Let Scott Leightman, sports information director at La Salle, be the herald of a new frontier. As his school, which is renowned for basketball, prepared to reenter the world of college football with its first game in 56 years, Leightman paced the sideline in La Salle's McCarthy Stadium, where the Explorers were about to face the Stags of Fairfield. Then into his walkie-talkie he barked the words that, like Neil Armstrong's "one small step...," will forever commemorate a giant leap: "Our players have no bathrooms, no Porta Potties, no nothing. If one of 'em has to go, what are we gonna do?"
La Salle's faithful will long speak of the day the football revival began. They'll remember how their Division I-AA Explorers lost badly, 34-10, to a lowly, second-year Fairfield club and how quarterback Ralph Sacca was sacked three times. They'll also recall that the 6,652 fans who filled the stadium had a ball.
Bill Manlove, the revered former Widener and Delaware Valley coach who took on La Salle for, as he put it, "a neat little challenge," proclaimed in his pregame speech that this day was not about winning but about "looking in the mirror and being able to say you gave your best." Before the kickoff, in the concrete confines beneath the bleachers, with 71 young, scared players looking his way, Manlove spoke softly, telling his kids, essentially, that they had nothing to tear but fear itself. "Play hard," he said. "Remember, this is history." Players yelled. "This is our house! Don't let 'em take what's ours!" The blue-and-gold-clad Explorers then bowed as brother Edward Sheehy led a prayer, asking God to "watch over us as we begin this new tradition."
La Salle's old football tradition consisted of a 51-34-8 record over 11 seasons before the program was abandoned in 1941, when, with so many players enlisting in the service, the Explorers could barely field a full team. The school decided to revive the sport last year, partly in hope of stemming a decline in male enrollment and to provide on-campus weekend events for the La Salle community.
The team did not embarrass itself. Sacca, a transfer from Rutgers who started just one game for the Scarlet Knights last year, showed that he could become one of I-AA's top quarterbacks. Shifty running back Terrence Zaahir, a sophomore whose grades kept him from playing for West Virginia, rushed for 118 yards. The Explorers even held a 10-7 halftime lead thanks to a field goal and Sacca's 11-yard touchdown run. "That was a moment," Sacca would say later of his scramble-for-life into the end zone. "We showed we belonged, if we could just stay strong."
This is where Manlove has problems. Before the game five senior citizens walked onto the field after being introduced to cheers as the "remaining members of La Salle's last football team." The Boys of '41 were shrunken and gray, guys who walked proud but had seen better days. Alas, Manlove could have used them all. On his squad were six athletes who had never played organized football.
As a boy ran through the crowd with a big L flag, and the Explorers' two cheerleaders raised their pom-poms, and some shirtless frat rats began a "Fairfield sucks!" chant, the Stags took a second-half hammer to the little engine that could. A fumble recovery in the end zone, a 65-yard touchdown run and a looping 16-yard TD pass made it 28-10 in Fairfield's favor. Knocked down repeatedly, Sacca was knocked out of the game late in the third quarter. "It's inexperience," said Manlove. "Ralph can't get hit like that every week."
Odd thing, though. After ii was over, Sacca, an ice pack on his neck, was all smiles. "Y'know," he said, "they hit just as hard here as they did at Rutgers. But I don't feel too hurt." For Sacca—and for La Salle—there was comfort in a fresh start.