Sprint Football: The best sport you’ve never heard of

2005 Cornell Sprint Football team.

There’s a great brand of college gridiron that’s been played for nearly 80 years now. Yet, in terms of name recognition, it probably ranks somewhere between equestrian and badminton in the public consciousness.

As an alum of the sport this pains me, so please let me educate you.

The sport’s called sprint football and it all began in 1934.

As college football grew in popularity, so did the size of its players. As a result, the average-sized athlete was quickly getting pushed out of the sport. In response, the Eastern 150 pound Football League was born. The original members of the league were Lafayette, Pennsylvania, Princeton, Rutgers, and Yale.

To play in the league, all players had to weigh 150 pounds or less 48 hours before game time. Yes, all positions.

The size limitation leads to interesting oddities in the sport. A wide receiver laying a pancake block on a defensive lineman? It happens. Or how about an offensive guard getting a block way down the field on athletic defensive backs? That happens too.

Other than the size element, everything else mirrors “regular” football. The players wear full pads, 11 men from each team are on the field, and the sport follows the NCAA rules to the letter.

Things have changed some since 1934 though. With the ever expanding growth of the American male, the sport’s weight limit has crept upward. The weight limit grew to 158 in 1967, 166 in 1998, and 172 in 2005, where it sits currently.

The name of the league changed as well–first to the Eastern Lightweight Football League, and then to its current name: the Collegiate Sprint Football League. Older alums still know the sport colloquiallly simply as “lightweight” or “150s.”

Teams have come and gone too as athletic budgets have fluctuated over the years (Columbia, Harvard, and Michigan, among others, have all dabbled in the sport), but the league is still going strong. Original members Lafayette, Rutgers, and Yale no longer play, but long time members Penn, Princeton, Cornell, Army, and Navy still field teams. And over the last 5 years, the sport has enjoyed a little bit or a renaissance. Since 2008, Post University, Mansfield University, and Franklin Pierce University have all joined the league.

Sprint Football separates itself from a lot of other under-the-radar sports in that, with the help of very generous alumni, it actually functions as a varsity sport at its schools, not a club one. If you go to any of the schools’ varsity sports websites, you’ll see sprint football listed right alongside all of the regulars.

In some cases, you might even see sprint football listed in place of the regulars. Mansfield took the unprecedented step of dropping its Division II football team and adding a sprint football team. Though the on-the-field results have been lacking for Mansfield, the team’s support has been impressive:

Despite going 2-5 each of the last three seasons, Mansfield boasts the largest attendance in the league, McCloskey said. This past year’s Homecoming game against Navy drew more than 3,400 fans.

The student body and alums are “behind us 100 percent,” said Mansfield defensive end Paul Houseknecht. “Mansfield prides itself on its football.” (Columbia News Service)

Franklin Pierce and Post also have sprint football teams in lieu of standard varsity football. Is this a growing trend? The jury’s still out, but if this continues the league will surely grow in popularity.

Historically though, the league is more known for its impressive alumni base than its popularity on campuses. With elite academic and military institutions in the league, the sport may not produce NFL players, but it has a penchant for churning out successful people, including many doctors, lawyers, business big-wigs, military heroes, and even a U.S. President. Cornell coach Terry Cullen, who along with his late father Bob Cullen are royalty in the sport, said as much in an NYT article on the sport:

“We’ve got a whole bunch of C.E.O.’s that played for us, a lot of big-time lawyers,” Cullen said. “I’ve coached, I think, 70 M.D.’s. We average about three or four kids that go to medical school every year.” (NYT)

Some notable sprint football alums include President Jimmy Carter (Navy), Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots (Columbia), and Donald Rumsfeld, former Secretary of Defense (Princeton).

In many ways, Sprint Football players are the quintessential example of true student-athletes. The athletes have to meet the same academic standards as all other students to receive admission to their respective universities. There are no scholarships and there is very little to no recruiting. Also, the season is fairly short (September to early November), so players have ample time to focus on their academics.

In an era of college sports where we often hear stories of players getting arrested, doing drugs, or not taking academics seriously, sprint football offers a refreshing reprieve from the madness. Sports like sprint football, that shape good people instead of just good players, should be celebrated. And coaches like Terry Cullen, who emphasize good character over a destructive win-at-all-costs mentality, are worthy of our praise.

I just have one simple ask: if you happen to be near any of the 8 sprint football playing schools, consider checking out a game or two. While you’ll probably only be one of a few hundred fans there (every fan truly counts in this sport), you’ll watch a unique, enjoyable game of football. And who knows? You may be watching a future president. Wouldn’t that be cool?

More on Sprint Football:

Columbia News Service: http://columbianewsservice.com/2012/03/smaller-players-sprint-to-new-football-teams/
New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/15/sports/ncaafootball/15sprint.html?_r=3&oref=slogin&oref=slogin
Sports Illustrated: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1005757/index.htm
NFL Films Special: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCliUYT6PQc

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LaRue Robinson

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