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A Look Back at Emerson Athletics (with Whimsy and Affection)

Browsing through a sea of purple and gold apparel in the Emerson College bookstore, you’ll find cozy sweatshirts boasting the fierce Emerson Lion, T-shirts supporting the lacrosse team, and sweatpants emblazoned with signs of school spirit. You also might come across a shirt that reads, “Emerson Football: Undefeated since 1880.” You’ll ask yourself, Wait a second—does Emerson even have a football team? The answer is no. Emerson’s “football team” is undefeated because it has never existed. This tongue-in-cheek shirt (which was once worn on an episode of TV’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) is one manifestation of the school’s unique approach to athletics.

That’s not to say that athletes at Emerson don’t take sports seriously. They play just as hard as they work. Today, Emerson student-athletes are recognized for their academic prowess as well as for their athletic achievements. In 2016, the Emerson College women’s soccer team won the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) New England Championship—the first time in school history for a team in any sport. In addition, the women’s basketball team made the WBA 2015 Academic Team Honor Roll, making it its sixth consecutive year placing in the top 15. The softball and women’s lacrosse teams have also been honored for having the highest team GPAs in the nation for Division III.

The Emerson Lions Men's Basketball Team of 1955-1956.

The Emerson Lions Men’s Basketball Team of 1955-1956.

Emerson is also a member of the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference (NEWMAC). Honestly, athletics at Emerson hasn’t always been so prominent, organized, and well appointed. We asked a number of alumni who attended Emerson during earlier eras to recall their sometimes-whimsical athletic experiences.

Memories of Yore

In her day, Pat Masterson ’74, MA ’79, who was captain of the women’s basketball team, recalled: “In the early ’70s, we didn’t have many wins, but we had a lot of fun.”

Back then, student-athletes such as Masterson were strongly committed to their pursuit of fun—but, not having access to today’s Rotch Field or Bobbi Brown and Steven Plofker Gym, they had to get creative about where to practice and play.

The urban campus, cold weather, and busy schedules didn’t deter committed athletes: these factors only made them more creative and made for stronger bonds among team members.

An Emerson v. MIT men's basketball game, circa 1960s.

An Emerson v. MIT men’s basketball game, circa 1960s.

Masterson described finding space to practice as something akin to an adventure: “During the week, we’d trek across Boston Common from Beacon Street or Commonwealth Avenue in the snow or cold to practice at the BYMCU [Boston Young Men’s Christian Union], once in a while dodging a rat or two in the Common. The gym smelled like an old sweaty shirt, and there were always old-time members playing checkers who looked forward to talking to us.

“When Emerson Coach [Jim] Peckham would drop by, he’d have us run the stairs or do exercises. If we didn’t have enough players, we’d grab someone in the Student Union (this was before cell phones). We had patient and knowledgeable coaches like Coach Harris (also coach of the BU men’s team) and Coach Kathy Gerrior. The coach also drove the van to games, and we would sing songs like ‘Bennie and the Jets’ at the tops of our lungs. A teammate was hit in the face with the ball one night, and we all took the van to the Emergency Room. Imagine the ER staff looking at everyone in purple guiding a young woman who couldn’t see because her eyes were crossed. It was quite a time.”

Lowell Wayne ’68, who was captain of the men’s basketball team and worked as Coach Peckham’s assistant, remembers similar experiences with securing gym space and toughing it out during New England’s harsh winters. “We had no gym and practiced at 10:00 pm. That’s the only time that Jim Bradley, our coach, could get gym time.”

The team would eat at the erstwhile Muffin House after practice, so no one complained. “I remember a game in New Hampshire in the dead of winter, when the bus got lost,” he said. “We drove over a wooden bridge and I was sure we wouldn’t make it and wouldn’t be found until the spring thaw.”

Countless alumni from that era remember and speak fondly of James “Jim” Peckham, the longtime Emerson athletic director and Emerson wrestling coach, himself a USA Olympic wrestler. Art Roberts ’73, MA ’84, described Peckham, who died in August 2011, as a “bear of a man” with the “biggest hand I had ever shaken, the softest handshake, and bright, smiling blue eyes.”

Roberts had wrestled for just two years in high school, so he was worried about not being talented enough to make the team; but he nervously told Peckham that he wanted to wrestle for Emerson. The next day, wearing a full set of gear, he found himself “on the mat with Mike Connor ’71, the team captain, doing takedown after takedown, and getting the best one-on-one instruction any Emerson or Olympic wrestler could get.” Roberts remembers Peckham as one of the most important mentors he has ever had in his life. “I still have those letters he wrote to all his athletes twice a year at his desk on Beacon Street,” he said. “They are some of my most valued possessions.”

John Rigrod young and older in wrestling pose

John Rigrod ’66, then and now.

Before one wrestling match, the opposing team told the Emerson Lions that they did not have a wrestler at 137 pounds. “The way it worked,” said Rigrod, was “if we had someone ready to wrestle at that weight and the other team didn’t, Emerson would receive an automatic three points toward the team score.”

“Enter young Henry Winkler,” said Rigrod. “He had the right weight with just enough showmanship to pull it off. So Henry came down to a practice, was given a uniform, and was told to show up at the match, go to the center of the ring ready to wrestle, and take the victory by default. He did this magnificently, and the points were ours. Years later, I met Henry at an Emerson reunion and reminded him of his feat. It also occurred to me—and I told Henry—that he was one, if not the only, Emerson wrestler who, in his career, remained undefeated.” The Emerson Lions, back in the day, were not without their fans. Eleanor Brenner Glovinsky ’61 was a cheerleader for the basketball team, and has fond memories of a game that was played in the Garden prior to a Celtics game.

Another die-hard basketball fan, Louise “Thaw” Rosen ’70, accompanied her roommate, who was a cheerleader, to all of the games, both home and away. She recalled, “I became sort of a mascot, and at the end of the season, at an awards dinner and much to my surprise, I was given a gold charm of a megaphone engraved with the school name.”

A Peek into the Past

Explore more Athletics photos from the Archives below.

Before the Bobbi Brown and Steven Plofker Gym was built, athletes had to improvise. Women's volleyball, 1931.

Before the Bobbi Brown and Steven Plofker Gym was built, athletes had to improvise. Women’s volleyball, 1931.

 

No uniforms, no problem. Emerson students playing baseball in the 1970s.

No uniforms, no problem. Emerson students playing baseball in the 1970s.

 

Jim Peckham, longtime Emerson College athletic director, is surrounded by admiring students.

Jim Peckham, longtime Emerson College athletic director, is surrounded by admiring students.

 

A 1975 Emerson hockey player watches for the puck.

A 1975 Emerson hockey player watches for the puck.

 

A group of student-athletes show their school pride with matching jackets, circa 1970s.

A group of student-athletes show their school pride with matching jackets, circa 1970s.

 

Women's soccer players supporting each other both on and off the field in 1991.

Women’s soccer players supporting each other both on and off the field in 1991.

 

Students combining sports and comedy in 2004. 

Students combining sports and comedy in 2004. 


This post was originally published in the Winter 2016 issue of Expression, the magazine for alumni and friends of Emerson College.

Editor’s note: The original article mistakenly said actor Denis Leary ’79 was captain of the ice hockey team. While Mr. Leary is a notorious hockey fan, the staff was unable to confirm this previously reported fact, and this article has been amended.