By Jon Hart, Guest Contributor
John Alex will never forget that cold October rain, the Baker Field mud, and the moment that last-second field goal attempt fell short nearly 27 years ago.
Yes, alas, The Streak was over.
After losing 44 consecutive games, the Columbia football team had finally won, defeating Princeton, 16-13. “Afterwards, it was bizarre,” recalls Alex, the captain of that 1988 Columbia team. “It was a relief more than anything else.”
Now, as Columbia endures yet another epic losing streak, 24 games to be exact, Alex is providing a different kind of much-needed relief to thousands across the globe. Just over ten years ago, he started United Aid Foundation, a non-profit, which provides immediate disaster assistance. “We don’t take any salaries. Our overhead is minimal. We don’t have PR people. We have zero people on staff,” explains Alex. “If you want to know where your dollar is going, if you want to give it to me and know what I’m buying with it and get a picture of me doing or giving it, it’s direct.”
A native of Overland Park, Kansas, a Kansas City suburb, Alex grew up winning football games – and with a strong moral compass. If someone didn’t have a Thanksgiving meal, the Alex clan delivered one. “I don’t have any religious advocacy or anything like that,” Alex explains. “I’m one of five kids. I know we were expected to help people that couldn’t help themselves or being bullied or whatever.That was always the way we grew up.”
When Alex, an all-state player, arrived at Columbia, he was unimpressed with the team. But he shouldn’t have been surprised. While Columbia has one of the oldest football programs in the country and actually won the Rose Bowl in 1934, the school’s perennial loser status on the gridiron was and remains well known. The Lions last won an Ivy League title in 1961. “Other than our class, there wasn’t a lot of talent,” Alex recalls. “You got to have a few horses.” Then, Ivy League freshmen weren’t allowed to play varsity or attend preseason training, but Alex heard stories about then Columbia coach Jim Garrett, a famously fiery individual. At Blair Academy, Garrett put the team through six a day workouts, plus weight training. Garrett surrounded the field with cars and turned their headlights on, so the team could practice in the dark. “He had convinced the upperclassmen they were going to be playing Notre Dame,” says Alex. “He convinced me too.”
In Columbia’s debut against Harvard, the hard work seemed to pay off.
The Lions held a stunning 17 point lead deep into the third quarter.
Unfortunately, the Lions were shut out the rest of the way, and Harvard scored seven consecutive touchdowns, winning 49-17. In the post-game press conference, Garrett blasted his team, specifically the punter, and unforgettably referred to his players as “drug-addicted losers.” Alex says that the devastating loss was due more to the career-ending injury of defensive lineman, human wrecking ball Tony Tutrone, than the team’s psyche. Columbia didn’t win a single game that season, and Garrett stepped down at season’s end. Larry McElreavy took over, but the results were the same. Simply, Coach Mac needed more horses. “It’s frustrating. It’s depressing, but I haven’t had a week yet that I haven’t thought we could win if we played our game,” Alex told The Spectator, Columbia’s student paper. “If I thought we couldn’t win, I wouldn’t play.” As the losses continued to mount, Alex volunteered at the YMCA in Harlem, assisting with after school programs.
In Alex’s junior year, Columbia got some horses. Columbia’s freshman team – fueled by two promising running backs Solomon Johnson and Greg Abbruzzese – went undefeated.
In the fourth game of Alex’s senior year, staring down loss Number 45, Columbia faced Ivy League preseason favorite Princeton, who featured some familiar, formidable faces. Two of Coach Garrett’s sons, Jason and Judd, who had transferred from Columbia to Princeton after their father departed the program, were key components for the Tigers.(Both would go on to play in the NFL.)
Game day at Wien Stadium was cold, rainy, and muddy. Columbia mostly kept it on the ground – and mostly gave it to the Swampscott, Massachusetts bred Abbruzzese. In a way, Abbruzzese was an underdog on a team of team underdogs. When Coach Mac visited his high school, Exeter, he was there to recruit other players. Against Princeton, Abbruzzese ran with a vengeance, and his senior-laden offensive line, the anonymous, under-appreciated grunts – Pete Davis, Bill McGee, Jim Taylor, Bennie Seybold, Paul Childers, and John Sharkey – matched his efforts. Alex, a converted, undersized linebacker, was brought in to block on short yardage situations. In all, Abbruzzese ran 37 times for 182 yards, his longest run being 15 yards. “It was a very physical game,” says Abbruzzese now. “They were big guys.”
At half-time, Columbia was down once again, 10-9. It wasn’t like the movies in the Columbia locker room. Coach Mac didn’t make a Rockne-esque speech. He simply told his team to pick it up. And the Lions did. With five minutes and 13 seconds remaining, and the Lions down 13-9, Johnson ran two yards for a touchdown.
Princeton, more specifically, the Garretts, wouldn’t go away.
With just a few seconds remaining, Princeton attempted a 48 yard field goal to tie the game. Alex fondly recalls the demeanor of defensive lineman Mark Zielinski, an ardent anti-Apartheid protester who had two huge sacks in the game, just before the attempt. “He was going bat shit, yelling at Princeton, and yelling at their kicker.” recalls Alex. “’There’s no way you’re going to make this kick!’”
Zielinski needed this. All the Columbia players did. The Columbia players had been labeled losers – and worse. There was a well-documented, anonymous letter to The Spectator alleging steroid use and a controversy that a number of players had been admitted with substandard academic records, among other things. At times, portions of the Columbia community didn’t seem to really want a want a football team. Quidditch? Maybe. Football, tackle football, not so much. “I felt like we were the whipping boy for every cause du jour,” recalls Alex.
The kick wasn’t even close, at least ten yards short.
After five years of failure, The Streak, the bane of their existence, was over. Alex could exhale. Zielinski could bellow in euphoria. Coach Mac confirmed several times that the time had expired and wept openly. He was far from the only one. The Lions embraced and piled on top of one another. The Lions mascot took off his costume head and joined in. Columbia’s President scrambled to find his team’s locker room, where Alex was reunited with Coach Garrett, and they embraced.
“He said ‘you should be in the pros,’” Alex recalls.
Many in the homecoming crowd, which had increased as the game wore on, stormed the field, and the goal posts were taken down and paraded around. They were somehow transported via the subway to Columbia’s campus, where the closed off streets were flooded with celebrators. Columbia brought pizza and beer for all, including those that had embraced Columbia’s perennial loser status. Perhaps they figured that it enhanced their school’s academic ranking. Amidst the celebration, Alex kept alive the memory of a lost friend, assistant coach Bill Narduzzi, who succumbed to Hodgkins disease earlier in the year. At the post-game press conference, Alex wore a “Duz” patch on his shirt and a headband with “One for the Duzzer” printed on it. “Somewhere,” Alex told the reporters. “I know “Duz” is smiling.”
Following the game, Abbruzzese was gracious in victory, giving ample credit to his teammates. He was also defiant, demanding more Ws. “The streak starts now!” Abbruzzese memorably declared at the time.
But that was not to be.
Columbia managed to win just one more game that season, the finale against Brown. Regardless, they’d always have that glorious day in the Baker Field mud.
And then it was back to reality.
Alex graduated, got a job as an assistant at Merrill Lynch. Two years later, he started his own firm. After 9/11, his moral compass kicked into another gear, and he volunteered in Jersey City, New Jersey. When the tsunami hit Sri Lanka and Indonesia in 2005, his sister, a Kansas City broadcaster, invited him to join her relief team. When Alex returned, he started United Aid and raised over $100,000. He wound up rebuilding three villages, helping more than 2,000 people in the ravaged Tamil area of Sri Lanka.
Since, United Aid, which consists of about 10-15 core volunteers, including Alex’s two sisters and nephew, has helped thousands more, from Haiti to Louisiana to Nepal, where Alex visited this past July for a ten day mission. It was imperative to deliver tin sheet metal, to be used as roofs, and metal frames before monsoon season. They wound up building over twenty houses Alex says. In addition to housing, United Aid contributes food, medical supplies, and treatment.
Along the way, several Columbia players have made plays for United Aid. Quarterback Chris Della Pietra wrote a rousing letter asking for support. Defensive lineman Sean Fuller was right by Alex’s side when he went down to help with Katrina. Defensive end Paul Tomasi quietly but quite effectively contributes funding. There are countless others.
Alex is hopeful that Columbia, which has a new leader, former Penn coach Al Bagnoli, can turn things around on the field. The current Columbia players weren’t alive for The Streak, but they’ve certainly heard about it. Meanwhile,Alex has bigger things on his mind. In addition to disaster relief, Alex has adopted a Romanian orphanage.
It’s half-time for John Alex, give or take. At Columbia, Alex won two football games. After, Alex has saved countless lives.
John Alex and Columbia football are winning.
Jon Hart is the author of Man versus Ball: One Ordinary Guy and His Extraordinary Sports Adventures, www.manversusball.com. Find him on Twitter @ManVersusBall and Facebook https://www.facebook.com/ManversusBall.