1979 Football Team

Introduction of 1979 Football Team, presented by Jay Civetti, Tufts Head Football Coach

It’s such an honor for me be up here talking about one of the most special teams in the history of Tufts Athletics. For this award, we are going back 43 years to 1979. And to give you a frame of reference, let me give a sense of what was going on in the world that year.

Well….

I was born.

Annual inflation in the US was high (11.2%), interest rates were climbing (15%), gas prices were surging (86 cents/gallon), and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.

I guess things haven’t changed that much.

But on lighter note, 1979 was the year ESPN launched, Pink Floyd released “The Wall”, and the Sony Walkman went on sale.

Number 1 songs that year included “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy,” “My Sharona,” and “The Pina Colada Song”.

And the number 1 team in NESCAC football in 1979?? It was the Tufts Jumbos!

In truth, the prologue for the remarkable story of the 1979 Tufts football team was written during the season before. On October 21, 1978, with a live elephant on the sidelines for Tufts Homecoming game, the Jumbos shutout Williams 7-0 thanks to an outstanding defensive performance and a 44-yard touchdown pass from Dennis Works to Tracey Maclin. However, the joy of victory that day was crushed with 1:21 remaining in the game. On a late game tackle, standout Jumbo linebacker Jim Ford wrenched his spinal chord and dislocated the fourth vertebra in his neck. A deafening silence settled over the Oval as Jim lay motionless on the field. Fortunately, because of the quick response of Dr. Stuart Belkin and Tufts trainer Mark Doughtie, Jim was stabilized and taken to the hospital.

Sitting in the locker room after the game, the victorious Tufts team was stunned by uncertainty and fear that their teammate might be paralyzed. That same day, team captains Bob Lederman and Terry Richards both suffered serious knee injuries and were taken to the hospital.

Looking back on that afternoon, All-American quarterback Chris Conners once reflected, "I'll never forget that time when we were in the locker room after the Williams game in '78. It just didn't seem like we could ever win another game with what we had left.”

But as you have heard several examples of over the course of tonight, the Jumbos tend to respond to adversity with perseverance, resilience and grit. And that is exactly what this Jumbo football team did.

Owning a 1-3 record prior to the Williams game, the 1978 team rallied around its fallen leaders and won its final four contests to finish 5-3. And a couple of months later, Jim Ford walked out of the New England Medical Center in February. It was that momentum and indomitable spirit that set the tone for 1979.

Head Coach Vic Gatto said, "There's no question [the accident] really brought us together as a group. It's not something any of us would have wanted, obviously, but the positive outcome of it was as a team everybody bonded around Jim's accident. We talked about playing up to Jim's standards."

With Jim Ford serving as a team captain along with Bob Littlefield and Gary Heffernan, the Jumbos began their 1979 campaign with a win of the coin toss and a hard-fought 20-12 victory at Wesleyan. After a couple of dominant home wins over Hamilton 53-21 and Middlebury 35-13, the Jumbos would face their biggest challenge of the season against Norwich. As was their team tradition, the Jumbos jogged around the campus of #4-ranked Norwich prior to the game, and the verbal abuse heaped upon them by the Norwich cadets made clear who the underdogs were.

Although the Jumbos won their 4th coin toss in a row, they fell behind 19-3 in the second quarter of Norwich game.

Coach Gatto changed the team’s run-blocking scheme at halftime, and Nick Rossetti and Tom Levesque combined to rush for nearly 300 yards that day. The defense shut down Norwich’s offense in the second half. The Jumbos scored 11 points in the fourth quarter, including a clutch 32-year field goal from Mark Litner with 1:54 remaining to win it for the Jumbos.

After the Norwich game, the Jumbos kept winning coin tosses…and games. They shutout Williams 30-0, knocked off Amherst 35-21 and shutout Colby 20-0. And on November 10 at Lewiston, Maine, once they won their 8th coin toss of the year, they knew their perfect season was inevitable – they crushed the Bobcats in the season finale to end 8-0!

The 1979 Jumbos outscored their opponents by almost 20 points per game. Reflective of a team skilled on both sides of the ball, their combined margin of victory over the last four games was 120-28. And the win over Bates was the 12th victory in a row, a winning streak that certainly didn’t seem possible in that Homecoming locker room after the Williams game in 1978.

The 1979 Jumbos are forever in our record books as just one of three Tufts football teams to go undefeated. The way this special and talented group of Jumbos came together and responded to adversity resulted in one of the proudest moments in Tufts Athletics history. And tonight, we celebrate this incredible team by inducting them into the Tufts Athletics Hall of Fame.