Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Thanks, Jordan

Back in October or so of 1997, Bill Carmody - then Princeton's men's basketball coach - came down to talk to TigerBlog about how his team looked in the preseason. Carmody thought his team had a chance to be good, except for the "injury" that point guard Mitch Henderson had suffered.

What was wrong with him? TigerBlog asked.

His foot, was Carmody's response, followed by this: He'll probably walk with a limp for the rest of his life.

Henderson, of course, was fine. He started every game of that 27-2 season and averaged just short of 35 minutes per game. Every time TB has seen him since, he's been walking just fine.

Coaches tend to trend towards the pessimistic when it comes to injuries. It's the nature of their personalities.

TigerBlog has heard coaches talk about players with the most minor of tweaks as if they will, well, walk with limps for the rest of their lives.

When it comes to real injuries, though, there's no humor to it.

College athletes have a small window to compete, and any serious injury wipes out a huge chunk of that. Some athletes who get hurt early on never make it back to where they might have been, as much because someone else takes over their spot as because they physically can't perform.

Even if they do make it back 100%, for Princeton athletes, there's no way to make up for the lost time. Well, there is one, but it's a difficult choice.

Because of the University's academic rules, Princeton athletes have to withdraw from school for a year to maintain a year of athletic eligibility. If they stay in school after getting hurt, they cannot get that year back at Princeton.

TigerBlog isn't sure what the exact number is of athletes who have suffered season-ending injuries who have chosen to stay and lose the year versus those who have chosen to withdraw and graduate a year later. Still, many, many athletes have had to choose both.

Of course, injuries are a part of any sport. They may seem like they're more prevalent in contact sports like football and hockey, but TB is pretty sure that each sport has its own injury issues to deal with.

Some athletes are healthy for very little of their time here, but what they show in that time is so dominant that it leaves everyone wondering what might have been. The No. 1 example of this that TigerBlog can remember at Princeton is former men's basketball player Mason Rocca, who had one injury after another but yet was absolutely unstoppable when he was healthy.

And yet, above and beyond anything that TB has ever seen here before is the story of Jordan Culbreath. His story is just downright unfair.

Culbreath, as everyone knows by now, was essentially a walk-on running back at Princeton who emerged as a sophomore and then exploded as a junior, when he led the league in rushing and became a first-team All-Ivy League selection.

What Princeton football fan will ever forget Culbreath's game against Dartmouth his junior year, when he ran for 276 yards to push himself over 1,000 for the year (and over 1,100 and 1,200, as he finished with 1,206).

His numbers were great. He passed the 150-yard mark five times and scored at least one touchdown in eight games. He led the Ivy League and finished ninth nationally in rushing yards per game, and he was of course a unanimous first-team All-Ivy League selection.

The next chapter of the story is old news, but it doesn't make it any less heartbreaking. Culbreath's senior year - the one where he was going to reach what, 1,500 yards? - ended shortly after it started, when an ankle injury led to the discovery of a blood disease that nearly claimed his life.

And yet he fought his way back, all the way back, to good health (though he will have to take some serious medications for the rest of his life) and then, ultimately, to football health.

Bob Surace, Princeton's first-year head coach, came into the OAC one day in August and said that Jordan had been cleared to play again. TB, for one, couldn't believe it, couldn't believe that someone could go through all of that and make it back to the football field.

But Culbreath did just that. No, he wasn't the 1,000-yard back he'd been two years ago, but he was still is Princeton's leading rusher and he is averaging 5.3 yards per carry. For the record, he averaged 5.7 yards per carry as a junior.

Unfortunately for Culbreath, he's also carried the ball for the last time as a Princeton Tiger. He hurt his knee against Penn last week, and while the extent of the injury isn't yet known, he won't be able to play in either of the final two games of the season.

It's one last bit of unfairness in his career, though on the bright side, it's nothing compared to what he's already been through.

He finishes his career with 1,935 rushing yards, good for eighth-best in program history. With 15 more yards, he would have tied Dick Kazmaier for seventh.

At the time, the 2008 Princeton-Dartmouth game figured to be the last time Culbreath played at home against the Big Green, and that's how it turned out. It's just that nobody at the time would have predicted the reasons why.

It wasn't going to be because Jordan Culbreath put up a monster senior year and then graduated in 2010.

It was going to be because he fought through a life-threatening moment, made it all the way back and then was stopped short for the most common of football reasons - a knee injury.

So thank you to Jordan Culbreath, an athlete unlike any other that TB has seen here at Princeton.

His on-field story didn't end happily, and it's not one of great football victories.

Instead, it's one of great perseverance and inspiration.

It'll be a long time before anyone around here forgets it.

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