Gustavson Column: Once a Leopard, always a Leopard

12/08/2014 7:00 AM |
Lafayette quarterback George Hossenlopp (No. 11) was the most valuable player in his school's 100th football game versus Lehigh in 1964. The game ended in a 6-6 tie. (Credit: Layfayette College)

Lafayette quarterback George Hossenlopp (No. 11) was the most valuable player in his school’s 100th football game versus Lehigh in 1964. The game ended in a 6-6 tie. (Credit: Layfayette College)

In another day and age, George Hossenlopp and I might’ve been college football teammates. Instead, in this day and age, we ended up neighbors.

We’ve lived around the corner from one another for years, but it wasn’t until Nov. 20, when I read an article in The New York Times sports section, that I realized he was a genuine football hero. 

Our lives might have intersected some 50 years ago, when we both played on New Jersey state championship high school football teams, but he ended up going to Lafayette College in Easton, Penn., and I turned down an offer to attend Lafayette in order to attend the University of Pennsylvania, down the river in Philadelphia.

Our college football careers also took decidedly different courses. Mine ended in my junior year, when I switched over to rugby; his ended in stardom when, as starting quarterback in 1964, he was named the most valuable player of the 100th game between Lafayette and Lehigh, which ended in a 6-6 tie.

Fast-forward half a century to Nov. 22, 2014, and the 150th game between the two schools, when 71-year-old George Hossenlopp once again was the center of attention. Only this time the game wasn’t played before a few thousand fans in Easton, it was played before 48,000 fans at Yankee Stadium in New York City on the Saturday before Thanksgiving.

“Hoss,” as he was known in college and still is referred to by family and old friends, was invited to participate in the coin toss ceremony before the game. Once he got on the field, in front of those 48,000 spectators, he was interviewed on the stadium’s Jumbotron video screen along with Joe Maddon (Lafayette ’76), recently named manager of Major League Baseball’s Chicago Cubs.

In case you’re wondering, Lehigh won the coin toss. But that’s about all the Mountain Hawks won that Saturday. The Lafayette Leopards prevailed, 28-7, and “the game wasn’t even that close,” according to Hoss.

When I sat down with him recently in his kitchen in Orient, I grilled him about both the past (his college years) and present (his retirement years).

After graduating in 1961 from Nutley High School in New Jersey, he chose Lafayette over the bigger schools that recruited him — including Auburn, Navy and Oklahoma — mostly because his older brother went to Lafayette and because the smaller school allowed him to play both football and baseball. In fact, as a catcher, he played in the Division I College World Series, when Lafayette was ranked 9th in the country.

But it was the 1964 football game versus Lehigh that he recalls most vividly.

He told The Other Times: “It was the game. The feeling is you can lose every game and beat Lehigh and have a successful season.”

The 1964 rivalry game was tied, 6-6, in the middle of the fourth quarter when Lafayette had a first down on Lehigh’s four-yard line. Hoss said he hadn’t thought about the game much until the Class of 1965’s 45th reunion four years ago.

“Quarterbacks called their own plays back then,” he said. “I should have thrown the ball. We ended up inches short. This past month, I’ve thought about it a lot, as you can imagine.”

These days, Hoss and his wife, Linda, divide their time between their homes in Orient and Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., where he’s traded in football and baseball for golf. They have three grown children and six grandchildren, several of whom they shared Thanksgiving dinner with at the Orient home of their daughter’s in-laws, Ted and Irene Webb.

But on the day we talked, the day before Thanksgiving, Hoss’s thoughts still were on that 150th anniversary game, not to mention the one 50 years before that.

“Going back, it was like time stood still,” he said. “It was very heartwarming to see people and to remember the fun we had at school, to share their lives again.”

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