Pigskin players perform in the NFL

A lot of things make Yale a great place to go to college. First off, there’s the academics. Next, there’s the residential college system, which provides the best collegiate housing in the country. Then there’s the fact that Yale is not Harvard, which is always good. But if you’re a die-hard football fan like me, there’s an even better reason why the home of the Bulldogs is the best place to go to college.

Yale is the birthplace of pigskin.

Yale, dismissed by most of America as an elite brain trust, is the hallowed ground where football was born. Walter Camp, from the class of 1880 and the patron saint of football, bled Yale blue and white. Now, I know you may have already known that, but I want you to know something else.

Yale is still pumping out players capable of performing on the highest level.

While Yale football may have dropped off the Division I-A radar, the Bulldogs made an impact on the NFL in 2001.

First there’s the story of Eric “E.J.” Johnson ’01. The recipient of Yale’s version of “The Catch” against Harvard in 1999, E.J. had a great year catching passes for the Bulldogs in 2000. In the off-season, Johnson bulked up and worked on his blocking after scouts told him his only chance at playing in the NFL would come as tight end and not his native wide receiver. His hard work paid off on draft day when the San Francisco 49ers selected him in the seventh round. While the seventh round may not sound so impressive, the San Francisco Press dubbed Johnson “Bill Walsh’s son” because of the general manager’s desire to draft him. That desire proved well-warranted, as Johnson started 14 games for the 49ers in 2001.

Although E.J. was one of the most memorable Elis to come out of New Haven in the last 20 years thanks to “The Catch,” he was not the first Bulldog drafted in 2001. That honor fell to Than Merrill ’01, whom the Buccaneers drafted in the seventh round, one pick ahead of Johnson. Together, the two were the first Elis drafted by the NFL since 1982. A tenacious hitter during his tenure at Yale, Merrill was cut by the Buccaneers after training camp. He would not be unemployed for long, however, as the Chicago Bears snatched him off waivers. The Bears’ head coach, none other than ex-Eli tailback Dick Jauron ’73, gave Merrill another chance. Merrill flourished as a special-teamer for Jauron, as Da Bears stormed to the top of the NFC Central division.

From Camp to Jauron, Yale’s football heritage is legendary. Thanks to Johnson and Merrill, that tradition of excellence continues today at the professional level. This fall, as you adjust to Yale life, in the midst of going to classes, meeting people, cheering on the Elis at the historic Yale Bowl and all the other activities you’ll participate in, make sure you take some time on Sundays to appreciate the sons of Eli who compete on football’s biggest stage.

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