Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Miracles, One Yard At A Time

Bob Surace, Princeton's new head football coach, ducked his head into TigerBlog's office last week and mentioned that Jordan Culbreath had been medically cleared to play for the Tigers again.

TigerBlog's first thought was "wow."

Culbreath spent the 2008 season ripping through defenses as the Ivy League's best running back. He spent the 2009 season fighting for his life as he battled aplastic anemia.

The idea that Culbreath was not only healthy again but also healthy enough to be cleared for football was amazing, worthy actually of more than one "wow." Add in the fact that he is looking at bi-weekly blood transfusions for the rest of his life, football or no, and you could put a few of TB's least favorite punctuation mark - the exclamation point - on the end of your "wows."

His story is extraordinary.

Culbreath was essentially a walk-on with the Princeton football team, and he worked his way up the depth chart and ultimately onto the field for the Cornell game on ESPNU his sophomore year of 2007. All he did that night was go for 145 yards and two touchdowns, one of which made its way onto SportsCenter's top plays for the day.

As a junior, he was easily the best back in the Ivy League. He rushed for 1,206 yards, tops in the league, and he reached 150 yards on five occasions.

His best game is also one of the best individual performances in school history. Heading into the final game of the year, against Dartmouth, Culbreath needed 70 yards to become the seventh 1,000-yard rusher in school history. He would get 58 on his first carry and blow past 1,000, not to mention 1,100 and 1,200.

For the day, he racked up 276 yards, the second-highest total in school history, behind only the 299 yards that Keith Elias had against Lafayette in Palmer Stadium in 1992.

As an aside, Elias had his 299 yards before there were computer stats. TigerBlog, in the press box, gave Princeton SID Mark Panus a (joking) hard time about not pushing Elias' total over 300.

Culbreath was primed for a big senior year, but it wasn't to be. He gained 67 yards on 15 carries against the Citadel on opening day, and he then had 25 yards on eight carries against Lehigh before leaving with what was thought to be an ankle injury.

Shortly after that, the awful truth came out: Culbreath was battling a disease called aplastic anemia, one that could have been fatal.

The result, though, was more uplifting than anything else. Culbreath fought his illness head on, and his teammates and the entire athletic community at Princeton rallied behind him with events like a bone marrow drive and other efforts to raise awareness.

The idea that Culbreath would ultimately be a Princeton graduate became more realistic. The idea that he would play football again was still not on anyone's radar.

In fact, when last year's senior athlete video was being put together for the Princeton Varsity Club banquet, there was discussion as to whether or not Culbreath should be included.

And then Surace came down and, in his mellow style, mentioned that Culbreath was going to be back out there this year.

How could you not root for him? After everything he's been through, who couldn't want to see him have the big senior year that he was denied last year?

Still, there's a long way to go. He hasn't played in a year, and there is of course a big difference between being healthy and being able to withstanding the pounding of being a feature running back in football.

But isn't it great that Culbreath and his teammates will get to find out?

TigerBlog hardly knows Culbreath. He interviewed him once at halftime of a basketball game on the radio, and that's the only conversation he's ever had with him. He certainly came across as a nice enough kid.

You don't have to be his best friend to be happy for him and to want to see him do well.

And how will that be defined? Does he need to be All-Ivy League? Does he need to reach 1,000 yards? 500?

Maybe Surace said it best:

"Our Princeton Football Association president, Anthony DiTommaso, said that every yard we get from Jordan this year is a miracle," the coach said.

Football practice starts today for Princeton.

The season is already a success.

1 comment:

Bruce Wood said...

It doesn't get any better than that.