inducted February 18, 2006
Or the match. Or the meet. It seems like every athlete has at least one of those in his or her career, one event they participated in that rises above all others, for that athlete, for the opponent, for the spectators.
John Witkowski, one of the most prolific quarterbacks in Ivy League history, has two.
Both were on the road, one at Dartmouth, one at Brown, and few who were there will ever forget them.
At Dartmouth on a gray November day in 1982, Witkowski put on an aerial show to be remembered. He completed 39 of 64 passes for 466 yards and five touchdowns, breaking virtually every Columbia and Ivy League passing record. He also ran for 38 yards to establish an NCAA Division I record with 504 yards of total offense. Unfortunately, he couldn’t play defense, too, as the Lions lost to Dartmouth, 56-41.
The game number two was also a loss. Barely. Known as much for placekicker Larry Walsh’s onside kicks as for Witkowski’s passing, it marked the last game of his Columbia career, the final game of the 1983 season.
Trailing Brown 42-7 in the fourth quarter, Witkowski led Columbia on a remarkable comeback. Four times, Walsh followed touchdowns with onside kicks recovered by Columbia and each time Witkowski led the Lions downfield to score.
As Nathan Hale described it in the Columbia Spectator, “Fully aware of what was coming, [Brown] sat back in double or triple coverage on the Lions’ receivers, occasionally leaving just two men on the line of scrimmage to rush the quarterback. But [Columbia’s] trio of receivers, Don Lewis, Bill Reggio and Dan Upperco, knew that if they ran their routes, Witkowski would put the ball in their hands. At his best, anything more than six inches from his target was a bad pass to Witkowski.”
Columbia rallied to within six points, but the rally fell short and Brown won, 42-36.
The Ivy League Player of the Year as a junior, one of only two so honored in Columbia annals, the native Long Islander left Columbia with every major school or Ivy League passing record, 32 in all. As a senior, he set 25 game, season and career records. His 7849 passing yards in three varsity seasons stood as the Ivy mark for 16 years, and is 3183 yards better than the Lions’ second-highest career total! He also passed for 56 touchdowns, 31 better than second-best. He was voted third team All-American and was selected as the Small College Football Player of the Year.
Drafted in the sixth round by the Detroit Lions, Witkowski actually broke into the starting lineup by the end of his rookie season. He played with Detroit and the Houston Oilers for more than four years, as well as the World League (now NFL Europe) and Arena Football, meeting his wife, Cathy, while playing with the Oilers.
Witkowski retired from football in 1991 and was named director of the National Alumni Program at Columbia the following year. Fittingly, his first son, AJ, was born on the day he began work at Columbia.
In 1993, he began a career in banking at Fleet Financial Group, working his way steadily up through the hierarchy at Fleet, now Bank of America. After spending many years in the Providence area, Witkowski and his family recently moved to Orchard Park, N.Y., a Buffalo suburb, when he was appointed President and CEO of Wyoming County Bank, which is now known as Five Star Bank.
Witkowski has been able to balance his banking career with his family’s interests. In addition to AJ, now 14, he and Cathy have two other children, Kyle, 12, and Christie, 7.“I feel one of my greatest accomplishments since graduation,” he noted, “has been being able to spend time with my wife and family, to watch the kids grow up, to coach their baseball, football and basketball teams. Playing professional football made me realize that in every stage of life, you cannot take things for granted and you have to work hard (and smart) in order to be successful.”