ON THE PLAQUE: His association with Penn Athletics began his freshman year, when he rowed as a member of the heavyweight crew team. Later, he represented the United States at the World Cup for Martial Arts, winning two gold medals and one bronze medal and qualifying for the U.S. team at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. Since 1998, Penn Football has given out the George A. Weiss Award to the player whose spirit and play personified “the Pennsylvania kind of football.”
Written by Dave Zeitlin C'03, this feature originally appeared on PennAthletics.com on April 28, 2017
From an early age, George A. Weiss W’65 HON’14 knew where he wanted to go to college, once writing “Wharton” four times in a row when a high school guidance counselor asked him to list his top four college choices. What he didn’t know until he arrived on campus in the fall of 1961 is how two activities at Penn would shape much of his life moving forward: going to football games at Franklin Field and joining the heavyweight rowing team.
It was the former that helped him develop a fierce passion for Penn sports that he would cultivate for the next 55 years, supporting several athletic programs in a variety of ways. It was the latter that sent him on his own athletic journey, one that culminated with a martial arts world championship.
And now the prominent Wharton graduate, wildly successful Wall Street money manager, and University Trustee and philanthropist is set to earn a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Penn Athletics Hall of Fame.
“I’m privileged to have a lot of honors in life and probably the highlight was when I got an honorary degree from Penn in 2014,” Weiss said. “Frankly, this ranks right up there because I’m a pretty good athlete and I’m very passionate about athletics—and Penn athletics, in particular.”
Weiss didn’t play competitive sports at Brookline (Mass.) High School because he spent all of his free time supporting his family, and he had never rowed before he got to Penn. But he decided to go out for the team when he heard that no experience was needed.
He loved it immediately.
“I enjoyed the workout and I enjoyed the camaraderie,” Weiss said. “And I was always somewhat of a firebrand, so what I think the coach liked about me is if someone wasn’t trying, I’d throw him around the locker room.”
Unfortunately, despite having strong leadership qualities, natural athleticism and a “romantic” view of early-morning rows on the Schuylkill River, a serious back injury ended up derailing his college athletic career before he got to compete in an official race.
In a way though, that injury—which he later learned was a broken back—paved the way for the next step in his unique athletic odyssey. An accomplished tennis player, Weiss would often struggle in the fifth set of tournament matches because his back would give out on him. In the mid-1980s, his back got so bad that he needed to wear a brace and use a cane. Around that time, former Penn football star and Penn Athletics Hall of Famer Rich Comizio W’87 suggested he try T‘ai-chi, a form of martial arts known for its health benefits.
“So I tried it and three months later, I have a helmet on and I’m getting kicked in the head as it morphed into taekwondo,” he said. “T‘ai-chi was too slow moving and I’m too competitive.”
From there, Weiss swiftly moved through the taekwondo ranks, earning a first-degree black belt in four years and getting invited to join the U.S. team in 2002 upon receiving his fifth-degree black belt. The following year, at the World Cup for Martial Arts in Mexico, he won two gold medals and a bronze to qualify for the U.S. team at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens—a feat he accomplished as a 60-year-old in a competition without age bracketing.
“What pleased me is I was perceived as a world-class athlete,” Weiss said. “That pleased me to no end. That took care a lot of frustration.”
Getting the chance to travel to Greece and represent the United States in the Olympics was another thrill, even though it was a demonstration sport with no medals awarded. But a few years later, he decided to leave the sport after about 20 years of training—often 3-6 hours per day, six days per week. It was a grueling routine that led to Weiss breaking both of his big toes, tearing his meniscus, breaking ribs, and hurting his wrist, elbow and shoulders—“but,” he says with a smile, “my back hasn’t given me a minute’s worth of a problem.”
While stopping taekwondo was naturally a tough transition, Weiss still had plenty to keep him busy in the athletic sphere. Ever since graduating, he has tried to support the Quakers’ football program as much as he can, including discussing networking and job opportunities with current players and sometimes hiring alums to work for his investment management firm. He has also attended almost every game since the 1960s, often watching from the sidelines.
“It’s been a great run,” Weiss said. “I didn’t know, but the kids call me ‘The Owner.’ One of the kids said to me once, ‘When you’re on the sidelines, we play harder.’”
The Penn football “owner” has seen a lot of great games from the sidelines over the years, pointing to the surprise 1982 and 2012 titles as two of his favorites, along with the last two shared ones under his friend Ray Priore. And the Quakers are in a good position to remain atop the Ivy League, thanks in large part to the Weiss Pavilion, which houses a state-of-the-art weight room that Priore called “hands down one of the best” facilities of its kind on the East Coast.
“Doing things is one thing,” Priore said. “Doing things in the right manner is what he’s always been about. He’s gotten me to look that way, too.
“He’s just so supportive in every aspect. He’ll be there in the springtime. He’ll be there to aid in everything we do. He’s just a great, great friend.”
Weiss’ philanthropic efforts have extended beyond football, as he has made gifts to help the squash and women’s rowing programs, among others. And he follows many of the other school’s teams too, firmly believing that athletic success is vital to a vibrant campus and that winning games—especially against hated Princeton—helps foster alumni giving.
But nothing compares to the devotion he has to Penn football and the relationships he’s built with so many Quaker players over the years.
“It’s such an amazing community,” said Brian Higgins C’96, a former Penn tight end who previously worked for Weiss. “And really what it comes down to is a big reason why it’s like that—if not the biggest reason—is because of George Weiss.”
The program certainly understands and appreciates his passion. Since 1988, Penn Football has given out the George A. Weiss Award to the player whose spirit and play personified “the Pennsylvania kind of football.”
Weiss, though, has never needed much recognition. For him, helping his alma mater has simply been a way to say “thank you” for five decades and counting.
“Penn gave me the feeling of a second home,” he said. “It also afforded me the background to be successful. I was really indebted to Penn. It has been a love affair ever since.”