Sid Luckman defined the QB Position for decades (Credit: Columbia Athletics)
As I write this, the first real battles for who wll be the Lions starting quarterback in 2008 are underway. Thankfully, we do have more than one solid candidate for the job and that's even before the freshmen arrive on campus in August.
But as this battle rages on, it seems like the right time to give props to the five greatest true QB's, (post wing-formation), in Columbia history. As luck would have it, I happen to have interviewed three of these men during three separate halftimes of Columbia games last season.
1) Sid Luckman '39
Sid Luckman isn't just the greatest quarterback in Columbia history, he could be the greatest quarterback in football history.
How else can you describe a man who redefined his position in the literal sense and went on to become the most feared team leader in the NFL in his day?
At Columbia, Luckman was a hero for a team that wasn't championship caliber like the stronger squad Coach Lou Little led to a victory in the Rose Bowl just a few years before Sid arrived on campus.
But Luckman's mere presence on campus was an inspiration. In the 1920's and 30's, just about every Ivy League school imposed strict Jewish quotas. Being in New York City, Columbia's policy was especially odious. Luckily, Coach Little cared little for that administration policy, and he stole Luckman away from Navy just in the nick of time.
For Luckman to be on campus, and to be such a star for the football team at this time... well, it was as inspirational to many Jewish youngsters at the time as Jackie Robinson's career career with the Brooklyn Dodgers was for Black Americans 10 years later.
Luckman started as a halfback who would sometimes throw the option pass, but eventually he was throwing constantly. This was at a time when most college teams maybe threw the ball 5-6 times a game.
He eventually took the starting QB spot his sophomore year, and those 1936 Lions went 5-3 with impressive wins over Syracuse and Stanford.
An article about Luckman from the American Jewish Historical Society contains this great paragraph:
Red Freisell, a referee who officiated at several of Luckman’s college games, later placed Luckman’s achievements in perspective: "In each of those games, [Luckman] threw at least 30 passes, and on nearly every one of them he was knocked nearly out of his britches by some fast charging opponent. . . . Never once did I see him throw in fright or see him wince when he got his lumps. I never heard a word of protest about the beating he was taking. That brand of courage, coupled with his uncanny knack of hitting his target, put Luckman down in my book as the greatest forward passer I ever saw in college ranks."
His crowning moment came in his senior season when Columbia shocked Army by a 20-18 score. Playing both offense and defense, Luckman brought the Lions back from an 18-6 deficit with skillful running, kick returning, and throwing the winning touchdown pass.
Luckman was selected as an All-American in 1937 and 1938 and was later inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
After graduation, Bears owner/coach George Halas convinced Luckman to chuck the idea of going into his father-in-law's business and try pro football. The rest was history as the Bears became a dominant team for years afterward.
He led the league in touchdown passes three times, was chosen the NFL MVP three times and was All-Pro seven times in his 12 NFL seasons. His Bears won four NFL titles.
His crowning pro achievement was leading the Bears to a 73-0 win over the Washington Redskins in the 1940 championship game.
Luckman’s best year statistically was 1943, when he led the Bears to a record of 8-1-1. He was so popular, that the New York Giants chose to honor him with a "Sid Luckman Appreciation Day" in a Bears-Giants game AT the Polo Grounds.
In that game Luckman led his visiting Bears to a 56-7 triumph, passing for a record seven touchdowns and 443 yards. That year, he set the league record for touchdown passes in a 10-game season with 28, including five touchdowns in Chicago’s victory over the Redskins in the 1943 championship rematch between the teams.
During most of these years, Luckman continued to help Columbia's football efforts. He did everything from call potential recruits to tutoring young Lion QB's like Eugene Rossides.
Luckman became a very successful businessman after his playing days ended, and he even became a good friend of my grandfather's in Chicago in the 1950's and 60's. He died in 1998.
2) John Witkowski '84
John Witkowski owns so much of the Columbia record book, it should be named after him. Playing for some of the weakest overall teams in Lion history, Witkowski still put up insane numbers, especially TD passes and overall yardage categories.
He was so precise, that Columbia actually scored too quickly, leaving the defense with too much to handle even on good days.
In just 10 games in 1982, Witkowski had 29 TD passes and 3,050 yards passing. He passed for more than 400 yards in three separate games.
Columbia went 1-9 in 1982, and Witkowski still won the Ivy Player of the Year award.
Witkowski had a decent cup of coffee in the NFl, getting some playing time with the Detroit Lions. He now lives in the Buffalo area.
3) Archie Roberts '65
Roberts was one of the first QB's in major college play to pass much more frequently than he ran, and pass he did. By his junior year, he had already broken several Columbia and Ivy passing records even though the Lions were never better than 5-4 in his three years at the helm.
Roberts was a darling of the East Coast press; getting his name in the headlines win or lose. He was also a star on the baseball team, a remarkable achievement for a student who was also pre-med.
Roberts was drafted by the Cleveland Browns and in a remarkable vote of confidence, the Browns not only were willing to wait for Roberts to finish medical school, they paid his tuition! The waiting didn't end up being worth it, as Roberts never played in the NFL.
Instead, Archie Roberts became one of the most respected heart surgeons in the world. Eventually he became much more famous as a cardiac surgeon than he had ever been as an athlete.
Roberts is currently retired from active duty in the O.R., but he heads up the innovative Living Heart Foundation, which helps pro and college athletes maintain heart health.
4) Eugene Rossides '49
His passing stats don't match up to modern levels, but he was the signal caller during an astonishingly good era for Columbia football. Because of a rule exception for the war era, he played all four years on teams that went 25-11 from 1945-48.
Rossides was the QB in the historic 1947 win over Army that still ranks as one of the greatest games in college history.
And at the age of 80, he also made an outstanding halftime interview this past season as we talked about everything from the win over Army to U.S. foreign policy.
Rossides went on to a distinguished career in foreign policy, working at the State Department and in the White House for years.
5) Marty Domres '69
I can't imagine it was a lot of fun to be on campus in the fall of 1968, just months after the infamous campus riots almost shut the school down forever. But Domres and his teammates plowed through a tough 1968 season with at least a potent offense to make the games interesting. In a 34-25 win over Cornell, Domres shattered several Columbia passing records and his numbers then stood for 14 years. He followed that up two weeks later with a 46-20 thrashing of Brown after convincing first-year head coach Frank Navarro to just abandon the running game early in the first quarter.
Domres became a respected QB in the NFL, at one point replacing Johnny Unitas in Baltimore and later taking over from Joe Namath with the Jets. He never quite emerged as a starter, but he made a great impression on the fans and his fellow players alike.
Baltimore took such a shine to him that he settled there permanently after his playing days were over. Domres works in the brokerage field there.
Don Jackson '73
Don Jackson never actually had a season where he completed even 50% of his passes. But his guts and leadership, along with 12 clutch TD passes, made the difference in a super-charged 1971 season where the Lions weren't just one of the best teams in the Ivies, they were one of the best teams on the entire East Coast.
During our interview, Jackson spoke candidly about the 1971 season and why the highly-touted 1972 team never quiote panned out. Usually it's a coach who blames disappointing seasons on the players' inability to keep their heads in the game and focus, but Jackson himself admitted that the lofty predictions for the '72 probably made the "air a little thin up there" for a team used to underdog status.
Jackson went on to a distinguished career at ABC sports and is now a successful private businessman.