One November afternoon in 1934, 11 members of Yale’s football team played all 60 minutes of the Bulldogs’ victory over rival Princeton, on both offense and defense — a feat that has not been duplicated in college football since.
“Yale defeated Princeton today by a score of 7-0,” began an article in the next day’s edition of The New York Times. “In that sentence is packed all the deep excitement of the most popular drama that football or any other sport knows, the rise of the man without a chance, the refusal of the underdog to play the role that has been assigned him.”
Yale’s defeat of Princeton, which had not lost in 15 games, won the Eli football players a moniker that would follow them throughout the rest of their lives: the Ironmen.
With the passing of the last remaining Ironman — starting linebacker Jim DeAngelis ’35, who died Dec. 26 at the age of 97 — there comes the passing of a period in the sport’s history marked by its original rugged and decidedly un-flashy style.
“The Ironmen signaled the end of an era,” said DeAngelis’ son and former Yale football player James P. DeAngelis ’65 ARC ’67. “It was a game that was a throwback to how the sport was initially conceived. You had men playing with passion as a team to overcome their opponent. It wasn’t commercialized and individualized like the game is today.”
DeAngelis’ life played out in ways not unlike that storied game of 73 years ago. The son of barely literate Italian immigrants in New Haven, DeAngelis had to struggle against adversity to succeed. He began helping to support his family as a 10-year-old by bagging sugar and potatoes at a grocery store.
DeAngelis attended Hillhouse High School at his mother’s insistence and was invited to attend Milford Prep to play football. Although he could not afford the private school’s steep tuition, Clarence Blakeslee, the prominent owner of a local construction company, bankrolled his education all the way through college.
So the underdog became a Bulldog.
More than 70 years later, despite the passing of the last Ironman, the legend and legacy of that underdog narrative lives on.
William Wallace ’45W, a former New York Times sportswriter and the author of “Yale’s Ironmen,” recalls attending the game at Princeton’s Palmer Stadium as a 10-year-old boy.
Yale was not favored to win the game, Wallace said — the 3-3 Bulldogs were going up against a Tigers squad that was rumored to be a possible contender in the Rose Bowl.
“The Ironmen were heroes, a bunch of typical Yale undergrads that coincidentally became heroes on that day,” he told the News in a phone interview.
The Bulldogs were aware of Princeton’s advantage from the moment they stepped on the field. In his book, Wallace recalled that after beholding the pack of 66 Tigers, DeAngelis asked the 28 Eli players, “What are they trying to do, scare us?”
But the Ironmen were not intimidated. The game ended 7-0, with Yale scoring the only points in the first quarter, when Princeton failed to capitalize on a number of drives and set the Bulldogs up for a “fake punt-and-pass” on third down.
DeAngelis snapped the ball to Jerry Roscoe ’35, Yale’s quarterback, to begin the play.
“The spiral wasn’t perfect, and it was a little higher than intended,” Roscoe said after the game, according to Wallace. “But [Larry] Kelley [’37] jumped high at the 25-yard line, extended his right arm up and trapped the ball with his right hand … grabbed it and was off, faking three Princetonians out of their shoes en route!”
Kelley, who went on to win the Heisman Trophy in 1936, ran 48 yards for the sole touchdown of the game.
Although the score remained frozen at 7-0 until the end, none of the Yale players came off the field until the final whistle blew — they were part of every block, tackle and fumble recovery.
“It never occurred to the coaches that they would be playing for the whole game,” Wallace said. “There was really no particular reason for them to play the entire time. They just went from one play to another.”
Assistant coach Earle “Greasy” Neale decided to end the game with the same 11 players he started with when end Robert “Choo-Choo” Train ’35 suffered a hard blow and coach Raymond “Ducky” Pond ’25 made an appeal to Neale to take Train out of the game.
“Let him go,” Neale said, waving his player back on to the field. “The hell with it. Let 11 men beat them.”
The next morning, sports fans began their days reading about the hard-fought victory in The New York Times.
The Depression may have been putting a squeeze on many Americans’ pocketbooksa, but Yale and Princeton played to a sold-out crowd of 53,000. The Yale-Princeton contest’s attendance was second only to the 68,000 people who showed up for the Michigan-Ohio State faceoff.
“I guess people just wanted to get their troubles off their mind,” Roscoe explained after the game, according to Wallace.
DeAngelis continued to pursue his passion for football after the era of the Ironmen ended, serving for several years as an assistant coach at Yale, the University of Toledo, the University of Nebraska and the University of Washington. DeAngelis’ last public event was last November’s Harvard-Yale game, his son said.