After Princeton defeated Yale in a well played but rather routine game in the Yale Bowl this season, we were reminded that 63 years ago what may still be the most sensational if not unusual contest in their second-oldest series in American football took place in Princeton, N.J.
Yale’s winning touchdown was set up on a unique 44-yard pass play to a volunteer from the track team. His name was Larry Reno, then a junior, from Denver, Colo., by way of his birthplace in Wichita, Kan. Reno, not related to the current Bulldog coach, Tony Reno, became an instant Yale hero and near legend.
Unlike most of those Eli immortals, however, Reno was acclaimed for just one play. Nor was he really a football player, and on the day of the Princeton game (Nov. 14, 1953), he was virtually unknown to Yale gridiron followers.
The game took place before more than 45,000 that occupied all the seats and filled the temporary end zone bleachers at Princeton’s former Palmer Stadium. The Tigers had won the previous five games between the rivals, and were close to making it six in a row after taking a 17-0 lead at halftime. In the third quarter, Yale went ahead 20-17, but Princeton regained the lead on a 68-yard run by its superstar Royce Flippin, his second touchdown of the day, putting the Tigers in front 24-20 with less than a minute to play.
After Yale got the ball for the last time, there were 42 seconds left and the Bulldogs were on their own 45 yard line. Reno then entered the game at right end.
How Reno got there
Yale had been badly depleted by injuries. Less than two weeks the Princeton game, Reno volunteered to help. He was a sprinter and high jumper on the Yale track team. With the permission of his mentor, the noted Bob Giegengack, he asked football coach Jordan Olivar if he might be able to help with his speed as a pass receiver.
Olivar agreed, and the 20-year old Reno became the lightest man on the squad at 160 pounds, and only five foot seven – perfect for a sprinter and hurdler, but not great for football.
Reno had not played the contact variety of the game since he attended East Denver High School followed by a season at Andover, also known as Phillips Academy, a prep school in Massachusetts. However, he had good hands for pass catching, since he was on his Yale residential college (Davenport) intramural touch football team, a sport in which practically every play is a pass.
On a hunch, Olivar started Reno against Temple. On Yale’s first play from scrimmage a long pass was thrown and he sprinted down field, outran his coverage, and also outran the ball. That was his only play that day.
“Against Temple they told me to go as far down the field as I could. I went way down, and the passer hadn’t expected me to get that far. I button hooked, but the pass was deflected.” (The New Yorker magazine’s feature “The Talk of the Town,” Nov. 28, 1953)
Olivar saw something he thought he could use
The following week at Palmer Stadium, the right time came. Olivar inserted Reno with just 42 seconds left and Princeton leading, 24-20.
Yale was already down to Jim Lopez, its third quarterback. The other two, Bob Brink and Ed Molloy, were already in the game until the effects of previous injuries had taken their tolls.
Lopez went back to pass and was almost nailed for a big loss. However, he evaded his pursuers, ran forward and let the ball fly far down the field. The play, Reno later recalled, was named “8-Z-In.”
Reno could complete the 100-yard dash in nine point eight seconds and ran the 60-yard dash in six point four. He did the 220-yard low hurdles in 23.7 (The New Yorker; Nov. 28, 1953). So Reno, with his speed, was the ideal person to run out for a long aerial. He took off down field, caught Jim Lopez’ pass on the Princeton 15, and was brought down on the 12 by Frank Angew. It was a 44-yard pass and run play.
After a Yale timeout, Lopez threw to Bob Poole, who fought his way over from the five for the winning score. However, it was largely through the effort of Reno, the track star and football player for a day, that the touchdown pass could be completed. A minute later the Bulldogs had an incredible 26-24 victory, which to this day is still considered one of the greatest of Yale-Princeton games.
How Reno described the play
“We used an eight-angle-in pass. The other end is supposed to square. I never figured it would work, because Homer Smith, their captain, was suspicious of me. I raced against Homer twice in the low hurdles. We split. I was in the game a little while toward the end of the first half, but their team kept knocking me down.” (The New Yorker)
Several newspaper stories claimed that Reno was on the field just for that one play. But, assuming The New Yorker quoted him correctly, that is not correct. Moreover, his son, Elliot Reno, has told me that his father confirmed that he was in the game briefly in the first half.
After Reno’s catch and before the winning score, confusion reigned
“There was a brief struggle as Agnew tried to steal the ball, and then as the crescendo of noise beat down on the field, the referee signaled first and ten for Princeton. There was a shocked silence . . . Carried away with it all, even the ref had made a mistake.” (Yale Daily News)
Reno made Number 88 famous that day, just as the year before a Yale student-manager, Charley Yeager, with 99 on his jersey, converted an insignificant extra point in a decisive win over Harvard. For years Olivar and Yale took a lot of heat from Harvard people for what they felt was rubbing it in. Unlike that Harvard game, however, the maneuver in this Princeton contest, sending the novice Reno out for a pass, helped turn an apparent loss into a miraculous victory.
The Reno story was widely read
Yale football was national sports news in those days. Reno was the subject of an article, “RENO OF YALE,” written by Bill Cox and published in the newsletter of the College Football Historical Society (February 2008). Reno’s story was also told in the column in the New Yorker magazine referred to above.
Random newspaper quotes
“Use of ‘Unknown’ Trackman on a Pass Play Helped to Win Thriller for Yale” (headline in The New York Times)
“But who knows Lawrence Reno? Yes, the name is Reno. Yes, he plays on the Yale football team, no matter if his name isn’t to be found on any roster antedating Nov. 7, 1953. He’s the fellow who caught the 44-yard pass and saved the day for old Eli.” (Allison Danzig, The New York Times)
“Before trying to present a semblance of this frenzied afternoon, it should be emphasized that Yale’s final and winning touchdown was born because of the presence of Larry Reno, Yale end.” (Boston Globe)
“Reno usually runs a quarter of a mile, but he was happy to settle for 43 yards.” (Bob Cooke, New York Herald Tribune)
Because of Reno’s heroics, “the names of immortals like Merriwell and Stover sound like bit players.” (New York Herald Tribune)
“Truth is indeed stranger than fiction. Reno’s presence in the Princeton game will never be forgotten. They’ll be writing about this storied game for weeks and months and years to come.” (Hartford Courant)
Received a Major “Y” for his few on-field appearances
Receiving a letter at Yale always has been a source of great pride and prestige. The Cook article states that Reno “concluded his football career the next Saturday, getting in for an uneventful, but personally important, play at the end of the Harvard game. This was major college football, but it was Yale – a varsity football letter was awarded to a participant in the Princeton and Harvard games. One play each was sufficient.”
In checking the lineups in the 1953 Yale-Harvard game, as printed in The New York Times, Reno’s name does not appear. It is possible a large group of players, including Reno, entered the game together for one play in the waning moments, just to get their letters, and the statistician in charge, unable to keep up with all the changes, did not feel it was that significant to do so. There were no computers in that era and record keeping was more difficult than it is today,
Therefore, we went to the 1955 Yale Class Book, which contains Reno’s profile. It states, in part: University track team, 1953-55 (major “Y”), and University football squad, 1953 (major “Y.”) That entry would seem to confirm that Reno was in the Harvard game for at least a single play. It closed the book on one of the shortest and most unusual yet productive career of any Yale football player.
At Yale; he showed an interest in the armed forces and was a recipient of the university’s Distinguished Military Student Award. Upon graduation he entered the post World War II military and was a lieutenant in the seventh army artillery division, stationed at Dachau, Germany, for two years. At the same time he was able to compete in several European track meets.
After returning to civilian life, Reno entered the Univ. of Colorado School of Law and became a prominent attorney in Denver. By a strange coincidence he developed a friendship with another lawyer who had been an opposing player that day in 1953. He was Peter Van Gytenbek, one of the Princeton pass defenders when Reno made the reception.
He stayed in contact with his three Yale roommates at Davenport College, Phil Franz, Halsey Sanford and L. K. Mowbray. Franz and Sanford came to visit him in Colorado on a few occasions, and all four enjoyed each other’s company at their Yale reunions. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, by now they have all passed away.
After retirement Larry traveled the country extensively throughout the West and Midwest, which enabled him to research material for a book he wrote about his family’s lineage to the Lewis and Clark expedition.
He died in 2008 at the age of 75, survived by three sons, including Elliot Reno, who has been of great assistance in garnering information for this article.
Well past 60 years after Larry Reno’s 15-seconds of glory, a member of his extended family is now a student in New Haven. Her name is Kate Swanson, from Rancho Sante Fe, California. Kate is Larry Reno’s great niece (granddaughter of his brother Bill). Like Larry had been, Kate, a Yale sophomore, is also an athlete. She has been a key member of the volleyball team, which compiled a 19-5 record for the season that ended Nov. 22nd.
Larry Reno and Kate Swanson. Same family, a few generations apart — and one thing in common. Both have been proud to be student-athletes at Yale.