It didn't matter that it was a freezing, windy, snowy day. The 56,000 people who squeezed into Princeton's Palmer Stadium on November 23, 1935 had come prepared—with car blankets, coon-skin coats, pocket flasks and fiery enthusiasm—to see Dartmouth's undefeated football team face Fritz Crisler's virtually unbeatable eleven. Princeton had been downed only once in the past three seasons, in a 7-0 upset by Yale in 1934, and was heavily favored to win that day against Dartmouth. But Dartmouth, led by a strong line, had already beaten Brown, Harvard, Yale and Cornell, and the fans were ready for a real battle.
Dartmouth scored the first touchdown, but the conversion failed and Princeton went on almost immediately to make seven points. From then on, the Tigers took charge and outplayed Dartmouth in every way. The snowfall became so heavy that by the fourth period the yard lines were completely covered, and the referee had to scrape away the snow to measure the yardage, most of which was made by the Princeton team.
Late in the last quarter, with Princeton leading 19-6 and in possession of the ball on Dartmouth's six-yard line, the Indians made their last stand. They held Princeton to three yards on two rushes. Just before the ball was snapped on the third down, a spectator jumped from the stands, sprinted across the end zone and joined the Dartmouth line, before officials could stop either him or the play. The Tigers made two more yards anyway, putting the ball on the one-yard line. Police hurried up and removed the mystery defender and play resumed as if nothing had happened. Princeton plowed over the goal line on the fourth down and won the game 26-6.
Who was the brave fan who had lined up with Dartmouth in its final defensive stand? Dave Camerer, Dartmouth's left tackle that day, said recently: "He stumbled into our line between Joe Handrahan and me. He roared, 'Kill them Princeton bastards!' and with that he lunged across the scrimmage line—the ball hadn't even been snapped—and piled into the close-up man and fell on his face. That whole Princeton line manhandled the poor slob unmercifully until the cops collared him and dragged him off, his toes dragging a trail in the snow. I was truly sorry to see him leave. The way they were ripping through us we needed all the help we could get."
The police had dispensed with the intruder so quickly—and the game ended so soon after the incident—that Dartmouth's Twelfth Man, as he came to be called, simply vanished in the general confusion. When the Sunday sports pages mentioned him in the game's play-byplay, letters from curious readers began pouring into the newspaper offices. An unsuccessful search was made for him in Princeton; Dartmouth couldn't claim (or at least couldn't find) him and reporters were baffled. On the following Tuesday the New York Herald Tribune's, Stanley Woodward said in his column that, although the hunt was continuing, it seemed that Dartmouth's volunteer "was an orphan without intercollegiate affiliations, mother, father, country or home." Woodward said he personally had "great admiration for any man so courageous as to willfully place himself in the way of that Princeton team. As I see it, he deserves more than the unclaimed notoriety he is getting and the solid kick in the trousers he got from Weller, of Princeton."
That day a claimant was found. He was Michael Mesco, a short-order cook at a diner in Rahway, N.J. Nobody seems to have asked him why he held his secret for three days, or why he decided to confess when he did. The mystery of the Twelfth Man was solved, in the person of a somewhat shy, unpretentious young man who hated Princeton's football teams. Although he had never been to college and had played football himself only in grammar school, Mike despised "the Princetons, the sissies" and rooted violently for any team they played. The previous Saturday he had been sitting in the end zone with his best friend, John Mulrooney, who happened to be an ardent Princeton fan. "We were drinking some kind of rye and I had maybe 15 or 20 shots," Mesco said. "I took a little shot and said I'd be darned if Princeton was going to score again. My friend John wanted to know what I could do to hold them. I said, 'I guess I'll have to give Dartmouth a little help.' So I took another little shot and that was it. Out I went, and that's about all I remember until the cops escorted me off the field."
Overnight Rahway, N.J. was on the map and a hashslinger was a national figure. Princeton was playing Yale at New Haven, Conn, the next Saturday, in the Tigers' last game of the season, and a group from the New York Yale Club insisted that Mike Mesco be their guest of honor at the game. Perhaps he could provide the spark Yale needed to repeat its 1934 upset over Princeton. They were even cordial enough to include John Mulrooney in the invitation, at Mike's request.
On Saturday morning, just before the Yale Special train was due to pull out of Grand Central Station, Mike was confronted with a startling challenge from a reporter: was he the Twelfth Man or merely a pretender? Mesco was then told that George (Guzzie) Larsen, an architect from Cranford, N.J., had admitted joining the Dartmouth lineup the previous Saturday. He said a friend had revealed his secret, kept because he feared the loss of his job if his exploit became known. "Mesco's all wet," Larsen had said. "Anybody who was at Palmer Stadium knows the man who jumped to the field wore a short coat with many autographs in large black letters on it. I understand Mesco wears a long coat. I was in section 15, about midway up, and got excited and ran on the field because Dartmouth was taking it on the chin and I always feel sorry for the underdog. I'd like to forget it. The publicity will do me no good. Let Mesco have all the fame."
Hearing the details of the claim, Mesco replied weakly but with equal gallantry, "Well, if this Larsen guy wants to grab the glory, O.K. with me. I really don't remember what happened last week. I was against the Princetons and maybe I went on the field and maybe I didn't. I don't remember."
The Yale Special pulled out with Mike Mesco aboard, and was met in New Haven by a brass band that escorted the group to the Yale Bowl. But Mike seemed in low spirits and sat subdued as Princeton rolled over Yale, 38-7. Many others tried to stand in for him, falling halfway out of the stands, attempting to dash past the officials onto the field and breaking up the goal posts before the game's end, but Mesco, perhaps shy, perhaps chastened by news of Larsen's claim, or perhaps ironically aware of his expected role, was passive.
Still the Yale alumni made a fuss over him, and at half time he was awarded a varsity D for his performance with Dartmouth. He didn't win his Y but did return to New York on the Special and attended the losers' party at the Yale Club. Here his spirits revived and he regained his assurance. He told a reporter, "Yes, Larsen is welcome to the headlines if he wants them. Me, I'm going back to my counter. Just the same, I was the man who went on the field last week. No, I don't remember, but my friend John here says I did and John had his head clear and I know he knows what he's talking about. I guess I was the guy, eh John?"
John Mulrooney affirmed, "Larsen doesn't know what he's talking about. I was alongside Mike. I held him back three or four times, but finally he broke away from me and got into the game. What they did about getting him off the field is nobody's business. They gave him plenty of rush."
Mike Mesco did return to his counter, leaving behind an enigma. Guzzie Larsen's story had seemed plausible, but his "proof" proved unprovable—the snow was so thick at the game that no single first hand report on the appearance of the Twelfth Man's coat agreed with another (no one could remember seeing "autographs in large black letters" on it, however). The Associated Press year-end poll of sportswriters made the event the No. 1 oddity of the year, surpassing Gene Sarazen's Augusta double eagle by 29 votes to seven. But the AP story discounted Mesco as the Twelfth Man, recalling his confused remarks the day of the Yale-Princeton game.
No one else threw his hat—or his coat—into the ring. Maybe the real Twelfth Man preferred to remain in obscurity. Or maybe he, like Mike Mesco, doesn't really remember.