May 3, 2007

Catching Up With A Cornell Legend

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I’m standing on the sidelines of the Spring Football game last Saturday, talking to incoming-freshman defensive lineman Matt Green, and suddenly, I see him.
Green’s 6-2, 300 pounds, and this one guy 20 yards to our left is making him look small — really small. It was immediately apparent to me who it was: how many 6-5, 315-pound people would be hanging around the sidelines of a Spring Football game, in street clothes, encircled by kids, fans and players?
“I’ve been gone for a little over a year now, and just pulling back up to campus, it feels like I haven’t left,” he would say later. “But, at the same time, I know it’s been awhile, and it’s been great just watching the guys play and stuff. It definitely feels different not playing for Cornell, but it’s fun at the same time to get to watch it all.”
No pressure Josh, he’s only a legend, I said to myself jokingly before I went to talk to him. Actually, he’s a very large athletic legend, who has lined up against Warren Sapp — a player he named as his toughest defensive lineman to face — and will soon protect JaMarcus Russell. It’s funny how being a legend is a relative title: at Cornell, this man catalyzed a football program that was in shambles only a few years ago, and has helped lay its foundation for years to come with his success; in the NFL, he’s just another player looking to keep his starting job and shine on Sunday … or Monday night.
Legend, NFL guard and Cornell graduate, the man I spotted from afar was Kevin Boothe ’06. The Sun’s Athlete of the Year in 2006, Boothe was projected as high as a first-day NFL Draft pick by Mel Kiper, Jr. before being drafted in the sixth round by Oakland last year. Now he is a starting guard for the Oakland Raiders, one of the most famous teams in football history. The highlights from his scouting report on ESPN.com include, “possesses outstanding overall size … good overall strength … has long arms and massive hands …a hard worker and tough competitor. Is intelligent and picks up new schemes/techniques quickly.”
Soon after I spotted him, Boothe left the field with senior cornerback Matt Grant, and after a little encouragement from Green, I decided to try to meet Cornell’s most prominent pro athlete. I approached Boothe and Grant cautiously in the lounge above Schoellkopf Field toward the end of the Spring Game. I assumed they might not want to deal with me, and even if that was the case, they certainly didn’t act like it. After a long conversation about the Spring Game, the then-ongoing NFL Draft — “they’re sending him home,” Boothe joked about Brady Quinn at about pick No. 18 — and the NBA Playoffs, Boothe let me interview him right around the time sophomore Tim Bax got his third pick of the afternoon to seal the defense’s 41-20 victory.
It was certainly a learning experience hearing him talk about the NFL.
“No one’s ever happy about their [Madden] ratings,” Boothe said half-jokingly, also noting that Devin Hester’s rumored first-ever 100 speed rating has caused player outrage around the NFL.
Seriously though, with a year of NFL experience under his belt, I was very interested to hear his perspectives on Cornell football and the NFL, so I did my best to leave no stone unturned … except my tape recorder died halfway through the interview. Five years in journalism and you forget to check your batteries before your first interview with an NFL player? Priceless.
Regardless, I learned some very interesting things from Kevin, who had high praise for his former teammates and Cornell counterparts.
The Cornell offensive line has “some tremendous size, and it looks like they’re picking up the new offense pretty well,” Boothe said, “and I expect them to carry the team, and be one of the strong points of the offense.”
The Hotel School graduate spoke at length about the difference between college and the NFL, which up until our encounter, I only knew about through media coverage.
“The hardest adjustment for me going to the pros was probably just the whole mental aspect of it; the fact that that’s all I do now: I don’t have to go to class, I don’t have anything else to do, that’s my job,” he said. “Working out, watching film 10 times more than I did here — not to say that I didn’t watch film here — but it’s just the time and commitment that you put into it. Also, you realize that it’s a business now. … You’re definitely still playing for fun, but it’s definitely different in terms of your approach to the game.”
A tackle coming into the 2006 Draft, Boothe switched to guard during his early stages at the Raiders. Still, he found that NFL line play was not so different from its college equivalent, with the main differences being the talent of the people playing.
“The play on the field, I’d say definitely it’s an upgrade in terms of the speed and the strength of everybody,” Boothe said. “And just their overall skill, knowledge of the game — little things that people pick up on your tendencies and things like that, you really have to focus on each week or else you’ll be exploited on Sundays.”
Boothe explained that his “welcome to the NFL” moment came when he broke his nose, had to leave a game to get stitches, then played the next week — opening up the wound during the action — which resulted in blood pouring all over his face.
Kind of graphic, but that’s football.
Boothe then praised his former coach, Art Shell, a Pro Football Hall of Fame offensive lineman.
“He was a great mentor for me,” Boothe said, explaining that Shell was critical to his development as a player. Shell had some kind words for Boothe as well back in September.
“He’s a smart kid. You don’t have to tell him but one time, and he grasps it real well. He has the heart and he has the tenacity to play the game,” Shell said. “He’s been really doing well. When he’s in there, you know he’s around because he’s going to strike you. He has great feet, balance and things like that. You can see the things in the game that he did well. … When he pulls, the guys know that when they’re on the other side, that he’s going to strike them and strike them hard.”
Finally, it was great to see a role model giving back to the community. Boothe spent much of his time on the sidelines talking with former players, coaches, trainers, staff and fans, and even in the lounge, greeted everyone he met with a smile.
You’ve got a fan here Kevin, and if those Madden ratings pan out alright, probably many more to come.
Final Words
So, one more day and that’s the end. After tomorrow, my co-workers will be on their way to the next stages of their lives. What do you do when your teammates are retiring? How long do you wait to elect the all-time greats to the Hall of Fame? I’m going to start the montage a bit early:
Staff Writers Patrick Blakemore, Devon Goodrich, Matt Gorman and Scott Reich; Legends / Assistant Sports Editors Bryan Pepper and Kyle Sheahen; Assistant Sports Editors Tim Kuhls and Paul Testa; Sports Editor Olivia Dwyer: Thanks for everything. It has been an honor and a privilege working with you. If you ever need anything, you know where to find me.
Josh Perlin is The Sun’s Sports Editor. He can be reached at sports-editor@cornellsun.com. My Pitch appeared on alternate Thursdays this semester