A bronze statue stands in front of Jadwin Gymnasium at Princeton University. It’s a statue of All-American Dick “Kaz” Kazmaier, who won the Heisman trophy in 1951 – the last Ivy League player to do so – and who famously declined to pursue a career in professional football after being drafted by the Chicago Bears. Instead, he went on to Harvard Business School and proceeded to build an impressive professional resumé that included serving as
… director of the American Red Cross; director of the Ladies Professional Golfers Association, trustee of Princeton University; director of the Knight Foundation on Intercollegiate Athletics; chairman of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush; and president of the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame. [Wikipedia]
Kazmaier’s jersey number – 42 – was retired in 2008, five years before he passed away. Today that jersey hangs in a place of honor high on the wall in Jadwin Gymnasium.
It was late Saturday night, after the class dinner and gargantuan fireworks show, and the various class reunions were all in full swing in their various locations around campus. Equipped with your wristband, you could wander the campus and visit as many parties as you had the stamina for. You could celebrate with the new graduates and the younger alumni clustered around the fifth-year reunion class, 2009. You could toss back a few brewskis with the tenth- and fifteenth-year classes and watch them trying to manage their growing families amidst the milling crowds. You could pay your respects to the more sedate (yet still raucous) oldsters – the Class of 1964 enjoying its fiftieth reunion, headquartered at Blair Courtyard, my home for two years. And you could bust a move with my class – 1974 – rocking out to the Fabulous Grease Band while wondering where the last forty years went.
After hanging out with various Friends of Long Standing for a while, Dee and I decided to call it a night and head back to our car, which was parked a goodly hike away on the far northern reaches of the campus. We made our way past the dorms, past the various Reunions parties, past the Frist Campus Center, eventually crossing Washington Street. Here it was quiet, with only an occasional distant sound from the parties at the eating clubs on Prospect Street drifting through the hush of the evening. As we walked past Princeton Stadium – about the halfway point in our Long March – we both came to the realization that we would need a rest stop. Neither of our aging bladders would withstand the wait until we got back to our hotel in Cranbury ten miles away. But where could we go? It was late at night and we were now in a part of the University territory where restrooms were thin on the ground.
There was only one option. Before us loomed the hulk of Jadwin Gymnasium, its entranceway illuminated by a few floodlights but otherwise dark, foreboding. As we approached, I mouthed a quiet prayer that we would be able to get in… and that prayer was answered, for one of the doors was standing open. In we went.
As we entered, our arrival evidently triggered a motion-sensitive lighting system: Suddenly, silently, the immense gym lobby seemed to come to life. In a strange way, it was almost welcoming. Signs directed us to our separate restroomy destinations, after which we joined each other in the lobby.
Here, we knew, was history. Look, there on the wall – there was Number 42! Dick Kazmaier’s jersey! And this was where Bill Bradley played basketball… also sporting number 42 on his jersey.
Dee and I stood there for a moment before resuming our trek to the car. Then we exited through the same door through which we had entered, the same door that, mercifully, had been open for us in our Moment of Need. In the dark, just outside the light cast by the entryway floods, I could just make out the shadowy shape of a statue. Who could it be but the one and only Dick Kazmaier ’51, All-American and Heisman Trophy winner, the selfsame Kaz whose old jersey we had just seen hanging high on the gym wall?
And then, suddenly, we were not alone.
Seemingly out of nowhere, a couple appeared, the man wearing the distinctive blazer that identified him as a member of the Class of 1967. He stuck out his hand and introduced himself, and then prepared to turn away. But something stopped him. He placed a firm but friendly hand on my shoulder.
It was immediately evident that he had enjoyed more than a few Adult Beverages that evening. Nevertheless, there was a striking intensity to his demeanor as he looked me in the eyes and asked me, “Do you see him?”
He could only be referring to our All-American boy. I answered, “I can’t see him… but I can feel him. He’s all around us here.”
“Exactly!” My interlocutor was trembling with excitement. I had gotten it, whatever it was.
“You can feel him… but you can’t see him! There are no lights! It needs lights!”
Partly to us, and partly to his wife, he quietly said, “Monday’s my last day, and I’m gonna see that it gets lights if it’s the last thing I do!” There was more than a hint of wistfulness in his voice as he spoke… and seemingly an undertone of pain as well.
Dee and I bade farewell to our mysterious new friend and his wife, who guided him gently away. And as we continued our walk to the car in the cool spring night, understanding dawned.
The mysterious man had been none other than Gary Walters, Class of 1967, the university’s Director of Athletics under whose tenure Princeton teams had won 214 Ivy League championships and 48 national championships. Once upon a time he had played basketball with Bill Bradley and had been on the cover of Sports Illustrated. And now he was retiring… effective on Monday, Graduation Day.
By some mystic twist of fate, we had stumbled upon Walters as he and his wife were saying their own personal farewell to Jadwin Gymnasium, a place of high significance in both his personal and professional history, the beating heart of Princeton’s athletic world. (I now suspect that, if not for their presence there, the building would have been locked, leaving us to our own devices.) And what was he thinking about as he walked that cavernous building one last time? What ghosts did he see among its girders and rafters? What memories came floating up to him?
We can tell you.
He was thinking about the late Dick Kazmaier and the statue erected to honor him, a statue that needed some nighttime illumination. He was thinking about the respect due a true student athlete of the sort that, quite possibly, has vanished from today’s world. And he was almost surely thinking about his impending – and, we surmise, not especially sought-after – retirement.
Eventually Dee and I found our car and drove back to our lodgings. And as we made ourselves ready for bed, both of us, I think, had tears in our eyes… for we had witnessed a most haunting valedictory. And – speaking for myself, at least – it has haunted me ever since.
Godspeed, Gary. May the next part of your life continue to be rewarding and productive.