Football Lettermen Return for Annual Day of Bad Golf, Laughs and Fund Raising
Penn State's Blue Golf Course was filled with laughs, reminisces, and errant shots this past Saturday when some of the famous greats of Nittany Lion football and some of the walk-ons joined with dozens of players from the last 60 years for the fifth annual Letterman's Club Golf Outing.
Even if the 18-holes of shotgun golf was not perfect for the lettermen, the weather was --warm, sunny, low humidity and no rain--and so was the camaraderie.
"This is a great time to relax and have fun with former teammates and meet other players from different teams before and after us," said Curt Warner, Penn State's all-time leading rushing leader and the latest Penn State player enshrined into the College Football Hall of Fame.
"It's really a good time to meet all the older guys who were here before us and hear about their experiences and learn that they went through many of the same things we did," said Ryan Pinckney, a walk-on, who earned a letter in 2002 as a wide receiver after four grueling years of practice and limited game time.
Pinckney's stepfather, Bobby Campbell, also played in the tournament. Campbell was the first of Coach Joe Paterno's outstanding running backs and a star on the 1967 and 1968 teams that thrust Penn State and Paterno into the national limelight for the first time.
"We all like to play golf but what this is really about is getting together with guys who share a common bond," said Micky Urquhart, a four-year letterman on Paterno's teams from 1977-80 as a special teams leader, defensive back, and flanker. "Our stories seem to get more exaggerated every year but that's what makes this such a great event."
But the tournament is not just about tall tales, guffaws and frequent shouts of "fore." The lettermen also use it to raise money for the club's two scholarships. The scholarships are named in the honor of Coach Joe Paterno and his wife, Sue, and long-time assistant coach Bob Phillips, the first assistant coach Paterno hired when he became the head coach in 1966, who died in 2000.
"When I was put in charge of the Letterman's Club three years ago, I talked to the officers of the club about what we could do to give back to Penn State," said former assistant coach Fran Ganter, who is now the Associate Athletic Director for Football Administration. "The Joe and Sue Paterno scholarship is now fully endowed at $100,000. We now give $5,000 annually, which is the NCAA limit, to a graduating football player who is going on to post-graduate school. Our academic support people select the player and the check is sent directly to the school.
"We added the Bob Phillips scholarship when John Shaffer [quarterback of the 1986 national championship team] said he would give $25,000 to start the scholarship to honor his position coach and the man who recruited him," Ganter added. "We now have $70,000 and when it reaches our goal of $100,000, the fund will begin to donate $5,000 annually to the Nittany Lion Club football scholarship fund in Bob's honor and memory. And now some of our club members are talking about starting a third scholarship to honor another of our deceased assistant coaches when the Phillips scholarship is fully endowed."
Unlike many other charity golf tournaments, the players pay all their own travel expenses as well as golf fees and that includes the final dinner when the prizes are awarded for the day's golfing. Outside sponsorship is just beginning the help fund the scholarships, and this year that included Prospector's Restaurant, The Family Clothesline apparel store, and the Penn State Bookstores.
Ganter also was the person who created the golf tournament, initially just to get the former players together for an annual reunion and a chance to intermingle with the coaches. "The guys come back for football games but they usually don't get the chance to see and talk to the coaches, including Joe," said Ganter. "So we schedule the tournament for the weekend before the football team is scheduled to report for preseason practice so that Joe and the assistants can play golf with the former players or join us for the social events. Unfortunately this year, the reporting date was changed after we had already scheduled the tournament and the assistant coaches couldn't play golf."
The first tournament drew 110 golfers and 22 other lettermen, wives and friends and the number has been rising each year. The most recent event attracted 105 golfers but another 15 lettermen who had already paid their golf fees cancelled because of a memorial service for a former player. There were 50 other attendees at dinner after the golf outing, including Athletics Director Tim Curley, retired play-by-play broadcaster Fran Fisher, and several lettermen's wives, as well as the widows of two deceased players from Rip Engle's teams of the early 1950s and early 1960s, Billy Popp and Dick Pae.
Although most of the lettermen had played under Paterno, there were a few there from Engle's coaching era. That included another member of the College Football Hall of Fame, lineman Glenn Ressler, as well as end Jack Farls and halfback Ray Alberigi from the mid-1950s and fullback Sam Sobczak and linebacker Chuck Ruslavage from the late `50s.
Perhaps the best known foursome included three stars from the 1978 team that lost in the national championship game to Alabama in the 1979 Sugar Bowl--fullback Matt Suhey, wide receiver Scott Fitzkee and All-American quarterback Chuck Fusina, who finished a close second in the 1978 Heisman Trophy balloting. Along with teammate Mark Latsko, they had the best score of the tournament with a 60 and each were given a special Penn State football leather bag that is similar to an attaché case.
Coach Paterno and his wife, along with three assistant coaches who had once been players--Galen Hall, Dick Anderson, and Jay Paterno-- joined the group for the post-dinner program. Paterno apologized for not getting to the event earlier because of preseason practice for the upcoming season, and he delighted the audience when he wondered how "you beautiful ladies here married such old men?"
The loudest applause came when Paterno said, "I'm always being asked why I continue coaching at my age, and I tell them it's because of guys like you in this room. You're what Penn State football is all about."
Normally, in gatherings such as this, one of Paterno's spontaneous, witty remarks would get the most laughs. But on this evening, the best remembered one-liner came from the gregarious and equally droll Greg Murphy, who was co-emcee of the dinner program with tournament director Jeff Fisher. In his prime, Murphy was an outstanding 6-foot-3, 230-pound defensive lineman on the unbeaten 1973 team but he has gained some weight since those days. When Fisher teased fullback Omar Easy of the 1998-2001 teams about going to the barbecue ribs and chicken buffet line one too many times, Murphy, standing alongside Fisher, quickly pointed to the middle of his body and said to Easy, "Look at me Omar. You see the future!" And the crowd roared.
In shotgun tournaments, a lot of prizes are given out to those who are less skilled at the game. Defensive end Justin Kurpeikis of the 1997-2000 squads, was in a foursome that was designated "the most honest." That's because Kurpeikis and his former teammates, defensive tackles Tim Falls and Tyler Valoczki and offensive guard Tyler Lenda finished last. "Score withheld to protect the innocent," read the final score sheet.
"Wait until my wife sees this," Kurpeikis said with a smile as he held up the same prize given to the foursome with the best score. "She knows I'm not much of a golfer."
As for Warner's foursome consisting of two Lion teammates, receivers Rocky Washington and Mike Cartwright, plus fullback John Greene, captain of the 1988 squad, they finished fourth with a score of 63. But Cartwright was singled out for a special award--for the shortest drive--and won a cardboard "Stand-up Joe" cutout.
"Ask him what type of player you were," someone joked when Cartwright went up to accept his prize and everyone laughed. You might say that was a fitting end to a day of laughs--and scholarship fund raising.
Lou Prato is the retired director of the Penn State All-Sports Museum and the author of four books about Penn State football. He will be signing his latest book, Game Changers: The Greatest Games in Penn State Football History, at Beaver Stadium Store this fall.