Undefeated 1979 football team one for the ages

Most current Tufts students can’t remember 1979. This lapse in memory is most likely not the result of excessive television watching or having too much fun in college. It actually stems from the fact that the majority of us weren’t even born until the 1980s. Contrary to many in the Tufts community who feel the world began when they entered it, 1979 was a pivotal year in history, both on and off the Hill.

In the Middle East, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ousted the Shah of Iran in the spring. The following November, Iranian militants seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran holding nearly 100 people inside hostage. An accident at a nuclear plant in Three Mile Island, Pa. sent radioactive particles into the atmosphere leading to the worst nuclear accident in American history.

Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalype Now premiered in theatres and the Sugar Hill Gang started the hip hop revolution with its release of “Rapper’s Delight.” Pittsburgh teams won both the Super Bowl and the World Series to highlight the year in sports.

It was a year to remember in world, American, and cultural history. It was also a year to remember here at Tufts. Aside from the raging Disco parties at DU and DTD, the 1979 football team played to its first undefeated season in 45 years that fall. At that point, the team’s perfect 8-0 record stood as just the third time in Tufts’ 105 years of football that a Jumbo squad had failed to lose a contest. That record still stands as the feat has not been duplicated in the 25 years since.

“[That season] was a once in a lifetime experience,” said coach Bill Samko, who was an assistant to head coach Vic Gatto in 1979 and took over as Tufts’ head coach himself in 1994. “It was special. There were a lot of great personalities on that team that went on to do great things. You don’t win by accident, and that year was no exception.”

Many of those personalities will be back in Medford this upcoming weekend for the 25-year reunion of their flawless record. A dinner on Friday night will highlight the 1979 squad along with the entire 130 year history of Tufts football.

“We’re going to have 150 former football players there on Friday,” baseball coach John Casey, a wide receiver and tight end for the 1979 team, said. “It’s sort of neat we’re getting all those guys to come back and see how old we’ve all gotten.”

Representing the 1979 squad at the dinner will be team captains Jim Ford, Bob Littlefield and Gary Heffernan. All-American quarterback Chris Conners and running back Nick Rossetti along with Casey and Samko will also be in attendance. Many of the returning Jumbos will attend the football game against Williams on Saturday followed by a Jumbo Club-sponsored reception.

“I’m looking forward to seeing everyone and seeing how they’ve all progressed in their careers and with their families,” Rossetti, now Vice President of Field Operations for Dish Network outside of Denver, Colorado, said. “It’s going to be awesome.”

Those team members able to make the reunion will undoubtedly reminisce about their times as Jumbos, especially the ’79 season. Casey recalls how nervous he was for the coin toss in the eighth and final game that year.

“No one knew until the seventh game that we had won every coin toss to that point,” Casey said. “Going into the last game, I was more nervous about the toss than anything else. Once we won that, I knew we were going to win the game.”

The ’79 Jumbos beat rivals Williams (30-0), Amherst (35-21) and then-undefeated Norwich, as well as five other teams, on their way to the perfect record. The Norwich game, which the Jumbos won 22-19 in come-from-behind fashion, was the defining game of the season.

Tufts took inspiration throughout the year from one of their tri-captains, Ford. A neck injury suffered against Williams in 1978 left Ford partially paralyzed. Instead of leaving the team, Ford came back in 1979 as a captain and motivated his teammates from the sidelines.

“Jim’s a special guy,” Casey said. “He was just an outstanding football player and a tough, hard-nosed guy who worked really hard. When he got hurt, it made us put things in perspective. We worked a little harder and grew up a little faster than we might have otherwise.”

“Jim is a huge success story,” Rossetti added. “Not only did he provide outstanding leadership, he graduated on time and is now an orthopedic surgeon.”

The 1979 team was just one out of a series of successful Tufts teams in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The Jumbos won 12 consecutive games spanning over the 1978 and 1979 seasons and also amassed six straight winning years between 1978 and 1983.

As a member of the 1978-1981 teams, Rossetti credits hard work and tight bonds between teammates as major components to the Jumbos’ success.

“We had a tremendous team effort,” Rossetti said. “The group was very close and had a great work ethic.”

When asked if he would like to send a message out to his former teammates as they return to Tufts this weekend, Casey brought the Tufts experience to the forefront.

“I think what we did here was good stuff, and obviously [the former players] know that because they’re coming back,” Casey said. “They should give credit to the school because that’s what ultimately brought us all together.”

Casey also would like to remind the returning Jumbo alumni about certain physical features that might have changed over the years.

“I was skinny back then,” Casey said. “Samko wasn’t, but I was.”