Monday, November 2, 2009

Good To See You Again, Jordan Culbreath

TigerBlog has only spoken with Jordan Culbreath once, last year during a halftime interview on the radio during a men's basketball game. TB found Culbreath to be nice and polite, if not quite verbose.

His story was also fascinating, in that he was an unrecruited walk-on from Virginia who had gone on to lead the Ivy League in rushing in 2008 with 1,206 yards.

That total would prove to be 1,114 more than he would gain in 2009, a season that ended for him after just 23 carries.

By now, his story is familiar to Ivy football fans. Culbreath began to feel fatigued and weak during summer camp, and an ankle injury early on that required treatment led to a diagnosis of aplastic anemia, a potentially fatal disease that left him in the National Institute For Health in Washington, D.C., and not at Princeton University.

His situation is still extremely serious, with his sister not a match for a bone marrow transplant. He has responded to other treatment, though, and his health improved to the point where he was able to attend this past Saturday's game against Cornell.

His presence on the sideline, in the locker room and at midfield for the coin toss clearly helped inspire Princeton, who snapped a four-game losing streak with a 17-13 win.

For the record, Princeton is now 2-1 at games Culbreath has been to and 0-4 in games he could not attend.

As an aside - well actually, not an aside - the coin toss told you a great deal about where Princeton football is in 2009. Culbreath and linebacker Scott Britton are out for the year, and Wilson Cates was slowed about 90% by an injury. Mark Paski, the fourth captain, has started every game and has played through his own pains.

But the story of Princeton football in 2009 is really about Culbreath. His performance against Dartmouth to end last year was an epic series of one long run after another, a day where the normal definitions of a big game (100 yards, a touchdown or two) were shattered early on in what became a 276-yard afternoon. He was a unanimous first-team All-Ivy running back, becoming only the second Princeton running back (along with Cameron Atkinson in 2002) to be first-team All-Ivy since Keith Elias graduated in 1994.

He was to the cornerstone for the Tigers as a senior, the 2009 version of Jeff Terrell, who quarterbacked an unheralded team to the 2006 Ivy title. Instead, something was obviously wrong from the start.

It's the nature of football to lose players to injury, and to paraphrase former men's basketball coach Bill Carmody, the woods are full of teams that overcame the loss of key players and went on to win championships.

But that's about torn ACLs and broken arms, not about this. Culbreath is 21, an athlete in his prime. To be knocked down by something called aplastic anemia, something attacking his bone marrow, seems so unfair, so hard to contemplate.

TigerBlog is hardly on the inside when it comes to Princeton football, but it is easy to see that this is a team that's had its spirit stomped on by Culbreath's illness. Forget what he would have meant to a first-year starting sophomore quarterback or how much pressure he would have taken off the other running backs and the receivers, which might have taken some of the pressure off the defense. This has been more about having to perform at your best when the great optimism of just a few weeks earlier vanishes and your best player and captain – and friend – is not even in the hospital but at NIH fighting for his life.

And that's why Saturday was so great for Princeton football.

It's one thing to text and email and read a carebridge page and talk to someone who went through the same thing and hear the coaches talk. It's another to see him standing there, to see how he looked anything but frail, how he looked very much like one of the many college football players who are hurt and not like someone who has been fighting for his life.

Maybe that helped Princeton overcome Cornell Saturday. Maybe Culbreath's presence alone helped to inspire a team that has struggled this season.

Can something like the return of a sick player actually impact the outcome? Did Tommy Wornham's 78-yard game-winning pass to Trey Peacock happen because Culbreath was there?

Who knows. Let's just say that much like chicken soup, it didn't hurt. And from TigerBlog's perspective, it wasn't the biggest part of the day anyway.

TB walked away from the PA booth when the bands came in at halftime to read their scripts, and he saw Culbreath come into the press box to be interviewed. He was wearing his No. 21 jersey with black sweatpants, and he moved easily, smiling the whole time.

At that moment, the entire point of the whole day was completely apparent to TigerBlog: Win or lose, it was just good to see Jordan Culbreath.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Actually, I think that his return, walking out as a captain, his presence with the team ought to go down in Tiger lore. A team that had now won in a month pulls out the win with their ailing co-captain present. In the "Tigers of Princeton" book from about 1977, reference is made to longtime trainer Eddie Zanfrini appearing at halftime in the locker room, insisting on going there from the hospital rather than go through with his surgery. I think this was mid-50s. Jordan's appearance, while mentioned in advance, is just as dramatic.