When Jim Rockenbach ’64 learned this fall that he had two months left to live, the 1963 Princeton football team knew they needed to rush to his side.
The friends first played together in the fall of 1960, and before their senior year, the team was expected to place sixth in the league. Instead, under the leadership of Rockenbach and Bill Guedel ’64, the team finished the season with a 7-2 record and a share of the Ivy League championship.
“We had a fabulous experience,” said Dick Spring ’64 of their college football days. “We all formed friendships that were very, very deep and very close, and in some respects have gotten even closer over the years.”
In the nearly 60 years since graduation, they saw each other at Reunions and football events, including two years ago when a few of them were honored at the Yale game as some of Princeton football’s best players of the Ivy League era. They got closer, they say, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, when 10 friends from the team decided to keep in touch through regular Zoom calls. They reminisced and shared updates on their own lives for over an hour during each one.
Since the pandemic started, the number on the call dwindled to six as friends passed away. Then Rockenbach shared that he had aplastic anemia — a condition where the body stops producing new blood cells — and was running out of medical options. His doctor told him to start getting his affairs in order.
Rather than move up the date of their next scheduled Zoom call, the five friends and some of their wives flew from homes as far away as California, Idaho, and Oklahoma to see Rockenbach in Florida one last time. They arrived on Dec. 7, and the last friend flew home on Dec. 11.
“I am completely honored and just so very happy.” Rockenbach said of the visit, recalling a similarly “poignant” trip that he and Springs made to visit their former team captain, Guedel, before his death in 2013. Though Rockenbach needed some time alone to rest during the week, friends said he was “upbeat” and “buoyant” with a “bring-it-on” attitude.
During their time together in Jacksonville, where Rockenbach was vice president of Ring Power Corporation but is now retired, the friends spent some time reliving their years playing football together. On the first night, they called the team’s last surviving coach, Bob Casciola ’58, and later in the week they spoke with teammates from 1965 and 1966 over Zoom.
Mostly, though, they spent the week catching up on the goings on of their own lives. Some friends said they especially admired Rockenbach’s prison ministry and his relationship with a man on death row.
“We’re just thinking, ‘Hey, here you are in the final stages, you should be feeling sorry for yourself and taking it in,’” said Peter Poreitas ’64. “He said, ‘No, the good thing I get pleasure from is giving back.’ That really made a huge impression on me.”
The week also proved that life would go on for the visitors: Shortly after he left the gathering on Friday morning, Bill Crano ’64 learned that he had been awarded a Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the Society of Personality and Social Psychology. His wife noted in an email to the assembled friends that Crano would receive the award at a conference in February. Poreitas celebrated his 80th birthday during the visit — the other men are all turning 80 in the coming year.
“I’m not afraid to die; I have no fear of it,” Rockenbach said. “My only concern is the people I leave behind.”
When faced with the prospect of saying a final goodbye to Rockenbach at the end of the week, the friends didn’t seem too worried.
“Rock has assured us that when he leaves here, he’s going to go to heaven and he’s going to be lobbying like hell for the rest of us,” said Springs. “He fully expects to see us at some time in the future. It may be the last temporal time, but it’s not going to be the last time.”