By Hugh Howard
A fierce competitor on the football field, Mike Reily ’64 lost a courageous battle with Hodgkin’s disease just weeks after his graduation. This fall, his classmates and teammates return to campus to celebrate his legacy.
On a sunny June day, Mike Reily ’64 left his infirmary bed and slipped into an aisle seat alongside his classmates assembled at Field Park. The commencement speaker that day was none other than U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk, sharing his “prescription for peace” in Laos and Vietnam. But many of the 266 graduates were too distracted to listen.
“We sat docilely,” remembers Peter Hero ’64. “But we were worried about Mike walking across the stage.”
Just 18 months before, Reily, a two-time Associated Press Small College All-American, had been the star of a now legendary football win against a powerhouse Amherst team. But even Reily’s voluminous graduation gown couldn’t obscure how wasted he had become by Hodgkin’s disease. As he tried in vain to muffle his hacking cough, Reily turned to his friend Joel Reingold ’64 and said, “You know, Joe, the only thing I want to do is graduate.”
His classmates watched as Reily, his gait unsteady, climbed the stairs to receive his diploma from President Jack Sawyer ’39. The following day he left campus early to return home to New Orleans, where he was soon admitted to a hospital.
Meanwhile, the Class of 1964 scattered. Ben Wagner ’64, Reily’s football cocaptain, was wearing a Kansas City Chiefs uniform at preseason camp when he got the news. Dave Johnston ’64, Reily’s senior-year roommate, was in Paris when the call came from his friend’s father back in Louisiana. John Winfield ’64, aboard the USS United States, received a telegram. Despite surgery, nitrogen mustard therapy and radiation, Michael Meredith Reily, 21, died on July 25, 1964.
Nearly 50 years later, three football jerseys—tucked away in an unremarkable box and stowed high on a shelf in the Cole Field House equipment room— would play a key role in the plan to honor Reily’s legacy at Homecoming Weekend this November.
On Nov. 18, 1961, a confident Amherst team rolled into Williamstown, expecting to clinch the Lambert Cup and Little Three crown. The Lord Jeffs had overwhelmed their opponents that season by an average score of 32 to 7. By contrast, the Ephs had scored a mere 81 points in seven games.
Sixteen of head coach Len Watters’ 32 players that year were new to the squad as sophomores, but Williams had a respectable 5-2 record, thanks mainly to the “monster defense” implemented by defensive coach Frank Navarro. The performance of one sophomore in particular, number 50, attracted press attention. In his first varsity game, Mike Reily set a school record with 15 tackles. He came into the Amherst game with 80. (The most tackles on the team the previous year had been 34.) Like most of his teammates, Reily played both ways, linebacker on defense and offensive center. As fullback Bill Chapman ’64 recalls, “Center was—prophetically, symbolically—a great place for Mike.”
A graduate of the Woodberry Forest School in Virginia, where he was valedictorian, head prefect and co-captain of three teams, Reily turned down a prestigious Morehead Fellowship to the University of North Carolina and came to Williams to play football and wrestle. He came from a family of means; his room at Williams always smelled like the chicory-flavored coffee produced by the New Orleans-based Reily Foods Company. Yet, despite such auspices, according to Gay Mayer ’64, “Mike was very humble. Likable. He was just one of the guys.”
Against Amherst that bitterly cold November day in 1961 (at kickoff, the thermometer read 28 degrees), Reily recovered a fumble in the second quarter that led to the first score, putting the home team up 6-0. A third-quarter touchdown gave Williams a 12-0 lead, and Amherst saw its hopes of an undefeated season end when Reily intercepted his second pass of the day, this one inside the Williams 10-yard line. In its account of what The Amherst Student deemed “Black Saturday” the following week, the paper called Reily “easily … the best football player seen by the Amherst team this year.”
During his junior year, Reily would make 79 tackles and receive All-America honors for the second time. He and Wagner were elected co-captains for their senior year. But a few players noticed something wasn’t quite right. After Thanksgiving break, they learned Reily was ill. He began taking regular trips to Boston for treatments; his well-muscled frame began to thin. In a matter of months, it became apparent he would be too weak to take the field his senior year. Still, he attended every practice dressed in gray sweats, carrying a clipboard. He suited up for all the games, though the closest he could come to taking part was walking to midfield for the coin toss.
Everyone noticed Reily’s dedication, including the coaches. Back then there was no precedent at Williams for retiring a player’s number—there still isn’t. But before storing the uniforms after the season, equipment managers Jimmy McArthur and Charlie Hurley asked Navarro, now head coach, what to do with the three jerseys bearing the number 50, one each for home and away games, and one for practice. “Our hearts were so heavy we had to do something,” Navarro says, recalling the conversation.
It seemed proper to set the jerseys aside, and into a box they went. Over the years it became common knowledge as coaches, equipment mangers and players came and went that number 50 was not to be issued. When new uniforms were ordered, 50 was omitted. The memory of who and what the number actually represented was lost over time, but a quiet tradition was established.
In 2009, addressing his classmates at their 45th reunion, Class President Jay Freedman ’64 made reference to those who had died over the years. “I decided to add something about Mike in particular,” he says. “He was a really gentle guy with this soft way about him that people respected.”
Freedman suggested they were running out of time to honor Reily. The class agreed, and before long Wagner and others contacted Williams sports information director Dick Quinn, asking him to add Reily to the “Eph Legends” listed on the athletics website. Quinn, who remembered as a youngster hearing the words “tackle by Reily” reverberating across Weston Field, suggested Scott barrow that perhaps an award should be established in Reily’s name. Aaron Kelton, the recently appointed head football coach, was quick to endorse the idea.
When Quinn was asked by an assistant coach, “Dick, you know about retired number 50?” during a football game in October 2010, he paid a visit to Cole Field House. A beat-up, water-stained box with the familiar Wilson logo had been discovered almost out of sight, next to a couple of busted helmets. Written across the lid in thick, black marker were the words: “FOOTBALL #50 DO NOT ISSUE.” Three jerseys lay neatly folded inside, their owner unknown until the college archives unearthed some photographs of Reily wearing number 50.
The discovery of the jerseys added to the momentum behind the plan to celebrate Reily at homecoming this November—on the 50th anniversary of what’s come to be known as “The Game”—by dedicating the Michael M. Reily ’64 Award. The award, to be given each year at the football team’s season-ending banquet, will honor a player chosen by his teammates who “best exemplifies the qualities of performance, leadership and character.”
That some 200 of Reily’s classmates and teammates are expected to be on hand for the dedication and recognition dinner is noteworthy—and not just because the event had yet to be announced publicly at press time. The Class of 1964 historically hasn’t had the highest reunion participation or raised the most money. Unlike some others, as one alumnus puts it, “Our class wasn’t particularly unified or close.”
And yet “the event is bringing people back to Williams who haven’t been connected for years,” says Steve Birrell ’64, former Williams vice president of alumni relations and development.
One of those people is Hero, who last visited campus 25 years ago. Andrew Smith ’64, who says he “happened upon” Reily leaving early the morning after their graduation, stayed away even longer. Of their brief farewell in the parking lot at Alpha Delta Phi, where Reily was fraternity president, Smith recalls, “He didn’t want to have a scene. I think he was leaving early to avoid the goodbyes, and I think that’s a lot of what’s powering this November weekend.”
Mayer, now 1964’s class president, attributes the surge in engagement to Reily himself. “It’s not the Williams piece,” he says. “It’s the Mike Reily piece that has touched people.”
“It’s sort of like Mike Reily is calling us back together for one last huddle,” adds Freedman. “It’s interesting that someone who has been dead so long can have that kind of pull on people.”
Winfield agrees: “I don’t think there’s any question he’s the single most inspirational person in my life. Not for his football exploits—no, it was his bravery in the face of death. That made a huge impression.”
A frequent contributor to the Review, writer and historian Hugh Howard is author of the forthcoming Mr. and Mrs. Madison’s War (Bloomsbury Press, 2012).