Twenty-five years ago Stan Smagala, a 165-pound running back for Weber High School in Chicago, scored the last touchdown of his high school career with a spectacular 90-yard kick-off return. Twenty-four years later Smagala, who is now a 195-pound running back for Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills, Ill., scored the first touchdown of his college career, carrying the ball for a relaxed 7-yard stroll. With his team already leading and the crowd chanting "Stan-lee, Stan-lee," Smagala got the call to run off-tackle. "It was no big thing," he says. "The kids had created a hole wide enough to run a tank through, and nobody laid a hand on me. My teammates wanted to see me score."
Smagala, at 43 (his age and his number), is, in all likelihood, the oldest college football player in America. After 17 years as a hard-driving insurance salesman, he was ordered by his doctor to slow down. So Smagala turned his business over to wife Christine, 35, and went back to school. But after signing up for accounting, computers and music theory, Smagala still felt something was missing. His decision to go out for football made Christine a new kind of football widow. "I never get to see him," she says. "But it doesn't matter because I'm too busy selling insurance." Says Stan, "This is the best move I've ever made. My wife has a new career, and I'm rediscovering my youth."
He's also been rediscovering how his body reacts to being pummeled by opponents. Two cracked ribs, three broken fingers and a sprained neck kept him on the bench most of last season. This time around he suffered a few more broken ribs, but they're almost healed, and Stan may get a chance to start the final two games of the season. Says head coach Dennis Wierzal, "What it gets down to is that we only go around once in life, and this is something that Stan had his heart set on doing. One thing does bother me, though: I have trouble bawling out Stan the way I do the other kids. He's as old as I am."
Moraine Valley's quarterback, Tom Marek, 19, has a different problem. "In the huddle once, I called him 'Mr. Smagala.' I mean, after all, his son, Stanley Jr., is a close friend of mine." Adds Tom of his graying teammate, "At first we thought he had some screws loose. But he paid the price to make the team. He passed the physical, did the two-a-day drills in the August sun and played with injuries and pain. Plus, we like the publicity." Smagala claims to be in great shape. "I'm eighth on the team in strength exercises. I can do 35 leg squats with 250 pounds, and I run the 40 yards in 4.7."
That's only .2 slower than his high school record. The son of a gas company salesman, Smagala was a three-letter man in high school who gave up a chance to try out as a pitcher for the Minnesota Twins. Instead he entered a Catholic seminary, intending to become a priest. But after two years he dropped out to "explore the music scene." Most weekends he still performs with a soft-rock band, playing bass and singing the lead on My Girl and When a Man Loves a Woman, which he sang at his wedding to Christine 18 years ago. After the births of Stan, now 17, and Sherri, 16, he began selling insurance to pay the bills.
Smagala is so pleased with his new career that he talks about moving up to a four-year college, where "the coaching staff believes an old man can still run with the football." If he does, he and Stan Jr. could be first-year men together. Why not? Says Smagala Sr., "I feel like a kid again." Then, when Christine isn't listening, he adds, "It sure beats talking to people about insurance."