It’s been more than half a century since he helped lead Northwestern to victory in the 1949 Rose Bowl, and Gaspar Perricone (WCAS50) says his memories of the historic win are gradually fading.
“That was 50 years ago,” says Perricone, a linebacker and fullback for the Wildcats from 1946 to 1950, when asked if he has any significant memories from the Rose Bowl. “I have very few memories now, but I have a lot of pain. I’m arthritic as hell. I get my feet on the floor every morning, but after that the problems begin.”
Perricone, 78, keeps himself busy for a man still feeling the effects of all those runs up the middle. He has served as a senior judge in Colorado since his retirement from the state’s district court in 1997, filling in for judges who are on vacation or ill and hearing cases all across the state, the latest chapter in a life that has also seen Perricone serve in the U.S. Army, play semipro football, open a private law practice, officiate college football for nearly 30 years and assist in the trials of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, co-conspirators in the April 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building.
And don’t be fooled: Perricone’s reluctance to discuss his athletic achievements is a product of humility, not forgetfulness, says Rose Bowl MVP Frank Aschenbrenner (EB49), a halfback on the 1949 team and a longtime friend of Perricone’s.
“Gaspar was probably one of the best fullbacks I’ve ever seen,” says Aschenbrenner. “If you needed a yard, Gaspar was the back who was going to get it for you.”
Although Perricone was vital to the Rose Bowl team’s success, his humility and blue-collar playing style kept him out of the spotlight, Aschenbrenner said. “He’s a quiet, humble guy, and he deserves a lot more credit than he ever got at Northwestern.”
Perricone grew up in Pueblo, Colo., wrestling and playing football during high school. His father had graduated from Northwestern, and Perricone was drawn to the University by its academic reputation and the opportunity to play Big Ten Conference football. He arrived on campus in 1946, just in time to compete for a spot on the team with about 300 prospective players, many of them just back from serving in World War II. Perricone, who says he was “a big fella for a back, a 1- or 2-yard guy,” earned a spot, gaining a reputation as a bruising ball carrier.
“I remember him as a really, really tough, hard-nosed player,” says Ray Farley (EB51), a halfback who played with Perricone. “He was gritty, ran hard and didn’t worry about who was in front of him. He wasn’t a dodgy type, and he was strong as a bull. He ran over and through people, not around them.”
Perricone used that strength during the Rose Bowl, gaining two key first downs on the game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter and helping to set up one of the most famous plays in Northwestern football history.
The Wildcats started the drive on their own 12-yard line, trailing the University of California 14-13. After the Wildcats completed their only pass of the game to the 30-yard line, Perricone rumbled 14 yards for a first down. A few plays later, on fourth-and-one from the California 46-yard line and with the game possibly on the line, Perricone took the handoff again and gained about a yard, good for another first down.
Two plays later and with about three minutes left in the game, Northwestern ran a trick play, with right halfback Ed Tunnicliff (C50) taking a direct snap, turning the corner and running 43 yards for the game-winning touchdown. The extra point gave Northwestern a 20-14 lead, and an interception of a California pass deep in Wildcat territory sealed the win, earned in large part thanks to Perricone’s hard-fought yards.
After one final season with the Wildcats, Perricone graduated in 1950 with a degree in geological sciences and married Carol Coombes (WCAS50), whom he had met in class.
Perricone was drafted by the NFL’s Chicago Bears after graduation, but he was also drafted into the U.S Army. He was stationed in San Francisco, where he worked for the Army Map Service during the Korean War.
He eventually caught on with a semiprofessional football team sponsored by a used-car salesman who wasn’t always prompt in paying his players their $20 per game. Perricone and his teammates began sitting in the box office before kickoff, where they would take their cut of the ticket revenues to prevent the owner from lining his pockets with their cash.
“We knew damn well he was stiffing us,” Perricone says. “It took a couple of times before he figured out that we weren’t playing until we had our money.”
Perricone moved back to Colorado and earned his law degree from the University of Denver in 1956, but even after he opened his own law practice, he couldn’t escape football’s pull. Perricone spent 28 years as a college football official, including about 20 years as an umpire in the Big 8 Conference (now the Big 12 Conference), working nearly every major bowl game except the Rose Bowl, which was open only to Big Ten and Pacific-10 Conference officials at the time.
Perricone was appointed to the bench of Colorado’s district court in 1979, where he became known as a fair but tough judge with a demanding work ethic and a low tolerance for those who arrived late to his courtroom. “I ran my own show,” Perricone says.
He served on the state bench contemporaneously with U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch, another jurist with Big Ten roots who keeps a tight lid on his courtroom. The two men first crossed paths when Matsch was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, watching as Perricone “was tearing up the Michigan line” for the Wildcats, Matsch says. They met face-to-face for the first time in the mid-1960s, when Perricone was a lawyer working a case in Matsch’s bankruptcy court, and the two became fast friends.
When Matsch was assigned to the Denver-based Timothy McVeigh trial and ordered by Congress and President Clinton in 1997 to broadcast it via closed-circuit TV to an auditorium in Oklahoma City where victims, survivors and their families could watch the proceedings, he needed the help of a judge who could sit in the auditorium — now an extension of the Denver courtroom — and enforce courtroom decorum to prevent the broadcast from turning into a sideshow.
Matsch, without hesitation, requested the assistance of the newly retired Perricone.
“I asked him because I had complete confidence in his integrity and his judgment, and I knew he would not be a person who would call attention to himself,” Matsch says. “One of the problems of high-profile litigation is that people try to make themselves into instant celebrities, but I knew he wouldn’t do that. I also knew he had great people skills. That’s one of his strengths as a human being — he’s a straight shooter, and you can rely on everything he says.
“He went down there, and I forgot all about it, which was the whole idea. You wouldn’t expect that of just anyone.”
Perricone and his wife, Carol, moved to Oklahoma City, where they lived for nine months in an apartment they jokingly referred to as “student housing,” refusing compensation from the courts except funds to cover living expenses. He sat in the front of the auditorium in his robe, answering questions and explaining the proceedings, and she comforted those in attendance who were overcome by emotion, developing friendships that are still strong today.
“It was a life-changing experience for both of us,” Perricone says. “It was very emotional because these people had lost husbands, wives, friends or were in the building when the bombing happened. My wife would go in, talk to them, hold hands with them, and she is still in touch with them. I’m sure she was a huge help.”
Perricone sat in the same auditorium for the trial of Terry Nichols before settling back into “retirement,” roaming Colorado and hearing cases, including a high-profile and occasionally violent dispute over a century-old land rights claim in southern Colorado. Perricone says he wouldn’t have his retirement any other way, and that the position of senior judge carries a few unexpected benefits.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for an old guy like me to keep working, and I like working,” he says. “It helps keep my marriage together, too. If I stay around the house too much, Carol finds out what I’m really like, and then it’s all over.”
Ryan Haggerty is a Medill School of Journalism senior from Buffalo.
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