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The Amazing Grace of Gary Wood

By Jim Hanchett '53

From The Crescent, Feb. 8, 2004, a Cornell Athletics and Physical Education publication. Reprinted with permission.
Gary Wood

Gary Wood

Gary Wood ’64 was chosen Cornell’s greatest-ever quarterback this past fall. They should have called him Shakespeare for all the classic drama he created.

People sometimes wonder how a quarterback could rush for so many yards. (He’s fifth among Big Red rushers with 2,156 yards, a flat 5-yard-per-carry average.) “Well,” explains his coach, Tom Harp, “he was a very good passer and a great runner,” and the Cornell attack was built on the immense talent packed into that (officially) 5-11, 185-pound frame, carried by thighs like a tackle’s. In his senior year, Wood ran the ball more than twice as often as any other Big Red back.
His finest hour was surely a 1962 Schoellkopf shoot-out, a last-ditch 35-34 triumph over Princeton, when the Big Red came from behind four times — and last. The drama diverted the 21,000 present from the ominous faraway game being played by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and President John F. Kennedy. The Cuban missile crisis was at its height.
Princeton scored first. In the second quarter, a 55-yard Wood-to-end-Ed Burnap pass play evened it. The Tiger single wing regained the lead, but Wood retied the score at 14-all with a 49-yard dash around right end. It became 20-14 for Old Nassau at halftime when super fullback Cosmo Iacavazzi dove in from the 1. (That missed PAT was to be significant.)
In the second half, Cornell marched on to a 28-20 lead on a Wood pass to Al Aragona from a yard out, followed by Wood’s 2-yard TD run. Iacavazzi’s two TDs inside one minute moved the Tigers back in front, 34-28, in the last quarter. Time was slipping away when the Wood moving company got one more chance on its 20.

Gary drove the Big Red to the Princeton 29, where, on fourth down, he rolled around end for 6 yards and a first down. On fourth down again, he threw to Burnap for a first down on the 5. A swing pass to Aragona put the ball over, and Pete Gogolak’s fifth PAT of the day made it 35-34 with 1:23 to go — time enough for a miraculous comeback. But the Red held that Tiger at the Cornell 45 and that was it. Mister Comeback rushed for 125 yards that day, threw for 212, and was chosen the National Back of the Week by the Associated Press and Sports Illustrated.

He had endangered the Tigers the year before at Princeton. Cornell was behind 30-10 with 5:12 left. Soph backup QB Wood returned a kickoff 19 yards. After a 15-yard Princeton penalty, he passed to fullback Bob Milne and Aragona for substantial pickups, and, in just four plays, turned right end for 6 yards for one score, then ran a two-point conversion over. Cornell’s Jim Lampkins recovered an onside Gogolak kick on the 44. Wood took the ball again and battled through a swarm of Tigers for his second TD in 57 seconds. It was 30-25 with 2:27 left. Cornell regained possession with 20 seconds remaining, too little, but you felt that was maybe a break for Princeton.

Against Penn in ’62, Wood rolled out right on the first play from scrimmage, and, with help from Milne, who neutralized a linebacker, hustled 61 yards for a TD. Penn tied it up, then Wood passed to Aragona for a 17-yard score, but it was Penn 22, Cornell 21 going into the last quarter. (That Red team was not huge on defense, most agreed.) With time slipping away, Wood seized the last opportunity, mixing run and pass, including one to himself, as he drove briskly from his 31 to the Quaker 19. Once more he rolled out — right — for the final score of the day, Cornell 29, Penn 22. Wood had gained 387 yards total offense, 207 of them rushing, and moved Bill Wallace, the New York Herald-Tribune’s man at Franklin Field, to write “Maybe Gary Wood cannot walk on water, maybe Gary Wood cannot fly in the sky, but Gary Wood can play football like nobody’s business.” He took note of that Wood-to-Wood completion, in which Penn tackle Jim Arthur batted down a fourth-down pass, which Wood caught and ran seven vital yards to keep the winning drive alive.

Harp cites that as the single play that best exemplifies a central truth about his stirring QB: “Whatever it took, he got the job done.” It might be a sprint-out pass, a rolling fake and run, a bootleg or a long kickoff return. Solid defense, too, in one-platoon years. “He could meet any challenge with quiet confidence,” says Harp.

Cornell was down 17-10 with 2:55 left against Columbia in 1963, and it was time to get busy. Red leader Wood passed and ran the team 65 yards to the 1, plunged in, and, with 14 seconds left, pitched off the option to Bob Baker for the two winning points. Against Yale two weeks before, he gained 240 yards all told, 80 of them on a third-quarter run that tied the score at 10. Delta Upsilon fraternity brother and future New York Giants teammate Gogolak kicked a field goal from the 33 with 45 seconds left, and Cornell won 13- 10. By the way, besides pointing out that Wood had “total control” on the field, and even made key interceptions on defense, Pete says Gary’s quick hands made him the best holder he ever worked with.

The week after Columbia, Cornell fell behind Brown 25-21 with 2:55 on the clock. Once again, Woody was up against a test of his vast natural ability, leadership and football wisdom. He seemed to get better when things got bad, guard George Arangio recalls. It was two-minute drill time. In a huddle along the way, when some yards were badly needed, Gary told Arangio, “I’m going to run the bootleg. Can you get that end out of the way?” Indeed he could, and did, and the drive proceeded.

In 15 plays, Wood and company were on the 8 with 42 seconds showing. Wood called two plays in the huddle. Fullback Joe Robinson gained three. End Bill Ponzer, blocking an end on that play, was out wide when the ball was snapped — no huddle – and was free to dart into the end zone with the ball Wood tossed him. The final score was 28-25, for Cornell’s sixth last-minute extraction of the teeth from the jaws of defeat in two years. Against Brown the year before, Wood ran and passed for 276 yards in a 28-26 win. Against Penn in ’63, on a grim Thanksgiving Day after the assassination of President Kennedy, Wood ran for two TDs, one of them a 36-yarder. Penn coach John Stiegman congratulated his players for “holding” Wood to 192 yards gained in a 17-8 Big Red win. “Nobody wanted Gary Wood running against them,” says Harp.

Wood was named the Ivy Back of the Week after the 14-12 upset of Harvard in ’62, when he ran and passed for 116 yards and threw touchdown passes to Lampkins and Don McCarthy. Wood was an All-Ivy first-team selection in 1962 and ’63 (chosen as a halfback, of all things) and was the nation’s leading kick returner in ’63.

You can’t win them all. One got away in the snow at Columbia in ’62, when the Lions’ Archie Roberts passed to Al Butts for a 24-yard TD with 19 seconds left. That gave Columbia the lead, 25-21, for the first time that afternoon. Wood ran and passed for 183 yards, one more than Roberts. Wood rushed for 62 yards, Roberts for minus 6. Cornell played Bob Blackman’s powerful Dartmouth teams close in all three Wood years, but never won, even though Wood ran and passed for 216 yards in 33 attempts, despite badly hurting ribs in the ’62 game against the Big Green’s All-America QB Bill King. Of course, as McCarthy recalls, Woody was “battered, bruised and fatigued” in the locker room after every game.

Gary was raised by a single mom in Cortland, N.Y., where super Cornell quarterback Pete Dorset ’50 coached him in small-fry football. Dorset, listed at 5-8 1/2, 155, directed two Lefty James Big Red teams to unofficial Ivy titles. When he told Lefty that Woody could make an impact at Cornell, Lefty listened. Gary went on to wear number 19, as Dorset had.
A driving competitor in the clutch and a shy, soft-spoken gentleman off the field, Woody died at the age of 52 on March 2, 1994.