At 7:24 p.m. Saturday evening, senior football cocaptain Mike Catapano marched onto Cannon Green with a long, silver torch, ready to ignite Princeton’s first bonfire in six years. Thousands of students and alumni watched as Catapano lit the large pile of firewood, sending a bright orange flame into the black night sky.
“It’s an awesome feeling to be able to unify the University and to have everyone be able to come for a single cause and be proud to be a Princetonian,” said junior wide receiver Roman Wilson, whose last-minute touchdown catch against Harvard last month helped make the bonfire happen.
Members of all four undergraduate classes worked throughout the morning to prepare the bonfire, including stacks of wooden pallets, a stuffed bulldog, an effigy of John Harvard and a traditional outhouse, painted with the scores of the team’s victories over Harvard and Yale. Shortly before the ceremonies began, a crimson Harvard banner was added to the pile of kindling.
Former linebacker Brig Walker ’07 handed the torch to Catapano while standing on a stage set up behind Nassau Hall. Walker starred for the Princeton team that won an Ivy League title and earned Princeton’s previous bonfire in 2006, breaking what was then a 12-year streak of flameless falls.
“We were then the standard-bearers of the Princeton football legacy,” Walker told the crowd. “I stand here today, proud and privileged, representing my class and my team, to pass that baton on to you.”
From 2007 to 2011, Princeton never came particularly close to earning a bonfire. The Tigers lost five consecutive games to Harvard and only beat Yale once in that span, finishing with 1-9 overall records in each of the last two seasons.
But this October, a revitalized Princeton squad stunned Harvard in its homecoming game at Princeton Stadium, scoring four touchdowns in the last quarter to erase a 24-point deficit and beat the defending champion 39-34.
University President Shirley Tilghman referenced the team’s memorable comeback in her pre-bonfire remarks.
“This year, this team gave us a game that will go down in the history books,” she said. “For all of you who were foolish enough to leave at halftime, you will never live it down.”
Three weeks later, the Tigers beat Yale 29-7 on the road, marking the 25th time in school history Princeton swept its Big Three opponents. Though the Tigers lost their season finale to Dartmouth on Saturday, they still finished with a winning record in Ivy League play (4-3) for the first time since 2006.
“We’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” senior linebacker and cocaptain Andrew Starks told the crowd. “Princeton football in 2012 has been through so many things together ... We’ve spilled more sweat, more blood and more tears than anybody else can know.”
Saturday’s bonfire was somewhat smaller than the 2006 edition, but the flames still stretched dozens of feet high, blasting heat into the first few rows of students encircling the fire. Students let out a roar as the wood was ignited — following with chants of “Harvard sucks” — and cheered again minutes later when the outhouse collapsed into the flames.
The celebration was the culmination of renewed fan interest in the football program, stemming from the team’s on-field success. After beating Harvard on Oct. 20, students stormed Princeton Stadium and celebrated with the players. And last weekend, more than 400 students took USG-provided buses to Yale — Princeton’s largest road crowd in at least six years — and when the Tigers won, making the bonfire official, students again rushed onto the field, this time on visiting turf.
Third-year head coach Bob Surace ’90 — who lit the torch as a junior in 1988 — thanked the Princeton community for its support before the bonfire began.
“I’ve bled orange and black for 26 years as a student, an athlete, an alum and now a coach, and those moments shared on the field against Harvard and Yale, I can tell you right now, I’ve never been prouder to be a Princetonian,” he said.
At 8:30 p.m., more than an hour after it was ignited, the dying flame was extinguished by members of the fire department, covering Cannon Green in a thick, grey smoke. But the 2012 Tigers will long be remembered for bringing back a bonfire, joining the teams of 2006, 1994 and others which have previously passed the torch.
“It’s awesome to have our place in history. It means so much to see people who have come before us and done the same thing,” Wilson said. “I couldn’t ask for a better way to send the seniors out and have a good feeling when they leave.”
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/11/17/31860/