It’s a football tradition as old as forgetting the bottle opener for the tailgate beers.
Team from two or three time zones away shows up on a local university’s schedule. Transplanted alum wears his school colors to the office all week, deflects good-natured flak from his co-workers and springs for tickets to the game, even if he never bothered to go as an undergrad.
So it’s the Rutgers Scarlet Knights from far-away New Jersey and the Washington State Cougars opening the season tonight in Seattle, and Joe Harari will be there.
He is, after all, a Rutgers grad – class of 1973.
But he’s also a Wazzu grad – Master of Science in ’76, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine in ’80. He even did eight years on the faculty.
Plus, it’s his 63rd birthday.
This happy confluence should be enough to trump anyone else’s emotional investment in the goings-on at CenturyLink Field, except that Harari is largely “equivocal” about his Rutgers roots and will likely root for the Cougars.
“You can’t go home again,” he reasoned. “Besides, my memories are not the best.”
That has to sting the visitors, because Joe Harari isn’t simply another alum.
He was the Scarlet Knight.
“I have the picture,” said the Spokane veterinary surgeon. “I carry it on my phone because people don’t believe me.”
Talk about Throwback Thursday.
But sure enough, there is photographic proof – young Joe astride a fine white Percheron on the sidelines of old Rutgers Stadium, outfitted in a red cape and what appear to be tights, hair licking at his collar and wearing wire-rimmed spectacles in the fashion of the day.
“I look like John Lennon or one of the Monkees,” he said.
Or an extra from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”
If both man and mount seem to have glazed-over expressions in the picture, there’s a reason for that.
“I was supposed to gallop around the running track after a touchdown,” Harari said, “but we didn’t score that many. Rutgers football was pretty nondescript. Horse or not, we weren’t USC and I wasn’t the Trojan guy.”
The Rutgers team that lines up against the Cougs tonight is playing its first year as a member of the Big Ten. But in 1972, the Scarlet Knights were an afterthought. Holy Cross, Army and Cornell were the big dates on the schedule.
Not counting the Princeton game, of course.
Which was pretty much the beginning of the end of Joe Harari’s knighthood – but we’ll get to that soon enough. Just how did he get in the saddle in the first place?
“I was trying to get into vet school,” he said. “I figured I needed an angle. I like sports and this horse thing seemed like a good gimmick. I knew one of the cheerleaders – Rutgers was all-male at the time – and I said, ‘Yeah, I can ride a horse.’ Which was crap. I had a hell of a time controlling him. I think they used to shoot off a cannon.”
There were no cannons at Princeton the day Harari and his steed made the trip down U.S. 1 – the combat was hand-to-hand. The two Jersey schools are just 23 miles apart, but it might as well be a million.
“Poor-boy state university against the elite rich kids,” Harari said. “Rutgers was what your father could afford. It was real class warfare.”
“Some of the Rutgers guys grab the Princeton tiger – he looks like the one on the Frosted Flakes box – and hoist him into the stands, all the way up the stadium. I don’t think much of it until I see a wave of Ivy League BSers steaming toward me. I start galloping, but they grab the cape and jerk me off the horse, and the next thing I know I’ve got a ring of cops around me to keep them off.”
The rest of the season is mostly a blur (“Maybe I got a concussion,” he said). By the next fall, he was off to Wazzu, though “like everyone else back there I thought it was in Seattle.” After four years of campus tensions in the East, Harari thought he “had found Shangri-La.”
Back on his old campus, his heirs were making history. In 1994, a hayburner named Lord Nelson with a caped rider aboard galloped onto the field during a PAT, drawing a 15-yard penalty. Rutgers botched the longer kick, and had to hold its breath while Army narrowly missed a long field goal that would have given it a 17-16 win.
If such a thing happened tonight, Joe Harari would consider it kismet. Alas, Rutgers converted some years back to another of those unfortunate cookie-cutter big head mascots.
No wonder he’s pulling for the Cougs – even while showing off the picture of the horse he rode in on.