Heroes of Lafayette-Lehigh Football Rivalry: Mark McGowan ’89

Mark McGowan and his teammates rose from their cots in the Varsity House. As he normally did on the morning of game days, the Lehigh University junior quarterback reviewed the play sheet, determining what the best calls against certain defensive schemes were.

Eventually the players walked outside to get in their cars.

“It was absolutely freezing out there,” recalled McGowan ’89. “I was excited to get up and get the game started and enjoy the whole experience of it. You knew it was going to be cold but the excitement suddenly was minimized when the door opened when we walked to our cars.

“I was thinking, ‘I can’t believe we’re going out to play a football game.’ As soon as we started getting ready, we knew it would be cold out but it was our last chance to play in that stadium.”

Just like a broken wrist on his non-throwing hand wouldn’t stop McGowan from playing against Lafayette College a year prior, negative-17-degree wind chills with 40 mph gusts wouldn’t intimidate the quarterback this time, either.

Especially not in the final game at Taylor Stadium.
“It’s another season. No matter what you did the first 10 games, it’s what you do in the Lafayette game that really defines a season,” he said. “How you play in that game is how you are remembered or how the success of the team is defined. We knew it was our way of salvaging a frustrating season. If we can beat Lafayette we can send the seniors off with a winning record and give us a lot to look forward to my senior year.”

The week leading up to the game seemed to get colder and colder by the second, according to McGowan. The quarterback had practiced all week with two gloves on, but never felt comfortable throwing, so he opted for one on his left hand when game day came around.

“Some guys went out there in T-shirts and didn’t think about putting anything warmer on. I had a long sleeve shirt on,” McGowan said. “There was no way I was going out there in short sleeves. I kept one glove on to keep my hand warm and tried to keep blowing in my other hand before I took a snap. It was so cold out there that when you went to the sideline you had to keep stretching to stay loose so you didn’t feel like you’d crack when you went back out there. The ground was solid rock; it was a frozen field. It was like getting tackled on cement.

“But once you started getting into the game it changed a little bit and you forgot about a lot of that stuff.”

The Engineers came into the 123rd meeting of college football’s most-played rivalry on Nov. 21, 1987 at 4-5-1, having lost four contests by a combined nine points — 28-27 at William & Mary, 16-15 at Princeton, 28-24 to Delaware and 10-7 to Brown.

Lehigh led the Leopards 9-7 at halftime but a 25-yard field goal by Jim Hodson with 9:53 remaining in the game gave the visitors a 10-9 advantage.

The Engineers seemed destined for yet another heartbreaking defeat — a seemingly fitting way to conclude a frustrating season. McGowan and his teammates, though, had other ideas.

“We knew we needed to score on that possession,” McGowan said. “I remember bringing everybody’s hands in, looking at our linemen and saying, ‘This game, we’re all in this together but up front we need you to open the holes and hold those blocks when we’re passing and we’ll get it done. This is the drive we’ve been waiting for all year.'”

The harsh conditions made it difficult to throw the ball effectively, especially deep, so McGowan and the Engineers were keen on short passes over the middle to tight ends Tom Marron and Vance Cassell and passes in the flat to running back Paul Sims and fullback Rich Curtis.

McGowan had key completions to Marron for 7 yards on third-and-7 and to Cassell for a 10-yard gain on third-and-5 to keep the drive alive. Those eventually set up the biggest play of McGowan’s career.

On first down, the quarterback faked a pitch to Sims, but kept the ball, hiding it on his hip. McGowan rolled right, juked past Lafayette defensive end Greg Beasley and sprinted for a 21-yard gain to the Leopards’ 1-yard line. He capped the 11-play, 60-yard drive with a 1-yard QB sneak two plays later to give Lehigh the advantage. A two-point conversion pass to Sims put the Engineers up 17-10 with 5:08 remaining — a score which stood until the final whistle.

“All game long I had been carrying out my fakes to see what the defensive end was doing, trying to set up some sort of bootleg,” said McGowan, 47, who resides in North Bergen, N.J. “All game long he kept folding down the line. I remember coach calling a toss sweep to the left side and I don’t know what came over me, but I faked the toss and carried it around myself on a bootleg. It was the only time the defensive end stayed home. I barely got around him. Had I not, I’m sure the coaches would have had some interesting things to say to me on the sideline.

“Coach (Hank) Small told me to look for it every game. I was lucky to get around the end and down to the 1. As luck would have it, we scored a few plays later.”

Once the game clock read 0:00, Taylor Stadium imploded. Fans who braved the harsh conditions stormed the field to demolish the goal posts. Others began ripping apart seatbacks. Some who had even snuck in hammers or other tools started their own deconstruction projects.

“All of a sudden the cold day became a warm day and everybody on the sideline was real happy and jumping around,” McGowan said. “I remember looking around at what was left of the people in the stands thinking, ‘I can’t believe anybody watched the whole thing live.’ They took down the goal posts and were tearing some of the bleachers apart. We kind of just roamed around then hustled into the locker room, knowing that was the end of that stadium, end of an era. We sent it out in the fashion all of the history before gave us — with a win; the right way.”

The victory was especially sweet for McGowan, who went 16 of 23 for 120 yards with two TDs (one rushing) and was named the game’s MVP.

Leading up to the 122nd meeting with Lafayette a year prior, the then-sophomore QB, who took over in Week 5 after starter Jim Harris came down with mononucleosis, broke his left wrist during practice. Coincidentally, McGowan was running a bootleg similar to the one that led to the winning touchdown in the teams’ 1987 meeting, but a blitzing defender’s helmet hit his wrist resulting in the fracture.

He wasn’t missing his first game against the Leopards.
“It wasn’t even a choice,” said McGowan, who has been a trader with Goldman Sachs for the past 10 years. “There were probably some people who looked at me a little weird. I didn’t know how many opportunities I’d get to play in a big game with such a storied rivalry and tradition. As long as the team doctor said I was good to go, I was playing. My legs worked and my right arm worked. Everybody rallied around me and picked up their game a lot to pick up any slack I wasn’t able to do.

“We gave it our best shot and it went down to the wire but we lost (28-23). There are only so many big-time games you get like that going to Lehigh or Lafayette and there was no way I was missing that game.”

Thankfully McGowan didn’t let an injury or brutal weather prevent him from playing, especially against Lafayette, because, unfortunately, his senior season was cut short.

During a Week 6 contest against Holy Cross, McGowan escaped a collapsing pocket and took off running. Little did he know, that would be the last play of his collegiate football career. McGowan suffered a torn ACL in his left knee and was out for the rest of the 1988 season. While he was later invited to camp with the New York Giants, he didn’t make the final cut for summer camp.

Despite the ups and downs, McGowan, who is attending Saturday’s 150th game against Lafayette at Yankee Stadium with his family, is proud of his Lehigh career and enjoys recalling the bone-chilling weather of the 123rd meeting with the Leopards.

“It’s a lot more fun to talk about it now than it was waking up that morning, hearing the wind howling and going outside and realizing how unbelievably cold it was,” McGowan said. “There’s a lot of times in the 27 years since then I think I’ve been in cold weather, but then I think back to that game and say, ‘It’s not cold compared to that.’

“I’m very grateful for the amount of time I got to play and be quarterback at Lehigh. It was fantastic. It was like a dream come true. When I got there I was the sixth-string QB my freshman year. I moved up the depth chart to second after spring ball. I was prepared to go in if something happened to Jim (Harris) and, unfortunately, something did. I got my opportunity and never relinquished it until I had a season-ending injury. I’m very proud of what I was able to accomplish — to be able to throw the ball as many times as I did and have as many thrills in wins and losses to remember.”

NOTE: This story first appeared on LehighSports.com