Interview with Roger Dennis '66, Part 1
Roger Dennis, 2nd row first on the left, at his 40th High school reunion
Several months ago, former Lion halfback/wingback Roger Dennis stumbled across this blog for the first time and did us the great favor of leaving a nice comment.
Since then I've established a nice correspondence with Roger, who was Lion QB Archie Roberts' top passing target during the 1964 season. Roger's greatest statistical day at Columbia came in a 38-35 loss in '64 to Rutgers when he broke the then-school record for receiving yards with 157. Roberts also broke the school record for passing yards that day with 320. Dennis was also a heck of a punt returner.
Imagine my surprise when I learned that Roger was born and raised in my current home town on North Bellmore, New York, (on the South Shore of Long Island). It turned out we had a lot in common.
But Roger's story, especially his post-Columbia years, is very very different from the average ex-Ivy League football player's experience. Lest anyone think I am always a right wing zealot, I am more than happy to present his fascinating story that includes a little "counterculture" as they used to say. And Roger is no hippie-turned-stock broker... as you will see.
Because Roger has been so kind as to go into great detail with his answers, I am going to present this interview in several parts.
Let's start from the beginning:
Jake: Describe your high school career and how it led you to playing at Columbia.
Roger Dennis: When I entered high school (tenth grade) I was the best athlete in the sophomore class (at least), was probably in the top ten percent academically, was shy but pretty highly respected; popular even with my shyness because of my athletic/academic achievements, and the fact that I didn't have a superiority thing.
I respected and got along with students from all the academic tiers, and also the 'hoods' (the closest thing we had to an 'outlaw' element), though I'm not aware of any drugs or crime stuff going on with these guys. And most of the drinking was done by the athletes, especially the footballers. But I didn't drink. When I got to be a junior and senior and was invited into "Da Crew," the football fraternity, whenever I showed up at that week's party, the joke was "Roger's here; bring out the milk."
I only played JV football during my sophomore year, though I surely could have contributed to the varsity and probably was better than their starting tailback.
Mepham High School in North Bellmore, like Princeton, was one of the few teams that still played a Single Wing offense. I played JV basketball and was pretty good; averaged double figures. I played varsity baseball as a shortstop, but there were at least five or six of my fellow sophomores who deserved to play varsity baseball before I did.
Junior year I was the best player on the football team and senior year I was best or second best. We had a kid named Bobby Porfidio who was a great athlete; by then he was definitely the best athlete at Mepham and was probably one of the top five or ten athletes in all of New York State. As a 5'3" 140 pounder he played second string wingback behind a senior who was nowhere near as good as he. He was a state champion wrestler at maybe 125 lbs, and he was a great baseball player. Although he was so short many of us felt he was major league material.
As a soph I had no idea what an Ivy League school was. My background was working class/lower middle class, and nobody in my family had ever gone to college, period. I was a very proud American, thrilled by the values that the USA stood for - liberty and justice for all; and I had not yet realized I was a Conscientious Objector. So when I was a sophomore I set my sights on going to West Point; I felt I should serve this country that I loved so much. I was so proud of 'America' that, all throughout high school, I stood up when the National Anthem played, even when I was alone in my living room watching Mickey Mantle and the Yankees on TV! When I graduated from Mepham I gave a speech about how we should all become great citizens of this great country. (What a different speech I would have given a year later, but I'm getting ahead of myself here.)
Anyway, Miss Clark, my guidance counselor, called me into her office one day and introduced me to Ivy League schools. I liked what I heard and decided to set my sights on going this route.
I was not happy with what was happening in the classroom now that I was in tenth grade. I had little interest in the curriculum, and the teachers were working our butts off. Hours and hours of homework, following strenuous sports practices and a long walk home. The kicker was that even with all this work I was still doing badly academically - I had like a 78 average. Even with the weighting system they kept telling us about, I knew that wasn't going to get me into any Ivy League school. Luckily, I didn't have parents who were going to threaten suicide or heart attacks, or disown me, if I didn't 'reach for the stars' academically. My father left when I was four and was out of my life. My mom trusted me to make my own decisions.
So I made a very important decision: I would drop out of the advanced classes. I knew I could maintain a high 80's average in the Regents track - and do so with a lot less homework and a lot more sleep. I also figured I would probably be elected class president and student council president, and be in the Key Club, and get various other awards and honors; and I expected to do well athletically. Since I was highly respected by almost everybody, I also figured I'd have real good reference letters. So if I could score well on the S.A.T.'s I figured I'd have a good shot at the Ivies. The principal tried to talk me out of leaving the advanced track, but my mind was made up.
It worked out just as I had envisioned. I scored above 1370 on the S.A.T.'s. I made second team All-County halfback in the now-defunct Long Island Press and didn't even get Honorable Mention in Newsday. I think they were both wrong; I think I would have picked myself third team or Honorable Mention. Surely Newsday was wrong to totally ignore me. I was recruited by all the Ivies except Penn and Yale - never could figure that out but didn't lose any sleep over it. I applied to four of them plus Colgate as my safe school. Despite the fact that they recruited me worse than anybody, Columbia was my first choice with Princeton second. I liked the idea of being in New York City, I had a Regents scholarship which I could use at Columbia but not Princeton. I didn't know how good I was and figured my chances to play would be better at Columbia, and I wanted to be closer to my girlfriend back home. Princeton appealed because of the campus, the name, it was still pretty close to home, and they played single wing. But when all was weighed out, I wanted Columbia.