Interview with Des Werthman!
Des Werthman, 1992 (credit: Columbia University Athletics)
It's hard to describe just how much former Lions star Des Werthman meant and still means to Columbia fans. Des was a defensive standout at linebacker, but he also chipped in as a running back on short-yardage situations, and even helped out as a kicker from time to time. That all made Des a throwback-style hero years before people started selling old jerseys for five times the retail price.
Werthman was a part of Ray Tellier's first recruiting class, playing on the freshman team in 1989 and then on the varsity from 1990-92. He made an impact in almost every game he played and Des' career stats are simply breathtaking. I don't think any Columbia player will ever top his 449 career tackles in just three years on the varsity. And what he meant to the team overall during those years can't be quantified.
But nothing can match his heroics in the final two games of his career against Cornell and Brown... both at home.
Against Cornell, Des helped shock the 7-1 Big Red with 16 tackles, two fumble recoveries, two rushing touchdowns, a 2-point conversion, two extra points, just missed a field goal attempt, and even threw a pass, which went incomplete. (There are also unconfirmed reports that at halftime, Des sold game programs in the stands). The final score was 35-30, and the loss eliminated Cornell from the Ivy title race.
But Des was just warming up. The next week against Brown, he rushed for 114 yards, scored 19 points - three rushing touchdowns and an extra point - and had 15 tackles. With the Lions leading 34-28, Des missed a field goal that would have iced the game, but on the very next play he made an interception to end it.
Des went on to a short career in the Arena Football League, something that suited his 5"11, 225-pound frame a little more than the NFL.
For some crazy reason, Des was not included in the inaugural class of the Columbia sports hall of fame last year. It's a controversial decision to say the least.
Thankfully, he was named a part of the CU football team of the 20th Century and he was on the field at Homecoming in 2000, (when Columbia crushed Dartmouth 49-21),
Des' playing exploits are never far from the minds of longtime Lion fans, but when Justin Masorti joined the Lions last year, his build and style of play reminded many of us of old number 49.
Des contacted me via the comments section of this blog a few months ago, and kindly agreed to do an interview.
JAKE: Walk us through the highlights of your post-Columbia life since you graduated in 1993, both personal and career-wise.
Des: Well, I lived in NY until 1998 and then moved back to Chicago. I came out of school and tried to play professionally, with a brief stint in the Arena League and some NFL try outs, but nothing ever materialized. I went to work in the investment field in late 1994 and have been there ever since. On the family front, I got married in 2001 and have two daughters, ages 4 and 2. Neither seem to be big sports fans, but I am trying to convert them.
Jake: Did your time as a Columbia football player play a positive or negative role in your personal life or your career? Did it ever directly hurt or help you?
Des: I don’t think it ever played a negative role. It didn’t produce any jobs when I came out of school, but I met with a whole bunch of Alumni which is interesting and hopefully Columbia alumni will help more with hiring others in the future. I think the years as a player at CU are a constant reminder that one is only as good as the weakest link. A great team can be a thousand times better than a great player. This carries into the real world as well.
Werthman as a member of the Loyola High School Ramblers (Wilmette, IL), where he also excelled in Track and Field.
Jake: You were one of the first players to shine during the Ray Tellier era. Did he and his team recruit you, or were the last group brought in under Larry McAlreavy?
Des: It was interesting, I was originally contacted by one of McAlreavy’s coaches. I met him and then never heard from Columbia again. Several months passed and then one of Ray’s coaches came to see me, Sean McDonnell, now head coach at New Hampshire. I visited some other schools, but had pretty much decided on Columbia once I went to the campus.
Jake: What were your impressions of Tellier and why do you think he was eventually able to find success at Columbia after so many had failed before him?
Des: Ray was very good on several fronts and this led to his success. He had been a winner at Rochester and brought several coaches that had been successful as well. I think Ray was very good at several facets of the game. He was a good recruiter, knew the X’s and O’s, and could also motivate people. I think what ultimately led to his success was that he was organized and stuck to a plan of action that ended up working. I think a lot of the success is based upon diligence, focus and planning.
Jake: How did it come to pass that you had to play so many different positions for Columbia, (sometimes in the same game)? Did you take the initiative, or were the Lions so shorthanded that they had to call on you so often?
Des: I never initiated playing any other position except for linebacker. It is funny, but I tried to hide the fact that I kicked extra points and field goals in high school. I was like the super jock character toy with the straight shoe and you would slam the guy's head down to kick. Unfortunately one of the coaches remembered film of me kicking. It was the saddest day of my life…(laughing).
In all honesty, Columbia had good talent, but lacked depth. I think this was the real reason I played several positions. Once the first guy or if we had a second guy, (highly unusual), went down, we would look for options at positions. I started playing running back as a junior in short yardage situations and then more frequently as a senior. This was a lot of fun and I think that was because I was kind of winging it on offense and the guys in the huddle were so serious that I would just start laughing and they would eventually loosen up. There were some really good players on offense; like Mike Sardo, who was a great possession receiver.
Jake: Give us your overall impressions of what it was like to be a Columbia athlete in the late-80's/early 90's. Were the non-athletes friendly or overly hostile to you? How about the faculty and the administration outside of the athletic department?
Des: My experience may be different than others, but I had a blast. I never looked at it as "non-athletes vs. athletes," but to answer your question, the non-athletes were very cool. Sure you had some people who didn’t see eye to eye with you, but that is pretty par for the course. The student body was always friendly and never gave me any hard times about being on a team that lost more often than not.
I never noticed the faculty treating me any differently. But I can recall my senior year asking one of my teachers to let me take the final exam early so that I could attend football camp for the Tampa Bay Storm of the Arena League. The guy shot it down immediately and didn’t seem to comprehend what football was. There was no language barrier so I'm not sure why he opposed. In hindsight, maybe he was right to stop me. But it would have been fun to have been there.
Jake: Did you live in the dorms or did you join the large segment of the football players who pledged and lived in the Sigma Chi house?
Des: I lived in the dorms. I never understood why you would join a fraternity when the parties were largely open anyway. I lived in Carmen, Ruggles for two years, and then Wallach.
Jake: How often have you been able to return to Columbia to either see the team play or just to walk around campus? During your visits, what changes have you noticed if any?
Columbia Football's Team of the Century, October, 2000. Des is the back row, third from the right. (PHOTO CREDIT: BEN ASEN)
Des: Honestly, I have been back to 2 Columbia games since I graduated. The last being when the Team of the Century was inducted. I honestly doubt I will ever see another game in person.
Jake: Columbia fans will forever remember you as the guy who seemingly defeated Cornell and Brown singlehandedly to finish out the 1992 season. What are your memories of those games, and what do you remember about the efforts of some of the other players who many of us have forgotten over the years?
Des: I remember the Brown game the most and this makes sense since it was the last game we were going to play. The Cornell game was fun to remember because it was one of the first and last times I got to see some of our players actually smiling on the field. When you lose a lot, smiling doesn’t come easy.
Brown was a really memorable game. My fondest memory combines two plays; the first was when we were trying to ice the game and they sent me in for a field goal. You have to understand that I just hated kicking these things. I would sit there cursing myself for ever having sent a film that had footage of me kicking in it. Needless to say that I missed the field goal, no surprise here right? The next play I pretty much knew the play they were going to run. Call it intuition or whatever, but they had been trying the whole game to run a shallow cross with a deep cross and for most of the day I had played the shallow cross. This time I just knew the QB was going deep and that was exactly what he did. We picked the ball off and the game was over.
We had some great players. Mike Sardo was one of the best receivers I have ever played with, Kevin Robinson was a great running back and moved to defensive back to help the team on defense. The defensive linemen Jim Daine and Bob Wolcott, were key reasons why I was able to do the things I was able to do. Others during my tenure that I got to play with were Galen Snyder, who was a very good linebacker, Bob Kent, Gary Comstock... there were a lot of very good players.
Jake: You were one of the last classes to play freshman football. Do you think abolishing it has helped or hurt Ivy football and what are your memories of playing in your freshman year?
Des: Freshman football was an easy way to get acclimated to the school and the program. That being said, we lost most of our recruiting class during freshman football as a ton of people quit. I think that getting rid of freshman football has been a good thing. I think you mature faster as a player and then you avoid having to endure two years of a acclimating, where you get used to playing your first year and then the next year you have to acclimate yourself to the next team and summer camp.
Jake: The best Columbia ever did during your three varsity years was 3-7. How tough was it to play for a team that never really contended for a title?
Des: I guess it was hard since I am going to say that we were much better than our records, which means I still struggle with the fact that we didn’t win more. It was very hard to get up and go on those teams as the constant losses and heartbreaks made it hard to want to win. This is what happens when you loose, it debilitates your desire to win and wears you down a little more until you become apathetic. I don’t think we ever became apathetic ,because we had a lot of guys that just loved to play the game, but it certainly wasn’t easy. We went up to Cornell my junior year and we threw for a touchdown only to have the refs call it back for the QB being over the line of scrimmage. Our QB wasn’t even close when you looked at it on film, we should have won that game, but didn’t..those were the worst.
Jake: Do you think that Columbia was at some kind of unfair disadvantage during the time you played there? Did things like the long ride to practice, the administration's seeming indifference to athletics, or the quality of the facilities play as big a role as many long-time fans like me think they do/did?
Des: I think Columbia will always be fighting an uphill battle as long as the practice field is so far away. You would barely make it back for dinner. I think people quit just because of that bus ride. I recall one game day when the buses didn’t even show up. We had like 70 guys hailing Gypsy cabs down on Amsterdam in order to be able to afford the ride and get to the field. Imagine playing a game after you did this and got to the field late!?
The facilities were, and maybe still are, just dated. You just can't compete with other schools if your facilities are so poorly kept up and don’t offer the same things that a Princeton or Harvard can offer.
And how can an administration be taken seriously when they have 3 head coaches on the payroll at the same time? I think when I was there they had Garrett, McAlreavy and Tellier on the payroll at the same time. The practice field was used as a parking lot during games, so you would come back to the field on Monday and be picking up glass and stuff like that.
If you want to win there has to be a commitment to the program and I don’t think that was ever there for football. If you aren’t paying to win then you shouldn’t even field the team. This isn’t high school where you are trying to get kids involved in different things so that they try new stuff. This is a college where you had a Rose Bowl championship team and a QB named Cliff Montgomery. Have a little respect and pride.
Jake: If you could do it all over again, would you come back to Columbia?
Des: I loved going to school at Columbia. You have to look at the whole package and Columbia was a great place to be. I almost transferred out after my freshman year, but didn’t. So, I thought long and hard about this and stayed then and wouldn’t change my mind now.
That being said, I look now at the school and think that things could and should have been much better. It still bugs me to this day that there was such a lack of commitment by people at the University and in the Athletic department. I would classify them as dead weight and they are probably still there at the school. I have a sour taste with a lot of these people and some of the people today.