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‘Truly special’ Penn sprint football tradition continues in first season of new era

Jerry McConnell succeeded longtime coach Bill Wagner and is carrying on the legacy of "football for all" at Penn.

Penn's first-year sprint football coach Jerry McConnell leads his team onto Franklin Field on Oct. 22.
Penn's first-year sprint football coach Jerry McConnell leads his team onto Franklin Field on Oct. 22.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

Andrew Paolini thought his football career was over when he didn’t start at Holy Cross Prep Academy until his senior year.

The Cherry Hill native had little hope of advancing his athletic career past graduation until he was introduced to sprint football at Penn.

“I was in a pickle, trying to find places to go,” said Paolini, a senior quarterback. “And just me being lucky, my offensive coordinator at the time used to coach with Coach [Jerry] McConnell here at Penn. And that’s how I found out about sprint football. More than four years ago, I had no idea what it was.”

Sprint football — or “football for all,” as Penn’s first president, Dr. Thomas Sovereign Gates, called it in the 1930s — has given Paolini and many other players like him the chance to continue their playing careers in college. It has identical rules to typical American football — minus the big bodies. Players are required to weigh in two days before games and cannot exceed 178 pounds.

“It’s the same game that I’ve been playing my entire life, just now with a weight limit,” said Paolini, who is 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds. “It really was the best of both worlds. I get to play the sport I love, and then I get to get a great education.”

Sprint football has a long history at Penn. The school hosted the first sprint football game against Yale at Franklin Field in 1931.

In 1934, Penn was one of the five founding teams of the Intercollegiate 150-Pound Football League, which has since developed into the Collegiate Sprint Football League. It now boasts two divisions and nine teams across the Northeast. Penn is the only remaining founding team and is now one of the league’s most competitive.

“We are smaller-type guys that the bigger programs like Division I, II and III aren’t going to recruit,” McConnell said. “Here at Penn, they have the opportunity to get a great education and continue to play the game that they love.”

McConnell is the successor to coach Bill Wagner, who retired in 2019 after a 50-year career at Penn. “Wags” won 141 games and five CFSL championships, but his impact at Penn goes beyond victories.

“The program that we have here is all a reflection of Wags and his vision,” McConnell said. “He set this aside to be something truly special.”

Wagner, a New Jersey native, began coaching at Penn in 1970, just a few years removed from his time as a three-sport collegiate athlete and semi-professional baseball player. In addition to coaching what was then called “lightweight football,” Wagner also coached baseball at Penn for 34 years.

His coaching tenure culminated at the 2021 sprint football alumni game on Sept. 11, a season-opening tradition that Wagner organized more than 20 years ago.

He walked through the tunnel at Franklin Field, which he’d done on countless Friday nights in the fall, but this time he passed a commemorative bronze plaque honoring his career. He stepped onto the field not as a coach, but as a quarterback for the alumni team, taking snaps with and against his former players.

Competing alongside Wagner were alumni of all ages, many of whom are integral to the program’s survival. Upon joining Penn’s sprint football roster, each player is assigned an alumni mentor, meant to guide him through his time as a Penn student and toward professional success.

“There’s not many programs where the alumni are fully committed to the success of the person, not just as an athlete, but as a person, preparing them to be successful in life,” McConnell said.

The program is almost entirely funded by alumni donations, and most recently amassed a $1 million endowment following Wagner’s retirement.

“The program is great, but there wouldn’t be any program without the players,” Wagner said. “It’s the alums who really have made and supported this. These young men have grown from Penn, and they give back their time, their finances, their mentoring. It’s a great thing.”

After a COVID-19 hiatus last season, Penn is 5-1 with McConnell at the helm.

“I want to just carry on everything that Wags has put in place,” said McConnell, who was Wagner’s offensive coordinator for 14 years before taking over as head coach. “We’re a very competitive program within the league, we are committed to community service, and being great, great students inside the Penn community.”

Four years after he thought his football career was over, Paolini faces the end again with Penn’s regular-season finale against longtime rival Navy on Friday at Franklin Field.

“This season, after a lot of waiting, I feel like we’re doing as well as we expected,” Paolini said. “We worked really hard in the offseason to get from where we were to where we are.”