I learned to weld and cut with a torch when I was twelve. This was my father’s attempt at insuring that I had a viable trade to fall back on as an adult and I accompanied him onto many different job sites. From the age of fourteen and through high school, unless it was football season, my weekends, summers, and school vacations were spent doing iron work for ten to twelve hours per day. In college, the ability to provide security for Motown Records and touring groups that included The Who, The Grateful Dead, Wilson Pickett, Little Richard, and almost everyone of note in-between merely augmented the money earned as an iron worker. One of the job sites that my father was frequently assigned to was Columbia University in the Morningside Heights area of New York City. In the 1960’s and into the early 1970’s, Harlem, Spanish Harlem, Washington Heights, and Morningside Heights were not neighborhoods one would want to travel through unless absolutely necessary. Pre-Mayor Rudy Giuliani days when street crime was viewed as “sorry but stuff happens” type of events because random violence seemed to be an every day affair in the Big Apple, the Columbia University area, from 116th Street to approximately 121st Street was a bit of a no-man’s land unless you were actually on campus.
The Columbia campus was and remains a beautiful oasis within the confines of Manhattan. It is surrounded by huge ornamental iron gates, gates that my father and co-workers fabricated in the shop and then erected around the campus. I helped to build, paint, and erect the massive gated sections as well as the beautiful window guards on the home of the University President and other buildings. My brother was responsible for designing and then cutting, fabricating, and erecting the beam and other steel work for the extensive construction of the famous Butler Library. As a high school-aged student who would become the first in his family to graduate from high school and go on to a college education, the obvious beauty of the campus and reputation that its students had for academic brilliance was inviting but truly intimidating. When the time came to choose a college and opportunities arose to continue my football participation, the options weren’t bountiful but Columbia was on the list. Because it was perhaps the only university that my father, a relatively uneducated blue collar worker knew or knew about, he believed this was the one and only school that I should attend. Typical of a rebellious teenager, I would have little intention of attending a college chosen by my father, a school I had some familiarity with that was in my hometown area, and the one university that was on the top of the “definitely recommended” list of my teachers. Those at least were my reasons for choosing to instead enlist in the U.S. Navy, another decision altered at the last moment so that I could try to play football at Cincinnati but in truth, I was scared to death to even try to make the academic cut at Columbia. Like the other Ivy League universities, Columbia had, and maintains a reputation for being one of the finest and toughest academic institutions in the nation.
One of the locals who did choose Columbia was Joe Tuths. Tuths (pronounced “Tuts” as in King Tut) was a feared and fearless two-way lineman at neighboring Malverne High School who had the reputation as a very rough, strong guy who could also play basketball on a par with the unbelievable round ball talent in the Malverne-Lakeview-Hempstead area. One of the very few Caucasian players accepted and invited to play in the ultra-competitive street and park games by the likes of Julius “Dr. J.” Erving, Jeff Haliburton (Atlanta Hawks, Philadelphia Seventy-Sixers), Al Skinner (NY Nets and current head coach at Boston College), Wandy Williams (one of our running partners who played for the Denver Broncos and Buffalo Bills who was actually a better collegiate basketball player than football player) and others of the same caliber, Joe could run, jump, and bang the boards with anybody on Long Island. What few knew was that he was a top student. He was perfect for the Ivy League.
In Joe’s junior year of high school, he was great and so was Columbia, going 6-1 in the Ivy League to win a share of the conference championship. Not knowing that years later he would join them as rugby teammates on what was arguably the East Coast’s most successful rugby club, Joe watched future NY Giants surgeon Russ Warren, Tom Haggerty, and future Columbia head football coach Bill Campbell lead the Light Blue to Head Coach Aldo “Buff” Donelli’s best season. Thus, the attraction was formed and instead of taking an easier academic path at a typical football power, Joe made the decision to put academics first. In Joe’s senior year of high school, Malverne was a powerhouse and Joe, Wandy Williams, Curtis Fisher, Henry Etheridge, and Pete Anderson from that team went on to play excellent collegiate football with Williams becoming one of Lou Saban’s favorites with the Broncos.
Joe proved to be a jack-of-all-trades for the Columbia Lions, playing both ways as was customary in that era. However he was also recognized, as stated by Coach Donelli, “as one of the most versatile linemen. Tuths has and can perform equally well at center or tackle on offense or tackle on defense. He played the latter position most of last year and can be counted on to adapt to any of the three positions in a short period of time.” A football and track letterman at Malverne High School with tremendous athletic ability, Joe, at 6’2” and 220 pounds, moved to center for his senior season and was outstanding. Unfortunately, Columbia football was less than that during the Sixties, going 2-6-1 in 1964, 2-7 in ’65, and 2-7 again in Joe’s senior season. After yet a third consecutive 2-7 mark in 1967, Coach Donelli was relieved of his duties and Frank Navarro stepped in as head coach from 1968 through 1973. As an economics major, Joe was a brilliant student who went on to earn graduate degrees at Columbia but he detoured, being signed as a free agent center and linebacker candidate by the New York Giants. They felt he had a future and assigned him to their farm team in the Atlantic Coast Football League, the Westchester Bulls. It was felt by many that both Joe and former Indiana linebacker Bob Fiorini, could have and should have been kept on the Giants active roster as they were among the final cuts and certainly as talented as a number of players that remained. In a time of turmoil for the Giants, Joe finished his football career after two seasons with the Bulls and went on to a career that variously saw him involved as a high school teacher and coach, head of security for the Led Zeppelin tours of the U.S. during the 1970’s, rock concert promotion, and sales work. Joe needed an athletic outlet and played rugby for Old Blue of Manhattan, establishing himself as one of the best in the New York Metropolitan area, a continuation of his rugby career with Columbia’s team. As an educator he served as the assistant head coach and line coach for Malverne High School, helping them to achieve great success and was recognized as an extremely effective classroom teacher and mentor for the youngsters in the area.
Playing at a prestigious university like Columbia was a great experience for Joe, and of course, I had later discussed his playing career often with him, as his Bulls teammate, co-coach at Malverne, training partner, work associate, and friend. Losing often was frustrating but the quality education he received at Columbia and the opportunity to attend and represent such a wonderful university placed the win-loss record in its proper perspective. For helmet fans Columbia also wore the wonderful externally padded helmets for part of Joe’s stay, helmets that featured a wide white padded panel with an inch-and-a-half Columbia blue center stripe. The Columbia lion mascot was placed on both sides for a wonderful look, reflective of the era. Columbia football has not met the excellence that the rest of the University has but under the leadership of Athletic Director Dr. Dianne Murphy and Head Football Coach Norries Wilson, the change may come much more rapidly than observers expect. As one of the country’s finest academic institutions with a faculty second to none, a beautiful campus that provides access to the myriad opportunities presented by New York City, and a renewed enthusiasm for the football team, the Columbia Lions will surely be established as one of the Ivy League’s better programs.