Monday, March 12, 2007

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.

Ray Tellier

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.


At Wed Mar 14, 02:58:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is an indictment of Sovern and hislackey Cole, two Columbia College grads who just hated sports. They were a disgrace; imagine selling off a piece of Baker Field to build a small hospital when there is a huge parking /dumping ground just East on Broadway. They were a disaster and their names should go down in Columbia athletic infamy. We now have shuttle buses which can take the West Side Highway, thanks to Rudy. And we have a good staff. But WE STILL NEED TO DEMAND MORE! SUCCESSIVE ADMINISTRARTIONS STILL DON'T GET IT; STOP WASTING MONEY TRYING TO BE ALL THINGS TO ALL PEOPLE. ABOLISH GS AND ALL OF THE MARGINAL PROGRAMS. MAKE THE COLLEGE THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSITY. GIVE US A PRACTICE FIELD NEAR CAMPUS! RENT THE CCNY FIELD FOR PRACTICE, OR RENT A PORTION OF MORNINGSIDE PART FOR THREE DAYS A WEEK. As for Des. the best all around player not named Marcellus Wiley in 50 years. I remember one play when he was at TB and ran over a Brown DB for a touchdown at the north end zone. Everybody knew that play was coming and nobody could stop it.

At Wed Mar 14, 06:30:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Des Werthman was an incredible football player at Columbia and I certainly enjoyed reading your interview with him. All Columbia fans have their Des Werthman stories. Mine is that I was in the stands at Princeton when he made an incredible stop of the Princeton running back (Keith Elias?) If I remember correctly, Elias, or whomever it was, came flying out of the backfield at full speed right at Des.Instead of backing off, Des stood his ground, squared his body and then made one of the many picture perfect tackles that he was famous for at Columbia. The Princeton runner was stopped in his place as if he had hit a stone wall. My impression of Werthman from afar was that he treated every down as if the opposing team had a fourth and goal at the Columbia goal line and it was his sacred duty to prevent the opposing team from crossing the goal line. Great Player!

At Wed Mar 14, 07:46:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous jake said...

In all fairness... a lot of the blame has to go on Sovern's predecessor William J. McGill, who presided over the school from 1970-1980... enough said.

At Wed Mar 14, 10:21:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Des Worthman was a sensational player, but what sense does it make to print the remarks of someone who has been to CU twice in the last 20 years, has no plans to come again, and repeats things that were true in his time but are no longer true and are used by other schools to mislead recruits away from CU???

At Wed Mar 14, 08:14:00 PM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why not an outreach program to guys like Des? HE SHOULD BE ENCOURAGED TO BE A PART OF THE REBUILDING PROGRAM. HE SHOULD BE ASKED TO SCOUT AND RECRUIT FOR US. HE WAS A PLAYER FOR THE AGES. As for the comments about McGill, he also belongs in the hall of shame.

At Wed Mar 14, 08:43:00 PM GMT+7, Blogger Jake said...

I agree with some of the points made in the last two comments... with some qualifications:

First off, I wanted to include all the adversity Des had to overcome so everyone could know just how hard it was just to take the field back then. Obviously, a huge amount of those problems have been overcome, including shaving half the time of the bus ride down since the bus is now allowed to use the highway, (thank you Mayor Giuliani). And with the field turf, the team can now practice without worrying about a torn up field.

And let's be honest with ourselves, I would bet that every single recruit has visited campus and knows things have improved.

As far as getting Des involved in recruiting, let's give it time. I would bet the experience of finding this blog and getting interviewed is bringing him around. But with two toddlers at home and a busy job at a hedge fund, he may not be able to help too much no matter how he's feeling.

At Wed Mar 14, 10:16:00 PM GMT+7, Anonymous werth4949 said...

interesting responses to the article. i would like to come back more frequently and i do speak with enough alums that i know people have a lot of good things to say about what is taking place with the current football administration. what is scary is that most of the people i played with have not been back at all. most people dont seem to understand that a lot of the athletes during this time (football or basketball) feel no connection to any of the programs.

At Wed Mar 14, 11:14:00 PM GMT+7, Blogger Jake said...


Thanks so much for commenting here and letting us know there is a real need to reach out to our athlete alums before it is too late.

If I am lucky enough to get the radio gig this coming season, you would be a welcome guest in the booth anytime I'm sure.

At Thu Mar 15, 01:35:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Message for Des,

I remember a letter that your mom wrote to CCT talking about how people might now realize the physical sacrifices that you made to play college ball, including the various injuries, etc. I once heard Harry Carson say that when he retired he left all that he had on the field. I always felt that way about your game. All the best!

At Thu Mar 15, 12:02:00 PM GMT+7, Anonymous werth4949 said...

Anonymous, thanks for the kind words. all the best to you as well

At Fri Mar 16, 05:43:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Des, you would have enjoyed watching the Columbia defense in action last fall. The defense really played good solid football and lots of people said that the freshman linebacker, Justin Masori, reminded them of you. I think he's about your size and weight. He made some amazing stops in the victories over Cornell and Brown. Our defense should be even better this year. If you make it to Baker Field, say for the Penn Homecoimg game, maybe you would inspire the Lions to win that key contest. I'm sure Coach Wilson would love to have you there. Good Luck, Des!

At Fri Mar 16, 12:31:00 PM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i have been thinking about what one of the anonymous replies stated about issues that were true 20 years ago but not now...forgetting the overstatement of years, 20 would put us back to 1987....there is some truth to what was said. i hope Columbia gets the top recruits and i wish them nothing but luck. Jake defended Des a bit, but a few things for you guys to think about.
I think when Des left he hung up the cleats and that was that. last i spoke to him he said he loved playing, but hated watching.

on Columbia, i am sure they have improved. however, i agree with some of the earlier statements that CU needs to put a practice facility near the campus. it neede to develop the the training facilities it has and get them to the level of competition that other schools have. the indoor fitness facility, with its update, does not compare to other schools. frankly, the school needs to embrace the idea that football and all sports are a Good thing for the school and create well rounded people.

they seem to be pretty far down the track. as far as athletes go, there is always parity among the schools barring the one or two great athletes. Columbia can compete in any given year with all of the teams, but it needs some luck and therein lies the rub. we havent been able to create our own luck. You get a team that plays well together and your are in the heat of the battle.

At Thu Mar 22, 09:20:00 PM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey Jake. just an idea but i think an interview with Des Werthman and the rising sophomore Justin Masorti would be a great one. Everyone on this blog likes to compare them so much. I believe you will get some great points and interesting concepts, from both Des and Justin. Plus, Id love to hear about what kind of vigorous conversation about football these two could get going.

At Mon Mar 26, 08:21:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I noticed that Des felt there weren't any jobs produced because of CU athletics. This is disappointing to hear, because it is something that is used as a recruiting tool by the coaching staff. It would be interesting to know if statistically speaking, there is better job placement now, then when Des was looking for his first job out of college.

At Tue Mar 27, 01:33:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous werth4949 said...

i think the job sourcing has come a long way. i am not sure of the specifics, but i certainly know of more people in athletics being placed in summer internships and then post graduate jobs.

At Tue May 22, 02:47:00 AM GMT+7, Blogger Ryan said...

What hedge fund does Des work for? I am also a CU Football alumnus, good to hear that there are others out there.

At Sun May 27, 11:34:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous werth4949 said...

coast asset management

At Thu Dec 31, 10:03:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous frack said...

Great interview Des! It was a pleasure playing with you at CU! You were one on the hardest hitting fballers I had the pleasure of playing with over the years. I still remember your habit of practicing with your chinstrap unbuckled and how you enjoyed bouncing down at the campus watering hole, Cannon's... I'm sorry for throwing a beer in your face during a stupor... That wasn't cool...


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