‘Become a Football Star, It’s Your Only Chance’

Jack Kerouac

The Columbia Lions arrive at the Yale Bowl today for their annual football game with the Bulldogs. Since competing in the second collegiate football game in 1870, Columbia authors an uneventful pigskin narrative, and not just relative to the opponent they presently face.

Whereas Yale claims 27 national championships, football founding father Walter Camp, and the credit for changing the rugby scrum into downs from scrimmage, Columbia merely played in the first game in which the athletes decided to kick the ball above the goal rather than into it (hence the “H” goalpost). Columbia banned the rough game in the late 1880s, only to return at the end of the next decade with tramp athletes who embarrassed the Ivy League school by knowing its fields far more than its classrooms. When a committee assembled by Columbia University President Nicholas Butler in 1905 decided that “the present game of football should be abolished,” they spoke less from a concern for the catastrophic injuries unleashed by the game than from the injuries to the school’s pride inflicted on the gridiron.

Although victorious in 2012, the Lions have lost four of the last five head-to-head meetings with Yale. Boasting few historic wins outside of their 1934 Rose Bowl victory, Columbia holds a dismal 19-69-2 resume versus Yale. Columbia ended a 24-game losing streak with a victory over Wagner earlier this season. They enter today’s contest against 4-2 Yale at 1-5—the Lions’s best record since 2012.

Given the series imbalance, New Haven rarely gets amped up for Columbia visiting the way they will for Harvard coming to town next month. Yet, an interesting football footnote points to Yale nearly embracing a Columbia player long before the English departments of both schools did.

In 1941, when Jack Kerouac boarded a bus for New Haven, the Columbia running back never stopped at the Yale Bowl. Shamed for arriving at training camp a day late and subsequently botching Columbia Coach Lou Little’s misdirection plays, Kerouac quit football in early fall just as Columbia had done many falls before. “As if I joined football for ‘deception,’ for God’s sake,” Kerouac wrote.

Ditching Columbia, Kerouac hopped buses and trains as far south as Washington, DC, and “joyed like a maniac.” After quickly evaporating his savings, the college dropout moved in with his parents in West Haven and became a workingman. But halfway through his first shift making tires at a rubber plant, Kerouac walked off site and never returned. Leo Kerouac demanded that Jack rejoin the Columbia team, believing football the family life raft.

Jumping a train for Hartford, Kerouac rented a room on Main Street and “went off to work in oily overalls” as a gas station attendant instead. Drinking cheap beer, eating steaks, and meeting a young woman behind the Pratt-Whitney plant in East Hartford, Kerouac found tomfoolery in evening. But behind a desk in a well-lit bedroom, Kerouac glacially discovered his calling.

Pumping gas on Thanksgiving Day, Kerouac missed family dinner and spent the rest of the holiday typing and swatting cockroaches in his bedroom. When his childhood friend barged in later that evening, he burst into tears at the harsh descent of his Ivy League chum. “Go back to New York, become a football star, it’s your only chance,” begged Leo Kerouac.

Fueling cars bound for better places by day, Kerouac traveled his wild imagination at night. Finally unfettered by football, Kerouac became a literary legend. Behind a rented Underwood typewriter, the author of On The Road pieced together his first worthwhile collection of short stories. Fittingly, he titled them Atop an Underwood.

“Then, as now, I was proud that I had written something at least,” wrote Kerouac. “A writer’s life is based on things like that.”

If he had completed his football pledge, Kerouac would have made his Columbia debut at Yale when the series between the mismatched ivies resumed in 1943. Arriving in Connecticut two years early, Jack Kerouac became a writer instead.

Follow Sean Flynn on Twitter @coachsflynn


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