On Nov. 11, 1938, the Trenton State Teachers College football team defeated Panzer 12-0. On Nov. 10, 1949, they defeated Montclair 7-6.
These may seem like two random wins out of the 314 that the College’s football team has tallied since 1921. However, the story becomes a lot more interesting when you realize that in the 11 years between these games, the Lions failed to win a single one.
It was a 45-game winless streak (42 losses and three ties) which, at the time, was the longest such streak of futility ever in intercollegiate sports.
In reality, it was only a seven-year skid; the College did not field a team during from 1942-45 because of World War II. Nevertheless, the streak did receive massive media attention and was a reputation that did not make the students of Trenton State particularly proud.
John Sarkos, who was a sophomore when the College beat Montclair, recalled his experiences as a freshman playing during the winless streak in “Stories of Glory: A Historical Journal of Lions Football.”
“We lost every game that year, except for one 0-0 tie,” he said. “We would lose 6-0 or 12-0. We would score a touchdown only occasionally.”
It wasn’t like they never came close to ending the streak. In 1941, they lost 20-19 to Panzer (which later merged with Montclair State College). On Oct. 18, 1947, the Lions broke their 27-game losing streak by tying Rider in a scoreless game. Two other games ended in ties before the Lions finally ended the misery on Nov. 10, 1949 in their last game of the season.
Judging by the first half, it looked like it was time to chalk up another loss for Trenton State. Montclair quarterback Bob Lummer threw a 20-yard pass to Bob Edack in the second quarter to give Montclair the lead. Johnny Howarty missed the extra point, but the Lions were still in a 6-0 hole when they entered the locker room at halftime.
During halftime, a photographer from Life magazine took a shot of the team in the locker room that would later become the magazine’s “Picture of the Week.” The players certainly look like they’re on a team that hadn’t won in 11 years – everyone is sitting around, looking tired and frustrated. The sign hanging above the door is the motto that head coach George Ackerman tried to stress to his team – “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of fight in the dog.” Luckily for him and the College, the team stayed true to the slogan.
In the third quarter, Trenton got the ball at the Montclair 43-yard-line and marched down the field. The drive ended in success when Mike Angelotti fought hard for a one-yard touchdown run to tie the game. Bob Zardus, Trenton’s freshman kicker, knocked the extra point through the uprights to give his team the 7-6 lead, which luckily was all the scoring they would need.
It was a moment of redemption for Zardus, who missed both extra point tries in the season opener against Glassboro Teachers College, which ended in a 12-12 tie that extended the winless streak.
Fittingly, Montclair was the team that started the Lions’ streak on Nov. 18, 1938 when they handed Trenton a 6-0 defeat.
“I feel like we’ve just won the Rose Bowl,” Ackerman said to the press after the game.
The students didn’t waste any time celebrating their first taste of victory since 1938. As The Trentonian pointed out in its Nov. 11, 1949 report, “most (students) were little more than toddling infants … when State last won.”
According to The Trentonian article, “The band blared, the crowd roared, co-eds kissed strangers and Angelotti was carried from the field by his jubilant mates.” Ackerman and a few other coaches and players were thrown fully clothed into the swimming pool.
Trenton’s victory was the biggest national sports story of the day. The game was mentioned in radio reports, newspaper articles and Life. There had been plenty of newsreel cameras, photographers and reporters at the game along with the roughly 1,000 Trenton faithful.
John Dell, writer for The Trentonian, summed up the momentous occasion: “Stop the presses! Clear the wires! Break right in on the commercials! Ah! There’s good news this morning! Trenton State Teachers College won a football game!”
The team used the Montclair win as a jumpstart for success over the next few seasons. In 1950, the Lions put up a 5-1 record, a remarkable turnaround from their 1-5-1 record in 1949.
In 1951, the Lions once again finished with a zero in their record. Impressively, this zero was in the loss column – they went 6-0 for an undefeated season. Despite the College’s dominant Division III program in recent years, the football team has yet to put together another unbeaten season.
“We started to believe that we could win,” Sarkos was quoted as saying in reference to the 1951 team in “Stories of Glory.” “We had good players at every position. We had kids who were All-State who didn’t even start. It was a big deal for us to be undefeated.”
Since then, the College has established itself as a consistent Division III contender. The football team has won seven league championships and produced 21 All-Americans since 1977.
As we celebrate Founders’ Day and look back, we should not forget that our athletic program has come a long way. A bunch of guys, playing for a team recognized mainly by its winless streak, still came out and played hard each game to try to turn it around. Looking at the success of our school today, they did a pretty good job.