On this particular afternoon “The Voice of Franklin Field” is hoarse. It’s been a long, hot summer for John C.T. Alexander, who for the past 49 years has announced the first downs, tackles and touchdowns at Penn’s home games, and he blames air conditioning for the scratch in his throat.
Nonetheless, Alexander assures that he will be clear-voiced and ready to roll on Sept. 18, when the Penn Quakers play their first home game against Lafayette College. As always, the contest will begin with his melodious, “Heeeere they come!” ushering the players onto the field. And that familiar phrase will mark the beginning of Alexander’s final season at the microphone. After five decades, 247 games and thousands of miles of travel to get to the stadium from places as far as Kyrgyzstan, Alexander is ready to retire.
“It’s important for people to know when it’s time to leave, when they’ve done a decent job and when it’s time to pass the gavel,” he says. “Fifty years seemed like a nice milestone.”
When he says 50 years it sounds like a trifle. But consider this: When Alexander announced his first game in 1960, John F. Kennedy was not yet president, astronauts were years away from walking on the moon, the Cold War was raging and the Beatles were a fledgling band playing in Hamburg, Germany.
Alexander, a 1956 graduate of Wharton, has been a football fan for as long as he can remember. He played guard on his high school team in Ridley Park, Pa., but knew he wouldn’t cut it at the college level. Instead, he participated from the sidelines as head cheerleader during his student days at Penn.
After graduation, Alexander served for two years in the U.S. Marine Corps, and then went to work in a variety of enterprises in international business, education and public service. He was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to direct the U.S. Information Agency’s international visitors program, and was appointed by President George H.W. Bush to be part of the Department of Education’s Center for International Education.
The job as football announcer came unexpectedly, he says. “When I returned from the Marines, a fraternity brother of mine, Ed Fabricius, was working as the sports information director [at Penn],” he remembers. “Ray Dooney was the voice at Franklin Field at the time. He left to become the coach at Penn Charter, and Ed asked me if I wanted to be the voice.”
Since then, Alexander has taken the volunteer weekend job seriously, sometimes making Herculean efforts to get back to campus for a game. In nearly half a century, he has missed only three.
“For eight years, I traveled to about 31 countries and I would make it back to announce the games,” he says. “The most challenging time was when I was in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and I had to get back for a Saturday game.”
Alexander has told this story many times before, and spins it with practiced relish. He started the return trip on a Thursday, he explains, but the Aeroflot plane that he was scheduled to take was out of fuel. So he got himself to Kazakhstan, caught a plane to Moscow, took a taxi across that city to a different airport to hop on a flight to New York and then jumped on a train to Philadelphia.
“I got to Franklin Field about 30 minutes before the start of the game,” he says.
Until recently, when the press box was moved to a roomier location in the upper stands, Alexander would climb all of the 86 steps to the second tier, where his microphone awaited. In the mid 1970s, Alexander’s then 12-year-old son, John, began accompanying him, and over the decades became his father’s chief assistant.
“When he was about 20, he started being my spotter, indicating for me who is carrying the ball and who made the tackles,” Alexander says. Later, The Voice’s daughter, Linda Alexander Rocca, joined the two men, as the backup spotter.
Now that his father is stepping down, John Alexander, a 1987 Penn grad, hopes to inherit the job. He will try out for the position by announcing the first half of the game against Dartmouth on Oct. 2. It will be his fourth time at the microphone—he announced the three games his father missed over the past half century.
“Franklin Field is my home away from home,” he says.
The elder Alexander has over the years seen many joyous victories, tearful losses and changing trends both on and off the field. He watched as some students refused to sing the national anthem during the Vietnam War. He witnessed the rise of the tradition of tossing toast onto the field.
“One of the most poignant moments was the Saturday after John F. Kennedy was assassinated,” Alexander explains. “I had to ask people to rise in a moment of silence, and then I asked myself, ‘How do I end it?’ Do you say ‘amen’ or do you say ‘thank you?’ I said ‘thank you.’’’
But perhaps the most exciting moment that Alexander remembers occurred in the final seconds of the Nov. 13, 1982 Ivy League Championship game against Harvard. With only three seconds left on the clock, and Penn down 20 to 21, Penn player Dave Shulman attempted a 38-yard field goal. The kick strayed to the left as the final seconds ticked away. It appeared as if Harvard had clinched the title. But, Alexander says, there was a flag on the play. A penalty was called against Harvard, granting Shulman a second try. This time the ball sailed straight through the uprights, and Penn won the championship for the first time since 1959.
“The crowd went wild,” Alexander says, “and I think the goal post ended up in the Schuylkill River.”
Calling hundreds of games has taught Alexander the beauty of brevity. It has, he says, schooled him well on how to convey complicated ideas quickly and clearly: a skill that he says he has employed often in public speaking. It’s also made him unable to watch any football game on television without commenting on it during play, he adds with a chuckle.
Alexander will be recognized for his 50 years of announcing during a special halftime presentation on Oct. 2, when Penn plays Dartmouth. The final home game, against Harvard on Nov. 13, will be Alexander’s last and he already knows it will be an emotional moment. But, he says, he’s ready to go.
What will he do with his free Saturdays?
“Well,” he muses, “maybe the grass will get cut.”
Originally published on September 16, 2010