With the same open mind he had in 2011 when switching from tight end to left tackle, Cornell senior J.C. Tretter listened to his father’s advice daily as a child and teenager in Akron, N.Y., a small village 25 miles northeast of Buffalo. Even when the elder Tretter, a former Hobart football player, no longer coached his son’s teams, he still worked hard to maximize the receptive J.C.’s potential.
“Once I hit high school, [my dad] wasn’t my coach on the field but he always worked out with me and trained me off the field and let the coaches coach me on the field,” Tretter said. “My dad did a lot for me and I thank him often for everything he did and for pushing me … My dad was especially important to me in my athletic endeavors. He definitely shaped me into the athlete and the man I am today.”
According to Tretter, his relationship with his father had some fraternal qualities, which he believes made the tutoring more effective than a typical father-son dynamic.
“Working out hard isn’t easy — you have to have someone there with you and he was kind of like a brother in that way. You hear about older siblings bringing their younger brothers along, and he had played college football and he knew how much work it takes to get to where I wanted to go. So he was there pushing me, even when I was young, because he understood and he had gone through it.”
Tretter also credits his dad for including him in pickup basketball games at the gym in nearby Oakfield, N.Y., with players of many age groups — from middle-aged men like J.C.’s father, some of whom were the elder’s collegiate opponents, to teenagers like J.C.
“I had a lot of fun playing with them, and that taught me how to play [basketball]. It was kind of old school, how it used to be played before it turned into the highlight dunks and the one-on-one games — it was all about doing what it takes to win … You were playing with guys who were 48 years old that knew they didn’t have many years left on their legs, so they wanted to win at every moment. You were playing guys with a sense of urgency, and that shapes an athlete the right way.”
The men were no average Joes, and neither was Joseph Carl (J.C.) Tretter Jr. He stands as Akron Central High’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder, and as a senior he led the Tigers to their first-ever sectional title en route to being named the Western New York Player of the Year.
Not only was basketball Tretter’s favorite sport, but the basketball and football coaches of Hobart and Williams Smith Colleges, a liberal arts institution in Geneva, N.Y., agreed that Tretter could play both sports if he wished to do so. However, Tretter ultimately decided to turn down his father’s former team to attend the school of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell, a university that had always been on his radar and the alma mater of his sister and three uncles.
During his first two years in Ithaca, Tretter juggled recreational hoops with his studies and varsity football until opting to drop his passion on the hardwood to focus exclusively on the Red’s pursuit of an Ivy League Championship.
“I’ve stopped playing this last year because I don’t want to get hurt for football. I’ve poured everything into these last two years of football and with what we have to do this year, you know you can’t have any setbacks and you can’t have anything standing in your way. I definitely miss [basketball], it’s a great game, but football has definitely taken priority now.”
On the turf, Tretter plays a critical role protecting record-breaking junior quarterback Jeff Mathews’ blind side, but it took a meandering journey to land Tretter at left tackle. A three-time first-league selection at Akron as a quarterback and defensive end, he was recruited as a general athlete without former head coach Jim Knowles ’87 nailing down a certain position.
“They kind of left it open as to what position I’d play, and I chose tight end. That was the position my dad played, and I thought my basketball background could make me a natural at it. I loved tight end … it came naturally to me.”
As a sophomore in 2010, Tretter caught four passes for 62 yards and a touchdown while recording four special teams tackles. At 6-4 and 250 pounds, he was a big and gifted target for the then-freshman Mathews.
“He has very good hands, and he still does at left tackle,” Mathews said. “We always had him in a lot of bigger sets, but we did utilize him down the field as well. [He is] just an all-around phenomenal athlete with great hands and just a big-bodied guy.”
After Mathews put together an impressive rookie season, though, Cornell wasn’t sure it was using Tretter in the most effective way. Red opponents in 2010 sacked Mathews 49 times, necessitating an upgrade on the offensive line both to keep the promising young quarterback healthy and to maximize his ability — talent that still surfaced despite Mathews being pulled to the ground more than any other signal caller in the nation. Nudged by his competitiveness and selflessness, the athletic Tretter volunteered to bulk up and give it a shot as a lineman.
“We’d have guys running down the field wide open but we just weren’t giving Jeff enough time to make the throws,” Tretter recalled. “We knew we could make them — [Jeff has] a phenomenal arm … I knew you only have so many years of football and winning is what matters. You’ve got to do what’s best for the team and that was the main priority.”
The transition worked out for the Red in 2011. The squad nearly cut its sacks allowed total in half, a tribute to Tretter, who had put on 25 pounds over the offseason, and the rest of the hard-working O-line.
“J.C. was a huge reason for our turnaround on the offensive line,” Mathews said. “Not only his skill level — he’s probably the best offensive lineman in the League — but also just the attitude he brings to the offensive line everyday.”
Nonetheless, Tretter’s transition to left tackle wasn’t a piece of cake. He tore his meniscus in early 2011, sidelining him for the spring and most of the summer, which left him about a month to actively prepare for last season. Although some responsibilities of left tackle, like run blocking, were familiar to Tretter from his tight end years, others were mostly foreign, like pass blocking.
“Tight end-wise, I knew how to run block. But pass setting is a totally different part of the game, and it was tough because with my knee injury I wasn’t able to do much for that summer. That was the most nerve-racking part — making sure I’d be able to pass set, especially in our offense … I’ve gotten a lot better.”
Besides adjusting to the technical nuances of the offensive line, Tretter also had to embrace the namelessness of blocking for skill position players for the sake of the program.
“It’s tough as a lineman [because] you go into that not-talked-about group. You’re not seen as an athlete — you’re just seen as that big guy who lets the athletic people do athletic things … [But] now our offensive line is extremely athletic — we’re not the chubby kids of old. You need to be that way with how much we pass the ball … If the team’s winning and if we’re running the ball well and throwing the ball well, the offensive line is getting in the paper that way. We know what it takes to be successful.”
Mathews believes one of Tretter’s best qualities is his leadership. Senior center Bob Bullington, the most experienced Red O-lineman, serves as the unit’s vocal leader. However, players also follow the example Tretter sets with his work ethic and demeanor, even though last season he was more inexperienced than some freshmen linemen.
“J.C. is always going to do the right thing whether it be in the weight room, on the field or off the field,” Mathews said. “He talks when he needs to talk, but more importantly he does the right thing. The younger guys can definitely look up to him and say, ‘This guy does it the right way and that’s someone I want to follow and emulate.’”
For Tretter, though, the work is simple because all the members of the experienced Cornell offensive line have assumed responsibility. In addition to Tretter and Bullington, the likely opening-day starters are junior left guard Josh Grider, junior right guard Brad Wagner and senior right tackle Dylan Cunningham.
“The best part about being a leader is when guys don’t need to be led anymore,” Tretter said. “Our offensive line is very mature — [we] all come out ready to play every day. It takes the onus off both Bob and me because we don’t have to worry about people not showing up ready to play or doing dumb things on the weekend.”
Tretter’s noble move to solidify the Red offensive line, and the grit he displayed in doing so, has made his fellow shoot-for-the-moon teammates proud.
“What’s been awesome about [Tretter’s transition] is by doing it, he’s worked really hard and put on a ton of weight and now he’s in a position to go to the NFL if he plays well,” Mathews said. “I think that whole process is pretty awesome from a teammate’s perspective.”
Tretter, now 295 pounds, acknowledges that earning a professional career — and becoming the first drafted Cornellian since New York Giants offensive lineman Kevin Boothe ’06 — would be a dream come true. However, the senior has more important tasks at hand that he cannot afford to compromise for future aspirations.
“Everything is a distraction, positive or negative,” he said. “I’m focused on winning a championship this year with these guys — guys I’ve spent three years with, now going into my fourth. We’ve got guys just dying to get that title and we’ve talked about it starting in freshman year. So that’s all I’m worried about right now … and good things come in bunches.”