September 20, 2002

Calling All the Shots

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Fortunately for senior inside linebacker Nate Spitler, unlike Aretha Franklin, he doesn’t need to ask for respect — not even a little bit. Standing at a solid 6-2 and weighing in at 244 pounds, Spitler’s imposing stature already commands the respect of most students on East Hill.

Meanwhile, Spitler’s hard-hitting play on the gridiron is what draws the attention and admiration of his teammates, coaches, and opponents.

Four games into the 2001 season, No. 51 on the Red was named a tri-captain along with then-seniors Ricky Rahne and Justin Dunleavy ’02. Spitler became just the ninth player in the storied 114 years of Cornell football history to assume the role — normally reserved for seniors — as a junior.

“It showed the respect the guys had, and I really appreciated that,” Spitler recounted.

Now himself a senior, Spitler, along with co-captain senior fullback Nate Archer, will once again look to lead the Red.

“He’s one of nine two-time captains here at Cornell,” defensive coordinator Jim Pletcher said. “That’s a very unusual honor to have bestowed upon you by teammates.”

Of course, Spitler did not just walk into the role of captain — he earned it.

Before enrolling at Cornell, Spitler was a standout three-sport athlete at Bowling Green High School in Bowling Green, Ohio. He twice lettered in baseball and basketball during his pre-Ithaca days, but his true passion and success were derived from football, in which he lettered three times.

At Bowling Green, Spitler spearheaded the defense at the linebacker position. However, he also enjoyed success at another position — one that few people would guess considering his chiseled frame. He was the team’s kicker — a position often occupied by a team’s smaller players — not one of its biggest. In fact, he was one of the best kickers in his league, earning a spot on the second-team of the All-Northern Lakes League in both his sophomore and junior seasons, and finally made the first-team in his final season. He was also a first-team selection in his county from 1996-98.

“I was a pretty good kicker,” Spitler said of his high school exploits.

And what if the Red needed an emergency kicker in a crucial Ivy League matchup? Spitler could be just that player.

“I can still kick. They’ve never needed me, though. I haven’t kicked a ball in two years, but it’s all up here,” Spitler said chuckling, all the while pointing to his head. “It’s like riding a bike.”

For all the accolades he earned as a kicker, Spitler was an even better linebacker, earning a first-team All-Northern Lakes League selection and a second-team All-Ohio bid in his senior campaign.

Yet, he was no different from the other wide-eyed freshmen entering Cornell. Upon coming to Ithaca Spitler, like his new classmates, had the brand new challenge of adjusting to his surroundings.

“When I first came as a freshman, my head was spinning,” he conceded.

Spitler, though, soon found comfort in the turf of Schoellkopf Field and in his new Carnelian and White uniform. As a rookie, he played extensively on special teams and excelled as a reserve linebacker, registering 20 tackles. Of those 20, 15 were solo takedowns, while five came on assists.

Still a young pup, Spitler earned a spot in the starting lineup by the time his sophomore season kicked off. With extended playing time, the linebacker blossomed into one of the Red’s most consistent defensive players, notching 46 tackles. More impressively, eight of his tackles were for a loss. In addition, he flashed his remarkable playmaking ability, registering four sacks and constantly knifing his way into the opponent’s backfield.

“Once I settled in, I started with small goals,” Spitler said with his expectations. “You just want to play, and then you want to start, and then just keep building from there.”

For an encore performance, Spitler enjoyed an even finer season as a junior. As Cornell’s defensive captain, he picked up where he left off, sacking Yale quarterback Peter Lee twice in the team’s season opener. By season’s end, Spitler had accumulated a team-high 70 tackles, including 31 solo efforts. In three of the team’s nine games, he registered double-digit tackle totals. Despite having to learn a new defensive scheme, he had his best individual season to date.

For his efforts, Spitler was named an Ivy League honorable mention at the conclusion of the 2001 season. The award was even more impressive, considering the Red’s mediocre defense a season ago.

Coming into the 2002 season, Spitler has even more fanfare surrounding him, as he, along with Archer, was recently tabbed as a preseason honorable mention All-American by Division I-AA college football guru Don Hansen. He was just one of eight Ivy League players to earn such a distinction.

“It was definitely appreciated because it shows what I’ve accomplished so far,” Spitler said of the honor.

Coming off a stellar campaign, Spitler had every reason to take a break from the field. However, rather than resting on his laurels, he worked hard in the offseason to ensure a better season for himself and for a Cornell squad that ended last season with a disappointing 2-7 mark.

“He’s one of our strongest players,” Pletcher said. “But he’s dedicated in the offseason and works all the time to do what is necessary for him to be a good football player.”

Responsible for calling the plays on defense and organizing the 10 other players on the field, Spitler is the “quarterback” of the Cornell defense.

“It’s a lot different when he’s in there,” senior linebacker Jarad Madea said of his peer. “He’s the leader of the whole defense.”

Although he did not grow up idolizing any NFL linebackers, the hard-hitting senior admits that he patterns his game around “anyone that comes up and brings the wood.”

While his on-field contributions cannot be overstated, his role as a second-year captain and leader on the squad is equally as important.

“[Spitler and Archer] both bring a lot to the locker room and a lot of respect from the players,” senior tight end Matt Wise said of the captains. “They’re great guys, and they know what’s going on. They’re like player-coaches out there,”

“When we don’t do as well as we should, they’ll huddle us up and chew us out and challenge us to come out the next day,” he added.

Entering his second season as captain, Spitler has not only accepted his role but is relishing it.

“I just love getting up in front of guys and telling them they did a great job or getting them up when things aren’t going so well,” Spitler said. “I just like having pressure with everyone looking at you. I live on that.”

“He’s a nice public speaker and gets his point across,” Madea concurred.

But while Spitler revels in rallying his teammates, he acknowledges that he doesn’t make the most stirring of speeches.

After all, “I don’t have a speechwriter,” he noted.

The star linebacker, however, is not one to lead by words alone.

“Obviously, you can’t lead people by just talking. You have to be an example,” he pointed out. “But there are times when you need to get your point across and say what you’ve got to say. So you’ve got to lead by example first and then build from there.”

There is much more to Spitler however, than his football exploits. He defies the stereotypes surrounding football players. He is a student first and foremost, an athlete second — a true student-athlete. He’s one of a
dying breed.

Before joining the Cornell community, Spitler earned honors as a National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame Scholar-Athlete. He was also a member of the All-Academic basketball team of the Northern Lakes League in 1999.

That work ethic has carried over to his academic work at Cornell, where he currently majors in Industrial and Labor Relations.

“Football’s important to Spitler,” Pendergast said. “It’s not more than school, but it’s not wrong to long for an education.”

“That makes me so proud that [Spitler and Archer] can handle football, social things, and academics.”

Having already accomplished so much at Cornell both on and off the field, Spitler is primed to end his college career on a high note.

“I’ve just had a great time my first three years so far and the beginning of my fourth — just loving every minute of it. I wouldn’t change a thing,” he said.

“I’m looking to go out and play the game to the best of my ability, having a lot of fun, and leading a great defense. I want to win an Ivy League championship more than anything else. Individual awards don’t really matter to me. Personal awards, I could throw them out the window as long as we win the championship this year.”

Perhaps his linebacking cohort, Madea, described Spitler best.

“He’s a good person and a good player.”

Archived article by Alex Ip