Playing football at Princeton created lasting memories for William Ledger ’54, who lettered in his senior year and had the opportunity to follow one of the Tigers’ greatest teams, the undefeated 1951 squad, as a sophomore.
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Brett Tomlinson: Welcome to PAW Tracks, an oral-history podcast from the Princeton Alumni Weekly. This episode marks the end of our series, which has been running for the last four years. It’s been great fun to produce, and we are especially grateful to the dozens of alumni who’ve shared Princeton stories with us. You can listen to all 56 episodes on our website, paw.princeton.edu.
For this episode, we spoke with Dr. William Ledger ’54, a distinguished medical doctor and professor who happens to have a deep knowledge of Princeton’s football history. He played end for the Tigers, and three years ago, he published a book about the undefeated 1951 team. For Ledger, a native of Turtle Creek, Pa., the path to Princeton began with a conversation with one of the University’s legendary coaches.
William Ledger: Being a high school football player and then weighing about 190 pounds, I was college material. And all of the other football coaches that I had seen, even from small schools, spent the time either feeling me, to see how big I was, or talking about what I could do in their football program. So I came in and met Charlie Caldwell [’25]. He shook my hand, had me sit down, and then proceeded to sell me on the idea of going to Princeton when he found out I was going to be a premed student. He said, “If you come to Princeton you’ll be able to get into any medical school in the country if you want to do that.” And he never said a word about football during the whole interview, which lasted almost an hour. And when it was over and we shook hands and I left the room the only thought that went through my mind is I have to go to Princeton, this is the place to go. So it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me.
BT: As a sophomore, Ledger was still on the junior varsity. But being part of the football program gave him a front-row seat for one of the most remarkable seasons in Tiger history, when Dick Kazmaier ’52 led the team to a 9-0 record and was rewarded with the Heisman Trophy.
WL: That team, if you looked at them before the season, there was no way that they were going to be undefeated. They had lost a tremendous number of players from the undefeated team of 1950. And they simply didn’t have the personnel, I thought, to be able to be undefeated. In fact when we had our spring practice game, the referees at that game had also refereed the Penn spring practice game. And they just said Penn had so much better talent than we had that there was no way that we could even compete with them. But what happened was Charlie Caldwell was a terrific coach, we had a handful of really, really good athletes, and then a whole host of senior athletes and then a whole host of junior athletes who were really good who filled in almost all the gaps in the offensive team.
BT: Kazmaier was the central figure — a quick, elusive 171-pound tailback who was a gifted passer as well. The Tigers relied on the single-wing, which Caldwell had molded to fit his athletic but somewhat undersized offensive unit.
WL: What Caldwell did was he had the quarterback, the blocking back, rotate, so his back was to the defensive line, and had the fullback run into the line and hand the ball to the quarterback, who could then run it himself or lateral to the tailback or hand it off to the wingback. And all the time the ball was hidden from the defensive team. So all of a sudden someone would appear out of the backfield with the ball. And there was no warning for it. And he emphasized speed, not size. We had big tough players on defense, but the offensive team was pretty small and fast. But they were very good, very talented. And it was an offense at that time that could not be stopped.
BT: After a series of early victories, including an impressive win at Penn, Princeton hosted the Ivy League’s other unbeaten team, Cornell, at Palmer Stadium, in front a full house of 50,000 fans.
WL: All this occurred before pro football became really popular. So a game between Cornell and Princeton that year was the gridiron event of the year.
It was one of the most exciting games I’ve ever seen, because Kazmaier had a game that day that actually I think won him the Heisman award, because there were all these people there from the media watching the game, because you had two undefeated Ivy League teams. He just had a terrific game. I think he completed 17 out of 19 passes, had some terrific runs, just played a fantastic game. And I think the other part of it was that Kazmaier was blessed with the fact that he had three really excellent pass receivers, because he threw high hard passes, and they pulled them in, and it just set the situation. And after the game I don’t think there was any question in anyone’s mind at Princeton that we were going to win the rest of the games, and that’s exactly what we did. It was great fun. And it was great fun being on the jayvee team, because I scrimmaged against this varsity team every week and had the opportunity to play against them and see how they were.
BT: Ledger would move up to the varsity the following year, only to see his season cut short by injury. Then, as a senior, he finally had the chance to play in front of the Palmer Stadium crowd.
WL: It was really exciting. The problem for me was that the first game that I started was against Navy. And Navy beat us my senior year 65 to 7, the worst defeat in Princeton history. And I’ve always told everyone it was one of the best games I ever played because I blocked one extra point and just missed two others.
BT: The season would improve: Princeton finished with a winning record of 5-4, including a victory at Harvard. Nearly 65 years later, Ledger recalls his football experience fondly. But as a doctor, he worries about the game and the effects it has on today’s players.
WL: Well, I think for me football was just a wonderful experience, and it made me think that I could meet almost any challenge, and I was up to it. So it was really a great experience.
Now I’m going to add this, and this may not do me any favors with the current football coaching staff. But as I look at the current status of the players here at Princeton, where they are so big and so fast, and they play on artificial turf so they get even faster speeds, I really worry about the safety of the players. And the thing that I worry about is not so much gee, they might get a bad knee injury or they might hurt their shoulder. What I’m worried about is their brain, because if there’s an injury there that isn’t anything that we really can do anything about. And it may have an impact on them for life. Now having said this, I don’t sense any lack of enthusiasm by the players for the program. I think they’re committed to it. I think the current coaching staff we have is really an excellent one, and I think they’re committed to the health and the best lifetime wishes of the players. I’m happy about that.
BT: Our thanks to William Ledger for sharing his story. His book about the 1951 Tigers is called Team of Destiny: Princeton Football’s Undefeated 1951 Season, and listeners who are interested in the book can contact Ledger by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brett Tomlinson produced this episode. The interview was recorded at Princeton’s Broadcast Studio, with help from Daniel Kearns. The music in this podcast is licensed from FirstCom Music.