Rams on the Gridiron
It’s a safe bet you’ll never see a televised college football game where the players sport black and gold and have “VCU” emblazoned on their chests. But once upon a time, decades ago, there was that shadow of a chance …

For $18, the Virginia Commonwealth University bookstore peddles a gray T-shirt that’s dubbed “the funniest shirt on campus.” It has a black pigskin design and this boastful message in silk-screen: “VCU FOOTBALL — STILL UNDEFEATED.”


Students and locals smell the inside joke a mile away. VCU does not have a football team, but it does have a president who years ago proclaimed the university could gain nothing by fielding a team. But for all its lighthearted acceptance of reality, the joke is, historically speaking, wrong.


The proof is in the yellowing pages of VCU’s student newspaper, the Commonwealth Times, in clippings from the local sports sections, and in the fading memories of some former students who played and witnessed VCU football.

Some 35 years ago, the VCU Rams, in truth, dashed and clashed on the gridiron. There were victories and losses. There were cheerleaders and homecomings and, for a few fleeting seasons, the chance to keep a dream alive.

 

The Burning Question

Bill Figart entered VCU as a 31-year-old freshman in the fall of 1969. He had been married for 10 years, and the oldest of his four children was 7.


Figart graduated from Manchester High School in 1956, and with his slicked-back hair, cuffed jeans and white T-shirt, he snarled in rebellion.


“I was a wild kid,” Figart says. “I liked to party.”


He’d held every job imaginable that was available at the time to young, able-bodied kids. He worked in warehouses, at the Wonder Bread Bakery and for Southern Biscuits. He sold cars. He was an auto mechanic. He served in the Marine Corps. It wasn’t until he turned 30 that Figart figured out what he wanted to do.


“I wanted to coach football,” he says, adding, “I was coaching the Pee Wee leagues and really enjoyed it. I wanted to be a head coach somewhere.”


So Figart did the natural thing and enrolled at VCU — a school that had never had a football program.


Figart majored in health and physical education, and during one of his classes he asked that burning question: “Why doesn’t VCU have football?”


Pretty quickly, the flicker of an idea became a fire in Figart’s belly. “I talked to some guys in the physical-education department and being the oldest and most mature, I wanted to figure a way to do it,” Figart says. “I found out about club football and wrote to different schools that had it.”


Figart gathered research, wrote a proposal and presented it to the school’s student government. While he waited for a decision, Figart and fellow students Paul Williams and Bobby Sprouse drove to a national club-football convention at Fordham University.


The trio didn’t know what to expect. But when they left, they had scheduled six games for the 1970 season with D.C. Teachers College, Gallaudet University, Catholic University, Nicholls State and Federal City College (University of the District of Columbia).


“We were terrified driving back and asking ourselves, ‘What have we done?’ ” Figart says. “But at the same time, we were really excited.”


The student government agreed to give the VCU Football Club $7,500 in activity fees. The club also sold 25-cent buttons to raise additional funds.


The student newspaper reported: “The club now owns or has been promised approximately 40 helmets, 66 pairs of shoes, 42 pairs of thigh pads, 73 pairs of pants, 10 kneepads, four arm pads and two practice pads.”


VCU football was a reality, and Figart was the president of the club.

 

A Precious Escape

Ron Jordan, all 6 feet and 230 pounds of him, arrived on campus as a freshman in late summer 1970. He played offensive tackle at Lee-Davis High School, where he lettered three times.


Jordan entered the men’s dorm at 806 W. Franklin St. and found fellow freshman and roommate Jay Carey spreading his football equipment on the floor. Carey took a look at Jordan’s size and immediately recruited him to play.


The Vietnam War was in full swing, and football was a precious escape from reality for those whose high draft numbers allowed them to go to college.


“We had around 30 to 40 guys on the team,” Jordan says. “It was an interesting mix. Some guys had served in the war. Other guys had families. But the war was something we didn’t talk about.”


The VCU Rams donned gold pants, black jerseys with gold letters and numbers, and gold, logoless helmets when they took the field for their first scrimmage in September 1970.


Their first unofficial game was played behind prison walls against a team of inmates at the old Virginia State Penitentiary on Spring Street. The field, which was in an oddly shaped prison yard bordered by a high brick wall along the downtown expressway, was only 80 yards long and not quite rectangular.


Team captain Bob Sorah remembers, to this day, the literal tooth-and-nail competition from the inmates. He recalls ending up in a stack of players after a punt return. “During the pileup somebody bit my hand. It swelled all up,” he says. “As a matter of fact, I still have a scar on my hand from the guy’s bicuspids.”


The experience was an eye-opener, Carey says. “Since I was a criminal-justice major, my reaction was, ‘Oh, wow. I’m going to deal with these folks a lot.’ So this was good for me to have the exposure.”


In their decades-old memories of the game, several players readily recall one particular inmate known as “The Milkman.”


Sorah remembers the prisoner was a defensive back. A VCU teammate, Reynolds Robinson, already knew the story behind the name: The inmate, serving time for manslaughter, had come home one day to find his wife in bed with another man — a milkman who swiftly met his fate, having a milk bottle smashed over his skull.


When asked if he recalled the inmate, quarterback Bubba Zyglocke immediately answered, “You mean the guy from solitary confinement?”


In the end, the Rams managed a 20-10 victory.


VCU’s first-ever official football game came days later on Sept. 26, 1970.


They visited Catholic University, and as Commonwealth Times sports editor Harold Castleman reported, “fumbles, penalties and mistakes cost VCU an opening-game win Saturday afternoon as the Rams dropped their first football game 12-5.”


Just before VCU’s first home game at City Stadium, today the home field for the University of Richmond’s football squad, the Commonwealth Times ran an unsigned editorial deploring the idea of a football team and questioning the tactics the club used to garner funding from the student government. The editorial stated, “How the Football Club got a lion’s share of the allocated money was at least partially due to the size of the individual members. The psychological effect of those strong, muscular bodies perched omniously [sic] on the third row of Hibbs 403, peering down on the House members at the hearing Monday night, is immeasurable.”


Unfazed by the flak (and maybe even unaware), the Rams won their home opener. Buses ferried students from the Hibbs Building to the field.


VCU’s defense recovered eight fumbles and picked off two passes as the Rams beat D.C. Teachers College, 31-12. Commonwealth Times sportswriter Tom Bucker wrote: “The Rams’ defensive unit, led by Jim Bedwell, John Roberts, Danny King and Leon McDaniels, continuously forced the Cougars to turn over the ball in good field position. The Rams recovered four fumbles inside D.C.’s 20-yard line, which resulted in 24 VCU points.”


Following the game, players, coaching staff and club president Bill Figart were thrown into the showers to celebrate the university’s first football victory.


It was a special moment. Unfortunately, it was the only win of the season. The Rams finished 1-6. But even the losses that marked the team’s inaugural season still offer a mythology all their own.


The College of Steubenville in Ohio was a regular opponent. Now known as Franciscan University of Steubenville, it’s a private school 40 miles west of Pittsburgh.


The school’s field was set in a low-lying spot — a perfect reservoir for the epic amount of rain that had fallen all week, and continued to fall on game day in 1970.


One coach remarked to the Commonwealth Times that it was “the muddiest football game I have ever seen.”


Sorah, the team’s captain from 1970-73, says there was so much water on the field that, on one play, teammate Lance Miller was pinned facedown in a deep puddle underneath a pile of players. “He almost drowned,” Sorah says emphatically.


Figart says both teams’ jerseys were so muddy “everybody looked the same.” So VCU toweled off their helmets between plays to be able to tell the teams apart.


But coaches and players alike say that was only half the battle that day.


“I remember never experiencing such a ‘home job,’ ” Jordan says. “The officials called everything [Steubenville’s] way. The timekeepers would run the clock when they wanted to. They did everything to win the game.”


The Rams drew more than 100 yards in penalties in the first quarter alone. They lost 8-0.


Sorah remembers players walking into the Steubenville showers in their uniforms just to clean off the mud before the bus ride home. “About three weeks later, they sent us a $1,500 plumbing bill,” he says, chuckling.


(The Steubenville Barons came to Richmond the following season. They stayed at the Jefferson Hotel, and Jordan says he heard them complaining. “We decided to beat them bad and run up the score,” he says, noting that the final was VCU 72, College of Steubenville 0.)


The 1970 team’s ultimate downfall, former players say, was a lack of organization.


Coach Avery Sumner had played tackle at Florida State on a Seminole team that featured Pro Football Hall of Fame receiver Fred Biletnikoff. Sumner was in his late 20s when he was the Rams coach. He played for the Richmond Roadrunners of the old Atlantic Coast Football League and was teaching at J.R. Tucker High School.


“He wasn’t very mature,” Jordan says. “He was younger than some of our players. I know he was a great player, but I just don’t think he knew how to coach a team.”


Chuck Noe was the athletic director and men’s basketball coach at the time, and he and the athletic department supported the football club by allowing the team to use a trainer as well as supplies. The department also gave players permission to change in the locker room at the Franklin Street Gym.


Nobody really remembers what happened to Sumner, but he didn’t come back the following season.

 

'A Bunch of Hippies'

The VCU Football Club set its sights on Joe Teefey, who had coached Randolph-Macon College (1964-66) and the College of William & Mary (1967-69) before settling in Richmond to run his insurance company.


Teefey accepted the position and assembled an all-star coaching staff to mold VCU football into something that could evolve beyond the club level.


He convinced legendary high-school coach Bill Long, who led Douglas S. Freeman High School to a 110-36-7 record and a state championship in 16 years, to provide offensive coaching. (Freeman’s football stadium is named after him.) Teefey also nabbed Ronald Carey (no relation to Jay Carey) as an assistant. Ronald Carey later became a principal and assistant superintendent of elementary education for Richmond Public Schools. The third assistant was Scott Swan, who played for Teefey at William & Mary and earned All-Southern Conference honors as a defensive back in 1964. Swan later worked as a lawyer.


Teefey persuaded the trio to volunteer their time, he says, because “these guys really wanted to play, and as a coach, these are the kind of players you want to coach.”


The 30 or so players met the new coaching staff at Byrd Park for the first practice. They used the trunks of their cars as their equipment lockers. They showed up in their short shorts, high tube socks and half-shirt Hawaii jerseys.


Teefey and his staff scanned the array of players. Their conversation went something like this:


“We got a bunch of hippies.”


“Yeah, there’s a lot of long hair.”


“Some of these guys have bigger guts than me.”


“It’s our job to get them into shape.”


So practice was run with precision. The players stumbled to the finish of each workout, and soon they at least looked like a football team.


The 1971 season was a success. So were the following two seasons. In the three years that he and his assistants ran the program, Teefey says VCU lost only four games.


“We were one of the best in the nation,” former running back Willie Cosby says.


In 1973, the Rams defeated club teams such as Duke (21-12), Davidson (29-0) and North Carolina State (8-6).


The university also hosted a homecoming event in 1973 at City Stadium.


Attendance ranged from several hundred to nearly 3,000 for a game against Louisiana’s Nicholls State, which eventually became an NCAA Division I program.


“It was like night and day,” Jordan says. “When Joe Teefey came in, we became a real program. Practice ran like trains on a clock. When it came time to play games, we knew what we had to do. We had game plans. And if the game plans weren’t working, [Teefey] would make adjustments
at halftime.”


Through 1973, the Rams grabbed glory and top honors among the 186-team
club football league. Sorah led the league in interceptions his junior and senior seasons, while Withrow was No. 1 in punt returns.

 

Fourth and Ten

However, VCU football was not meant to last. The athletic department gave no inkling that it would support the sport on a varsity level. That lack of reinforcement doomed the team after the 1973 season.


“VCU was in a growth mode, and it wasn’t ready for football,” Teefey says. “There wasn’t a facility or many other things needed to field a team. We had to beg and borrow for everything.”


Teefey and his staff moved on as well. Their lives had become too busy for coaching. “We really enjoyed it,” he says. “But we decided we had other things we needed
to do.”


Larry Williams, who played at the University of Richmond and coached at Tucker High School, became the coach in 1974. The team returned leading rusher Cosby as well as some defensive standouts.


Cosby, at 5-8 and 170 pounds, was a scant back with a bevy of moves. “That’s the only way I could survive,” he says.


The Rams finished 1-9 with losses to East Carolina (13-0), American (7-0), Gallaudet (21-15), Catholic (22-3) and the University of North Carolina (16-6). The team’s only victory was a forfeit
by Davidson.


Quarterback Ronald Kee was injured seriously against UNC’s club team. He suffered a fractured pelvis and torn muscles. He remained in the hospital for days.


Coach Williams left the team for financial reasons. Clarence Page, a graduate student and former Rams player, took over. The enthusiasm and organization that had given the club legs suddenly seemed to fall away.


“The guys that came after us didn’t fight for it like we did,” says Cosby, who graduated with an accounting degree and now works for his family’s contracting business.


Several players flirted with pro ambitions beyond VCU. Bedwell and Sorah split time between the school team and the Richmond Saints, a semi-pro team in 1973. Both players also garnered tryouts with the Washington Redskins and the Washington Ambassadors, a team in the World Football League. Cosby played a couple seasons for the Richmond Raiders, another semi-pro team.


VCU Football Club failed to field a squad for the 1975 season. It was the end.


Figart graduated from VCU and stepped down as president of the football club in 1972. He moved to Roanoke more than 25 years ago and went on to own an insurance agency, run a storage facility, and have interests in a clothing and furniture store as well as a printing shop.


“I did play a little football,” Figart says. “But it was hard keeping up with the young guys.”


Jordan stopped playing football after the 1971 season. He turned to journalism and became the sports editor of VCU’s student newspaper. Later, he earned a master’s degree in public administration in 1979 and now works as a managing director for Advantus Strategies.


Sorah went into banking, earned an MBA and retired five years ago.


Jay Carey worked as a dispatcher for the VCU Police Department and later served as the police chief of Newport News from 1984-96. He now works as commissioner and administrator for courts in Sandy, Utah.


“We had visions of playing well enough [that] perhaps the school would have made it an NCAA sport,” Carey says.


It’s a dream that still tickles a few minds, and at least in the realm of that fantasy, yes, VCU is still undefeated.

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