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Brandeis remembers, honors a football team from long ago

Former Brandeis players Dick Baldacci (left) and Mike Long revisiting the site of the school’s football field, long since converted for soccer.

Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe

Former Brandeis players Dick Baldacci (left) and Mike Long revisiting the site of the school’s football field, long since converted for soccer.

W

ALTHAM — The wooden bleachers that ringed three sides of Gordon Field were torn down in the mid-1970s.

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Saldi’s Pizzeria on Felton Street, where Brandeis University’s football players and their fans celebrated after home victories, no longer exists.

Neither does the football program, the result of a board of trustees vote in 1960 that brought to a close a long-forgotten — but very successful and colorful — era in Brandeis athletics.

The Judges posted winning seasons in five of their nine years as a varsity program. The 1957 squad, which shut out New Hampshire and Northeastern and blew out Massachusetts on Homecoming Day, posted the best record ( 6-1) in the short history of Brandeis football.

More than a half-century later, members of the ’57 team will huddle one more time on Saturday, gathering for their induction into the Brandeis Athletics Hall of Fame.

“Many of our opponents were much larger in enrollment and had football programs that had been in existence decades longer than the new program at Brandeis,’’ said Medway native Tony Lahnston, a sophomore halfback on the ’57 squad and a driving force behind the team’s Hall of Fame nomination. “This made our success even more exceptional.

“I remember driving home to Princeton, N.J., after attending the funeral of one of my Brandeis teammates, Jack Kirby, and thinking that as we were approaching our 80s, this great group of individuals — and really, everyone who put on the Brandeis football uniform — deserved to be remembered.’’

The varsity program’s only head coach was a former University of Michigan All-American quarterback, Benny Friedman, now enshrined in the halls of fame for both collegiate and professional football. Under Friedman’s guidance from 1950 through 1959, Brandeis emerged as a New England small college power, even taking on the region’s independent giants, Boston University and Boston College, the latter at Fenway Park.

Irv Heller, an all-time-great lineman at Boston University, where he was a teammate of the legendary Harry Agganis, was one of Friedman’s four assistant coaches in 1957.

“Benny had a lot of pride and passion, and he put together a hell of a staff,’’ said Heller.

Herb Kopf, who had previously coached the professional Boston Yanks, handled the ends; Foxy Flumere, a standout multisport athlete at Northeastern University, was chief scout and backfield coach; and Harry Stein, the varsity basketball coach, was the assistant backfield coach, and oversaw the freshman squad.

“Brandeis football was a tough sell, a Jewish-sponsored, nonsectarian university that was founded in 1948 and that not a lot of people knew about,’’ recalled Heller, who grew up in Revere. “But Benny and our school president, Dr. Sachar, had a vision and they were great speakers and fund-raisers. The relationships we as players and coaches forged exist to this day, and I can look back and say my time at Brandeis was the greatest experience of my life.’’

Friedman, recognized as pro football’s first great passer for his exploits in the late 1920s and early ’30s, said during a 1950 press conference at Brandeis that “we may never outweigh our opponents, but we’ll certainly outsmart them.’’

Friedman’s first varsity team played in Miami against the University of Tampa in the 1951 season finale, and it was an opportunity for him to address the Jewish community there on behalf of his fledgling program.

Heller remembers the trip for another reason.

“We had two black players on our team who were told they could not stay with us at our hotel,’’ he said, “and Benny adamantly refused. They stayed.’’

Perhaps it was because Friedman had also felt the sting of prejudice. He was called “Jew Boy’’ and “Son of Palestine’’ in newspaper accounts during his playing days.

The 1955 and 1956 teams featured quarterback Jimmy Stehlin, who led the nation’s small college ranks in total offense and was an Associated Press Little All-American.

“Benny Friedman had an aura about him,’’ said Stehlin.

Friedman’s 1957 team roster numbered 41 players, fewer than a dozen of them Jewish. His quarterbacks were Dave Walker out of Watertown High, and Dave Bouchard from Concord High. Their only loss, 32-7 against Rhode Island, occurred when half the team had the flu.

“I was really proud of that team. You didn’t have to be a player to be in their circle of friends, and I thought it was marvelous that their blue-and-white uniforms were the colors of the flag of the state of Israel,’’ said former cheerleader Letty Cottin Pogrebin.

Three players from the ’57 team were inducted individually into the Brandeis Hall of Fame — captains Charlie Napoli, a standout tackle from Concord, and Morry Stein, a powerful running back from Bloomsburg, Pa.; and sophomore end Mike Long from Marlborough, who started on the first Boston Patriots team in 1960, his only professional season.

“I still tell people today that Rob Gronkowski personally asked for my number 87,’’ Long quipped.

Former Natick High and University of Massachusetts Amherst star Lou Varrichione described Napoli as “one of the toughest linemen I ever went up against.’’

Brookline High alum Jim Hennessey, who quarterbacked the 1957 Northeastern team, said Huskies coach Joe Zabilski told his defense to “keep an eye’’ on Long, who, despite the attention, scored a touchdown that day.

Napoli, for whom the trophy room in the Gosman Sports and Convocation Center at Brandeis is named, died suddenly at age 52.

Stein, who married Brandeis cheerleader Amy Medine, was killed in a 1994 plane crash. The Steins operated Camp Echo Lake in upstate New York. He was returning from a trip to Indiana, where he was working on a fund-raising program for underprivileged children.

“Morry’s football experience was the most meaningful part of his life,’’ said his widow. “He was a superb athlete, a great motivator, and a gentleman on and off the field. His camp work was fueled by his love of team.’’

Napoli and Friedman have been remembered in a special way by Dick Baldacci, a captain on the Brandeis squad who now lives in Swampscott.

He has sculpted bronze busts of both that are on display at the Gosman Center, and he will unveil another, that of teammate and fellow Brandeis football Hall of Famer Billy McKenna of Salem (class of ’55), on Saturday.

McKenna, the first Brandeis All-American and a star with the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League, died last year.

“I can still get down in my stance, but it’s not as easy as it used to be ’’ said Baldacci, who has saved game programs, vintage photos, and newspaper clippings from his playing days. A favorite is a photo of Baldacci standing next to Cardinal Richard Cushing at the dedication of a Catholic chapel on the Brandeis campus.

Baldacci and other contemporaries said they fondly remember the university’s first sports information director, Cliff Sundberg, who set up a publicity photo of Baldacci and Medine.

“I was all taped up and had my helmet in my hand,’’ said Baldacci, “when I was sent into the art studio with Amy, who was wearing a model’s leotard and they set up an easel for me.’’

But those heady days for Brandeis football were numbered. The 1958 and 1959 teams had losing seasons, as rosters and funding dwindled.

Faced with a rapidly growing enrollment and expanded academic programs, and unable to justify the financial cost and the number of scholarships for the football program, president Abram Sachar, Friedman, and Joseph Linsey, chairman of the Brandeis Athletic Association, announced in May 1960 that it was eliminated.

Friedman and Sachar clashed at the end, and Friedman resigned as athletic director in 1961.

Lineman Joe Macedo received the Boston Tobacco Table’s prestigious Unsung Hero Award in 1957, and then went out for a night on the town with Harvard football captain Thomas Hooper and rugged Boston Celtics forward Jim Loscutoff.

Twenty-five years later, on a late November day, Macedo met Friedman for lunch in New York City.

“He had lost a leg because of diabetes and the doctor told him that day he would lose the other one,’’ Macedo recalled. “After we parted, he went back home and committed suicide. I was saddened, but not surprised, because he was really down.’’

When Friedman was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005, 20 of his former Brandeis players made the trip to Canton, Ohio.

Their loyalty to their coaches, to one other, and to Brandeis remains unwavering to this day.

Marvin Pave can be reached at marvin.pave@rcn.com.

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