Reliving Penn Glory
"Everybody has a different story," jokes Dr. Norbert Sander. "We’re four guys and there are four different versions of how it happened.
"And I guess that's logical. After all, it's been 50 years."
The one thing not subject to debate is that 'Doc' Sander — and his three undersung Fordham University teammates, Matteo Cucciarra, Joe McGovern and Tom Kenney — scored one of the biggest upsets in the 119-year history of the Penn Relays when they won the Championship of America college four-mile relay title in 16:42.7 at the then-still cinder-tracked Franklin Field in 1963, demolishing the prior Penn record of 17:11.3 — set four years earlier by Penn State — by a whopping 28.6 seconds.
They were saluted as Class of 2013 Wall of Fame honorees at a gala gathering at The Palestra Friday night, and they were saluted all over again — before the huge Franklin Field crowd — on a sun-splashed Saturday program at the classic Penn carnival.
It was the Oregon Ducks first in the 2013 four-mile relay, which honored the Fordham team — but their 16:17.57 was just 25.13 faster than those '63 Rams — on a track rated "at least a second faster per lap, maybe more than that, than Penn's old cinder track," by Cucciarra, and probably everyone else who was there.
"We were running against some great teams, some real powers," said Dr. Sander. "Teams like Michigan, Georgetown, Villanova, Seton Hall, Notre Dame.
"Fordham? Nobody gave us a chance."
Except perhaps famed Rams’ coach Artie O'Connor and his four baton-bearers. O'Connor gave anchorman Kenney a jolt of pre-race negative psychology,
"If you’re in it, stay with it," he allegedly told Kenney. "But if you're not in it, drop out and save yourself for the distance medley."
Kenney more than "stayed in it." He ran the fastest mile of his life — a 4:04.9, after an opening 58-second lap. Despite its immense prestige in the collegiate footracing game, over a long span of years heading into the 1963 Penn Relays, Fordham hadn’t won a Championship of America title since Olympic champion-to-be Tom Courtney, and teammates Bill Persichetty, Terrence Foley and Frank Tarsney — an eventual world-record quartet — took the two-mile relay final in 1954.
But, after adding the two-mile relay crown to its four-mile title in ’63, and adding another two-mile title in 1967, Fordham hasn ‘t won a "big one" at Penn In the ensuing 45 years.
So that epic ’63 win adds even greater luster with every passing edition of "the Penns."
"Holy Moses, Villanova was in shock when it was over, " said Dr. Sander. "Everybody else, too, I guess.
"It just was our day. Each of us probably ran the race of our lives. When Tom Kenney got the baton, though, we knew we were in good shape. He was our best man and we knew he was ready. All of us were, actually."
Sure enough, Kenney brought it home with his lifetime-best and the deed was done. "I remember, warming up, there was Villanova, they had those great runners, Tom Sullivan, Pat Traynor and Vic Zwolak," said Cucciarra.
So as the warming-up Wildcats pranced by, Cucciarra pointed fingers and said "jinx, jinx, jinx."
The magic touch apparently worked.
"The pace was real slow at the beginning, maybe a 2:08 first half," said Cucciarra. "We were just schlepping along. No one wanted to take it out, so I did, with 660 to go. "I was amazed when no one went by me. They were probably saying, 'Who are these guys?' And they didn’t seem to care, either."
Well, Cucciarra ran 4:15.0, Sander 4:12.2, McGovern 4:09.7 and Kenney did the rest. Fordham would add the two-mile title — Carmine DelGrosso, McGovern, Frank Tomeo and Kenney running 7:21.4 — and the Rams’ meet of all meets was complete.
Those ’63 champions have put their Fordham educations — and the knowledge that, on their day of days, they were the best of the best — to great work in the half-century that has flown by.
McGovern became financial planning director for a Seattle public utility. Kenney served as a special events director for the NYC Parks Department. Cucciarra is a Florida-based film maker and writer — his Cinema Island Productions Co. will do it "from creative vision to cinematic reality."
Son Daumantas Venckus-Cucciarra is hulking freshman end on the Iowa football team — who has already been nominated for the All-America "all name team."
Mrs. Violeta Cucciarra has had a busy career as a singer and actress. Formerly of Lithuania, the Ram grad’s wife is often kidded — "Matty went a long way to catch up to you."
And she kids back — "I made it easy for him to catch up, I came to the USA."
'Doc' Sander, of course, continues serving his sport in the noblest way — in his capacity as Executive Director of the Armory Track Foundation — keeping things humming non-stop at the former Washington Heights drillshed he did so much to transform from homeless shelter to indoor track palace and home of the National Track and Field Hall of Fame.
He stepped up from star collegian to NYC Marathon champion to the "the miracle worker of 168th Street."
But this weekend wasn't about any of this.
This was a weekend to step back in time — to reflect on the glory days of half a century back, days that to each of those rapid Rams continue to seem like yesterday.