Thousands have come and gone playing to the last whistle while donning the carnelian and white Cornell football jerseys, but only a few have been able to make a name for themselves at the next level.
With the 2017 NFL Draft just weeks away, former Cornell punter Chris Fraser ’16 is looking to add his name to the exclusive list of Cornell alumni in the pros.
“[It would] give a sense of legitimacy not only to Cornell but to to the whole Ivy League,” Fraser said of the implications his drafting might bring. “People don’t think of the Ivy League as a football powerhouse … and I think [it would] just be another thing that shows how Cornell football is making the right steps to become extremely competitive year in and year out.”
But before he can accomplish that, Fraser must undergo the most intensive, excruciating and meticulous preparation of his lengthy career. Since his graduation in December, the recent alumnus has continuously undergone five-day-a-week workouts, pro days — including one in Buffalo he had to call off due to the March Nor’easter — conditioning, dealing with an agent, private workouts and traveling across the country. And on top of all that, he has to make sure to get his eight hours of sleep every night.
“[It’s] just making sure that I’m at my peak physical performance level, having fun, enjoying it and staying active,” he says. “And making sure that I am at my best for the draft.”
Even with his deceptively hulkish legs that effortlessly sent punts over 60 yards, it is an especially steep hill for Fraser to climb. For aspiring professionals at most positions, they can sleep knowing teams carry anywhere from two to six players of their breed.
Punters and kickers are not privy to that same degree of comfort.
Most teams are not usually looking to replace their punter, Fraser said, and in reality, only a minuscule portion of teams might be actively shopping for a new punter on a given year. Any small hiccup in his performance, and Fraser’s dreams could very well be muffed.
“They don’t accept mediocrity, at least not very long,” Fraser said of punting in the NFL. “You always have to be improving and at a very high level. Because of that, since there is only one per team and all that, you have to grab a hold of any opportunity you can.”
Fraser is very aware of the challenges that lay in store for himself, so who better to ask for advice than a couple of Cornellians who have already been through the thick of it.
Blast From the Past
First on Fraser’s list of contacts to call was former Cornell receiver Bryan Walters ’10. The undersized Walters — undrafted when he declared in 2010 — has fought tooth and nail to make his way into the NFL. His hard work paid off when he won the Super Bowl with the Seattle Seahawks in 2014, and he is currently on the Jacksonville Jaguars’ roster after making 10 appearances in the 2016-17 season.
For Fraser, Walters was the perfect role model. The wide receiver was often doubted, mainly due to his short stature, yet he earned himself the opportunity to compete with the big dogs at the highest level. Being on a roster is one thing, but getting a good amount of playing time, as Walters has done, is another.
“He has definitely fought his way and he’s been really resilient throughout his whole process,” Fraser said. “And it’s not like he was some highly-touted recruit, clear-cut drafted player. He fought his way onto those roster spots and I don’t think a lot of guys have that [resiliency].
“[It’s] really impressive to see a guy who has made a living in the league fighting each and every day.”
Fraser and Walters never overlapped on East Hill, but Fraser notes that the connection between Walters and himself has been incredibly strong throughout the entire process. Without a teammate relationship, the common connection of once wearing the Cornell jersey has been a bond strong enough.
Walters has served as a teacher for Fraser on the most common issues — such as how to stay in shape — but also on things most people in Fraser’s life probably would not be able to offer wisdom on, like the little details scouts keep a keen eye out for.
The work ethic that Walters touts is one that Fraser hopes to emulate. Even from a distance, Fraser is in awe of how much Walters has done to propel himself to the next level.
“The thing that stuck with me the most is that you have to go to work every day … especially those days where you get out of bed, you don’t want to work out, but you have to,” Fraser said. “You do all the small things especially when you don’t want to because that’s what makes you mentally strong and that’s what gets you to where you want to be because that’s what no one else wants to do.”
While Walters and Fraser’s friendship formed recently, a relationship with a second alumnus, one with whom Fraser has spent countless hours of practice, has also come as an advantage.
Jeff Mathews ’13 left Cornell with the most throwing yards and touchdowns in program history. His 11,284 yards in the air have created a nearly 4,000-yard gap between himself and second place.
Since then Mathews has seen stints on professional teams, but never quite saw the field on game day. The Canadian Football League was the logical next step for him, and he is currently signed with the Toronto Argonauts.
Fraser and Mathews overlapped in 2012, the former’s freshman year and the latter’s senior season. The relationship from that point on has always been one of mentorship. As quarterback, Mathews was the team’s natural leader. His impressive abilities out of the huddle reinforced those leadership qualities.
Above all, Mathews’ role for Fraser came to light on the most abstract and esoteric of details that someone so focused on playing top level may never have considered: hiring an agent.
Use caution and “do not worry about making a decision” too early were the tips Fraser said Mathews offered.
“He said to focus on your senior year, do everything you can for your team to succeed, and then after the season, that’s when you start opening it up to agents. And that’s what I did,” Fraser said.
That advice paid off. Fraser set career highs his senior year in punts inside the 20 yard line and fair catches. That was accomplished while seeing a slight drop in punting opportunities when compared to the 62 he saw sophomore year.
Fraser and Mathews last reunited in person when Cornell and Penn battled in the 2016 season finale, and Penn walked away with a 42-20 victory and a share of the Ivy League title. It was a low point in a season that had brought about many highs.
But of the 6,333 in attendance that game, Mathews was the one perfect patron to see his former teammate join him in the ranks of now former Cornell footballers. It signaled the passing of the torch from one potential NFL prospect to another.
“[His advice] really worked out well because I got to focus on enjoying the season and focusing on every day of practice and hanging out with my friends and ride the wave that we began the season on,” Fraser said. “Jeff was really important for that.”
‘100 Percent All-In’
Perhaps the most harrowing component of this entire process is that it could all be for naught. All the lifting, all the refining, all the years of training could one day just seem pointless if an NFL spot does not come to fruition.
Until then, all Fraser can do is fight every day to make sure that possibility is just a bad dream and never a reality.
“There are some growing pains but I think that I have gotten past that part and I am definitely punting much better and at the top of my game now when it matters most, which is great,” he said.
What plagues Fraser, and most potential recruits, is the outside pressures that go along with the physical preparation. Any small misstep is a black mark in a scout’s book. And with so few opportunities to show off your skills, one misstep could quickly dismantle hopes at the big leagues.
“When you have 100-plus scouts on you it is easy to let the moment get to you but I think a part of the process is taking all that out and going back to the basics — you’ve been there before, you’ve done it a million times and just have fun,” he said. “I think that’s the thing that gets lost in this and I think I’ve gotten back to that which is great.”
On the flipside, bringing your best every day can make good things can come your way. Fraser has dreamed about charging on the field come opening kickoff ceremonies. In a way, that is what drives him most — the kid in him is simply excited at the chance of living out his dream.
“You see those guys and for all you know you could be wearing the same jerseys as they were or they are,” he said. “It’s a really cool thing to be watching these guys on TV when you are eight, 12, 15 years old and then the next year you are playing alongside them.”
Fraser acknowledges that one day he might wake up and not have a football career to look forward to, and says that Cornell was the perfect place to prepare for the life after football.
“Right now, I’m 100 percent all-in on football,” he said. “The great thing about having a degree from Cornell — and that’s a big reason why I went to Cornell — regardless of when my football career ends, whether that be tomorrow or 20 years from now, I have a great education, so I’m not worried about the opportunities that would present themselves afterwards.”
Hopefully for Fraser, those opportunities come following the goal he is currently set on. Until that day creeps up, he will continue to do the same thing he has done since the first day he laced up his cleats: go out there and have fun.
“I’m really enjoying it now and I really want to go out on that field and punt and show everyone what I can do,” Fraser said. “It’s definitely really exciting.”