The anonymity of the sport is best summed up by one of its most successful coaches.
“I didn’t even know it existed until they told me they were going to send me to the Naval Academy and make me the head coach,” Major Jerome Rizzo told NFL Films. Rizzo would go on to lead Navy to three championships and a 26-1 record in four seasons from 2002-05.
For decades, the sport existed only in the Ivy League and at the service academies Army and Navy. Those schools formed the “Eastern 150 pound Football League” in the ‘30s. Big Ten powers Michigan, Ohio State, Illinois and Wisconsin did field teams in the 1940s and ‘50s (Washington Redskins Hall of Fame coach George Allen got his start as an assistant with the mini-Wolverines in the ‘40s), but since then sprint football has been a purely northeastern pastime. Today’s Collegiate Sprint Football League (CSFL) consists of eight members: Army, Navy, Cornell, Penn, Princeton, Mansfield, Post, and Franklin Pierce. Other schools, such as Coppin State and SUNY-Maritime field club teams.
Perhaps the most romantic thing about sprint football is that just about any average athlete from anywhere has a chance to find himself immersed in a scene like Subramani’s; ready to shine under the Friday night lights that illuminate an Ivy League football cathedral. Subramani comes from Kaynor Tech in Waterbury, Conn. He enrolled at Post University in Waterbury in 2009 to pursue a degree in computer science. Never in a million years had he pictured himself suiting up for the football team, primarily because Post University didn’t have a football team when he first came to campus. The school, which is a private institution of about 1,350 students, announced its plans to adopt the sprint version of the sport in November 2009, three months into Subramani’s freshman year. Post University joined the CSFL the following year.
Like many of his teammates, Subramani was thrilled when he got the news that Post was going to be fielding a team for undersized players. “I had no idea there was even such a thing [as sprint football],” he said. “I was real excited, real pumped to get a chance to play. I’ve always wanted to play football but I was never big [enough]. When this team came around, I said this is my chance.”
“I was so excited when I heard about it,” said running back Derrick Chance, who would score the first touchdown in school history in Post’s 41-14 loss to Pennsylvania at Franklin Field. “Not too many people get a chance like this, to be playing college football. It’s just awesome,” he said.
Many of the players on Post’s 65-man roster didn’t even play football in high school, but some had given up on dreams of gridiron glory after short stints at other colleges. Senior running back Lee Knight spent a year at NCAA Division III Becker College in Massachusetts before quitting the team and transferring to Post, believing he had buckled on his chinstrap for the final time. He was overcome with joy when he heard the news late in his sophomore year that his new school was going to be offering sprint football.
“I was at the point where I thought my career was over,” said Knight, who was named a team captain at Post. “And then coming here and hearing that they were going to have a team, just being able to have the opportunity again … I guess I can say it’s emotional for me.”