Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

125 years of Penn’s Franklin Field highlighted by college football heroes and history | Mike Jensen

Jim Thorpe and Red Grange were among the visiting football stars. Vince Lombardi coached here. Track greats stretch from Jesse Owens to Carl Lewis to Usain Bolt, from Wilma Rudolph to Allyson Felix.

The Chuck Bednarik statue and Eagles mural underneath the north stands at Franklin Field.
The Chuck Bednarik statue and Eagles mural underneath the north stands at Franklin Field.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

Early in another century, a horse-drawn Zamboni-like roller cut the grass inside Franklin Field.

Before then, sheep briefly did the job.

“Around 1907 or so," said Dave Johnson, director of the Penn Relays and Franklin Field’s unofficial historian. “They got a new groundskeeper who was Scottish, and he figured that rather than spend time and energy mowing the lawn, he’d get sheep. He figured out how many sheep you’d need to keep the grass trimmed just this length.”

It worked, for a time, until the sheep were called to other duties. By then, the animals had joined a most illustrious list of performers inside the oldest stadium in college football. Franklin Field will start its 125th season Friday night when the Quakers host Dartmouth.

Franklin Field also claims the first scoreboard, when the place opened in 1895, and was the site of the first episode of ABC’s Wide World of Sports in 1961 and the first neutral-site Army-Navy game in 1899. The Eagles marched to a championship here. The Quakers took part in the first college football telecast. (Penn over Maryland, 1950, two cameras showing the action.)

The list of greats who performed here … just astounding.

Jim Thorpe and Red Grange were among the visiting football stars. Track greats stretch from Jesse Owens to Carl Lewis to Usain Bolt, from Wilma Rudolph to Allyson Felix. (The Penn Relays actually opened the place in April 1895.) Franklin Delano Roosevelt accepted the Democratic nomination for his second term as president here outside in 1936.

» READ MORE: Usain Bolt remembers his historic 2010 Penn Relays performance: ‘There was a great atmosphere’

Current Penn coach Ray Priore mentioned how he’ll park his car behind the place, start walking through to the field, start thinking back.

“Vince Lombardi coached on this field,'' Priore said, straightening his back as he talked as if to show what that means for a football coach. “John Heisman coached here. ... Every time I talk to another alumnus, another story comes out.”

All levels played packed in crowds. West Chester coach Bill Zwaan noted he played here for Archbishop Carroll in the city title game. (Yes, he’ll tell you the score if you ask.) He also watched the Eagles here as a 10-year-old.

“Lou Gehrig pitched for Columbia at Franklin Field," Johnson noted of the future New York Yankees legend. “He was the losing pitcher that day. He did not hit a home run at Franklin Field, which has been reputed to have happened.”

Then there was Howard Cosell, televising a 1970 Eagles game on Monday Night Football, adding to the lore. (Cleanup allegedly required.)

“He was in the south side, that hang down [press box]," said Gail Zachary, the assistant Penn Relays director, who said she worked that game, but said she wasn’t in the little press box where the original MNF crew did its thing. “It was cold, and I guess he was keeping himself warm, because he didn’t make it to the end of the game, that’s for sure.”

Cosell joined the sheep in not quite finishing the task at hand, reportedly getting driven back to New York before the game was even over after he had put himself under the weather.

That doesn’t rise to the top of the stadium’s infamous-episode list, since a poor excuse for a Santa Claus was hit with snowballs at Franklin Field in 1968, providing a tale that got twisted whenever somebody felt the urgent need to give Philly fans a hard time.

If you’re listing Franklin Field football greats, you start with Chuck Bednarik, since Concrete Charlie, the first offensive lineman to win the Maxwell Award for outstanding college player, also played both sides of the ball for Penn and the Eagles, the last of the two-way ironmen. Bednarik’s statue greets visitors under the north grandstand.

“He shook my hand, and my hand got lost in his hand," Zachary said of Bednarik, who died in 2015. “I made a joke to him, ‘I guess nobody wants to ask you for directions.’ If he pointed, every finger pointed in a different direction.”

College football glory days

Penn was a powerhouse, the big draw in town, before the Quakers decided to leave big-time college football for this new outfit called the Ivy League. Seems to have worked out all right for the school, even if the upper deck is usually needed these days only for the Penn Relays. Traditions live on. Toast throwing goes on after the third quarter as the faithful sing, “Here’s a toast to dear old Penn.”

Several years back, the school moved press seating down from the top, since there wasn’t such a need to climb the 136 steps from the lower concourse up to the open-air box. (The view of Center City remains spectacular from the top.)

The history is not forgotten around here. Future NFL commissioner Bert Bell quarterbacked Penn to the 1917 Rose Bowl. John Heisman — yes, that Heisman — transferred from Brown to Penn, mostly to go to the law school, but he played for the Quakers in 1890, just before Franklin Field was built. He later coached the Quakers inside the place, among many other stops.

The year Franklin Field opened, with a 40-0 drubbing of Swarthmore followed by a 40-0 drubbing of Bucknell, the Quakers played 14 games, and won them all, giving up only 24 total points, winning the national title for a second straight season.

Around the time the sheep showed up, the Quakers were winning national titles in 1907 and ‘08. That’s helpful to understand the fate of the flock, which, according to Johnson, almost but not quite made it to the end of the season.

“The football team decided to slaughter the whole herd for Thanksgiving dinner," Johnson explained.

Another milestone not listed in the official record: First grounds crew sacrificed for a holiday gathering.

“That ended the grand experiment," Johnson said.

The rest of it goes on. Bring on Dartmouth.