The Voice of Franklin Field
|On one of the hottest days of the summer, an old man begins an arduous climb to the top of the country’s oldest two-tiered stadium. His son bounds ahead, hopping two steps at a time. “I love it,” the son says, beaming. “I always run up.”
The old man, continuing to will his legs forward, responds dryly. “I never run up.”
When the two men arrive at their destination, the only sign of life is a lone carpenter bee, chipping away at beaten-up walls that have seen the fists of far too many football coaches over the years. The old man wriggles through the narrow corridor, avoids the piles of sawdust lying in the corner, and picks up a phone that looks like it might be as old as the 88-year-old stadium. “Hey John,” he says, pointing to the receiver. “It’s for you.”
The son gives an amused look as if to say Very funny, Dad. Then they both gaze out at the Philadelphia skyline and share stories about their life inside the deteriorating Franklin Field press box (which became a coaches box when the new press digs opened two seasons ago). Only a few moments ago did it occur to them that this might be their last time here together.
At the end of this football season, John Charles Thompson Alexander W’56, better known as C.T., or, more aptly, “The Voice,” will retire as the Penn football team’s public address announcer at Franklin Field. It’s a job he’s proudly held for 49 years, through ups, downs and, most recently, a move from the cramped press box to the more spacious but less homey upper stands two seasons ago.
For 30 of those years, his son, John Curtis Tripner Alexander C’87 (who just goes by John), has worked alongside him as the spotter, calling out players’ numbers as his father scans the roster and announces the plays. Another one of his children, Linda Alexander Rocca, has spotted for the past eight years, rounding out their very own Franklin Field team. “I consider this,” C.T. says, “my home away from home.”
He’s also considered it less of a job than a labor of love. But with each passing year, the labor becomes more burdensome; the top of the stadium appears to get higher. It made sense to make his 50th season the final one. “It’s time,” the 76-year-old Wharton alum says. “You have to know when to walk away.”
From his perch high above Franklin Field, C.T. has witnessed Penn football in all of its glory and frustration. Times were lean in the ’60s and ’70s as the Quakers tumbled far from their place among the nation’s best. But starting in 1982, Penn captured 13 of the next 27 Ivy League crowns, culminating in their championship last fall. To this day, C.T. says his call of the 1982 title-clinching win over Harvard—when Dave Shulman W’84 was given a second chance at victory after his missed, last-second field goal attempt was negated by a roughing-the-kicker penalty—was by far the most suspenseful and dramatic.
There were poignant non-football moments, too. From the assassination of President John F. Kennedy to the attacks of September 11, C.T. has often felt a pit in his stomach when asking fans to observe a moment of silence. But he never let his emotions get the better of him and always stayed true to his pre-game rituals, which included gargling before every contest. And through it all, C.T. stayed true to the age-old mantra: No cheering in the press box. Perhaps it’s a sign of his professionalism that the most flagrant mistake he ever made (according to him) doesn’t seem very flagrant at all. The trespass: announcing, “Penn’s ball first-and-10 at the Dartmouth 8” when he should have said, simply, “First-and-goal.”
“To announce each and every game during a season involves all sorts of discipline: commitment to a schedule, choice of the most efficient, most concise way to explain things, and the requirement of always being correct,” he says. “You have no chance to pull back the words spoken. It is so important to stay in character, control your emotions, and maintain professionalism on a consistent basis.”
His discipline also enabled him to balance a number of careers with his position at Penn. Alexander has been a ground officer in the Marines, a senior vice president at a bank, a contractor, and a federal government appointee by both President Ronald Reagan (as director of the U.S. Information Agency’s international voluntary visitors program) and President George H.W. Bush (as director of the Department of Education’s Center for International Education, where he allocated federal grant money to universities to offer esoteric languages). Those government jobs allowed him to travel the world, which was both a wonderful and worrisome experience—wonderful because he got to see more than 30 different countries, worrisome because he knew he always had to hurry back to his Franklin Field family (at least in the fall).
He says his most stressful moment came in 1994 when he had to rush home for a Penn-Yale game from Kyrgyzstan, via Kazakhstan, via Moscow, via Kennedy International Airport. (He made it.) And once, he escorted the Netherlands’ education minister, a former Olympic swimmer, to Franklin Field before listening to his son call the game over the loudspeaker. That was one of only three games in 50 years that he didn’t announce. He didn’t even miss any time after falling off a ladder at his Strafford home and fracturing his lumbar vertebrae. “He’s a Marine,” John says, tossing a what do you expect? look.
C.T.’s devotion to Penn football stems entirely from his passion for his alma mater. Neither he nor his son accepts any paychecks from the University, their reasoning being simple. “They would pay us some nominal amount but at some point we just said, ‘We don’t do it for the money,’” John says. “Just give us a parking pass and some complimentary tickets for our family and we’re fine.”
Coming out of college, C.T. never expected to have a lifelong affair with a loudspeaker. In fact, he never even did any P.A. announcing while he was an undergraduate. Which is ironic, because he did just about everything else. As a head cheerleader, fraternity president, squash manager, Sphinx Senior Society chief, and student assistant in the sports information office, he made his mark on the University in a variety of ways. But nothing ever beat going to a sold-out Franklin Field (with a Bloody Mary or a whiskey sour, which, he claims, were allowed at the time) and cheering on the powerful Quaker teams of the early 1950s against Navy, Notre Dame, and other prominent teams.
Knowing his appreciation for Penn football, sports information director Ed Fabricius C’55 asked C.T. in 1960 to take over as the P.A. announcer for Ray Dooney W’50, who left to coach football at Penn Charter. Fresh out of the Marines, C.T. gladly accepted, and he hasn’t given the microphone back since.
His raspy voice has taken a beating over the years. There have been times, he says, when he’d lose it in the middle of the games. But sitting next to his children has been all the medicine he’s needed over the past half-century. Ever since his son was first invited into the press box as a 12-year-old, the two have made a great team, quick to help each other out when the microphone was on and provide witty banter when it was off.
“Once I started spotting for him, I’d always joke that he’s the voice and I’m the eyes,” John says.
“He’s also the brain,” C.T. interjects.
John hopes to become the new voice and take over for his father next season, but as of now he’s only been told by the athletic department that he’ll be allowed to audition for the job. Whether he continues the Alexander family legacy or not, the last home contest of the 2010 season—Nov. 13 against Harvard—will be emotional for both father and son.
As he tries to envision what that final game will be like, on a scorching summer day inside an eerily empty press box, C.T. props his right foot up on a bench and looks at his son. He comes up with only this:
“I’ll cry,” he says. “And I’ll gargle.” —Dave Zeitlin C’03
| ©2010 The Pennsylvania
Last modified 8/25/10