A look back at Joe Maddon's short college football career

Courtesy of Lafayette College Athletics

Neil Putnam had been getting ready for spring practice at Lafayette College in 1973 when one of his quarterbacks came into the head varsity football coach's office with news of a difficult decision.

Fresh off a strong season running the Leopards' freshman football team, this budding two-sport star had decided to pass on a possible career on the gridiron, instead choosing to focus solely on baseball.

"Of course, my heart went down to my shoes," Putnam said, 43 years later. "I'm behind the desk, and Joe's looking at me. I said, 'Joe, have you thought this over?' And then I tried to obviously do a little bit of a sell job: 'We're looking forward to you coming into the varsity,' and, 'Great hopes for the future of the program' and all the things a head coach would do.

"But in the end what I said was what I meant: 'If you've made a decision and you thought it out, then you go with your decision and with my blessing. You become the best baseball player possible and do it right; however, if you decide to come back, door's always open.'"

"Joe" was Joe Maddon, the brainiac manager whose Chicago Cubs will open the World Series on Tuesday against the Cleveland Indians. But before Maddon took the North Siders to their first Fall Classic in 71 years, before he legitimized the Tampa Bay Rays, before he spent three decades in the Los Angeles Angels' organization, the kid from West Hazleton, Pennsylvania, was something of a football star. And few bore witness to those pigskin exploits outside of Maddon's alma mater, Lafayette, a 2,500-student liberal arts school some 80 minutes southeast of Maddon's hometown.

There, in the land of the FCS, every regular season ends with "The Rivalry," pitting Lafayette against nearby nemesis Lehigh in what is the nation's most-played football series. Maddon had a memorable debut in that matchup in the 1972 freshman game, completing 14 of 17 passes for four touchdowns in a Lafayette win.

It would mark the last game of Maddon's football career.

He wore No. 12, a memory that resurfaced around campus last month when, during one of the eccentric skipper's many themed road trips with the Cubs, Maddon wore a black and red Lafayette jersey that was given to him by current Leopards football coach Frank Tavani.

As a signal-caller, Maddon demonstrated tremendous field vision, Putnam recalled. Steve Schnall, who was in charge of Lafayette's freshman team at the time, said in retrospect, the 5-foot-11 Maddon reminded him of a taller, slightly less mobile version of Doug Flutie, who won the 1984 Heisman Trophy before embarking on a 21-year professional career.

Schnall lauded Maddon's IQ, saying he trusted his quarterback enough to put "auto-calls" in to him rather than strictly designed plays, which gave him a freedom at the line of scrimmage that was unusual more than four decades ago.

"Just by accident we were running RPOs [run-pass options]," Schnall said. "We didn't call it 'RPO' in those days but we were checking from calling a pass to running the ball or calling a run and then he would check to a pass, things like that that nobody was doing, including the pros. This guy was way ahead of his time in terms of intellect and ability and great judgment. Great instincts in everything he did."

Schnall recruited Maddon out of Hazleton High. He remembered a blue-collar family, with his mother working at the Third-Base Luncheonette -- where she still works today -- and his father working as a plumber. Lafayette had no qualms about allowing Maddon to play both football and baseball.

Schnall sees some of Maddon's mottos now -- be it "try not to suck" or "do simple better" -- and is reminded of their shared philosophies. Maddon has spoken publicly about Schnall's own mantra -- "zero defects" -- and how it has helped influence his managing style.

"ZD," as Schnall called it, is about doing everything right the first time and creating a culture that strives to be mistake-free in everything from the neatness of the locker room to the way meals are served.

"[Maddon] is a special person, and it ain't a fluke what he's done at Tampa Bay and Chicago," Schnall said. "This guy's got the ability to relate to players, but he also relates to the janitor just as well as the players and also relates to the owner just as well as he does to the janitor. He's got a special knack of relationship relevancy. He's an amazing guy and [his success is] well-deserved."

Schnall, who went on to have a long coaching career in both the college and NFL ranks, still exchanges emails with Maddon but has yet to visit him in Chicago, although he was once the manager's spring training guest with the Rays.

Putnam, the coach who had left that football door ajar for Maddon, heard from his former pupil in 2014, when they arranged to reconnect at Yankee Stadium, the site of the 150th Lafayette-Lehigh football game -- 41 years after they had last seen each other.

Reunions being what they are, the two never crossed paths in the Bronx. Putnam drove back to his Vermont home and, a day later, received a call from an apologetic Maddon, who had gotten caught up saying hello to too many other old faces.

"He felt like he had done something wrong to make me want to retire back in the day," Maddon recalled. "I said, 'Coach, you did nothing wrong. ... I wanted to play baseball; I didn't want to just keep getting hit anymore. You had nothing to do with it.' ... He felt so badly about that, so we talked about that and we just talked about all the coaches that we had."

The newly-minted Chicago manager invited Putnam and his family to a game of their choice, and the party made a day out of it last July, first visiting Putnam's son -- who was stationed in Illinois as the commander of the state's National Guard's 2nd Battalion -- before heading to Wrigley Field for a night game.

Putnam and his wife, their son, daughter-in-law and grandkids got to meet with Maddon and explore his office before the Cubs faced the Cardinals. Maddon was a gracious host, Putnam said, one who "had not changed one iota" from the teenager he remembers coaching. The group laughed about Lafayette and old times, with Maddon even saying that he planned to throw the party to end all parties back at a fraternity house upon his next campus return.

Putnam, the old coach, warned him not to get kids in trouble -- but Maddon, who says the party is on for next month, invited Putnam. You know, to make sure things don't get out of hand.

Putnam says he's not a superstitious man, but the old coach in him can't shake certain routines, be it wearing the same hat when things are going well or greeting folks the same way every day.

And so it is that he has yet to make contact with Maddon during this charmed campaign, for he couldn't bear the thought of being the reason the Cubs don't close the deal and snap their 108-year streak without a World Series title.

"There's no way after the beginning of the year I was going to get back to him in-season," Putnam quipped. "I can't wait for him to win this thing so I can break the silence and get back to him."