September 15, 2005

Cornell Football Matters Once Again

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It’s that time of year. Guys are consumed with football fever, and girls can only watch and wonder what all the fuss is about. All my life, I’ve looked at the quintessential American game as nothing more than “guys in tight pants hitting each other” – and then I came to Cornell.

This weekend I’ll revisit one of those innocent freshman firsts – my first football game at Schoellkopf Field. The 2003 season opener was also against Bucknell, and the Red won, 21-19, after a last-ditch Bucknell field-goal attempt dinged harmlessly off the uprights. It was a sunny fall afternoon, and I was a wide-eyed newcomer to the East Hill. Awed and intimidated by the huge football players, I found myself amongst the “Freshmen on the Field” rush after the game. I did not grow up in Texas, or any region of the country with nearly as much football fervor. In my childhood, fall was soccer season, and the most football I saw was when my family went to a friend’s house for the occasional Notre Dame game or the Super Bowl – something I watched more for the commercials than the competition for years. But in the stands of Schoellkopf, surrounded by a sea of waving Big Red fingers and people screaming through mini-megaphones, I understood what all the fuss was about.

Granted, my affinity for football in my freshman year was somewhat short-lived. I don’t think I’m the only Cornellian that lost hope as the losses mounted, and I know I’m not the only person who left Homecoming at halftime.

But last year was different. We got head coach Jim Knowles ’87, and we got hope, determination, and a reason to believe. I am definitely not the greatest football brain around – I had to look at the NFL website for kids to learn the positions of football players I had to interview. But I’ve been an athlete and a competitor all my life, and I can recognize a formidable foe when I see one. Knowles led the Red in its “Strike Back” campaign – taking a lost cause that was 1-9 to third place in the Ivy League and a 4-6 (4-3 Ivy) record. In 2003, our rush defense was also last place in the Ancient Eight, and even worse, ranked 104th out of 121 teams in Division I-AA. Fast forward to the end of Knowles’ debut campaign, and that same defense is at the top of the league and seventh nationally. All of a sudden, Cornell football matters again.

Those little rubber wristbands have become as ubiquitous as cell phones and iPods around Cornell’s campus. Livestrong is still the frontrunner, but it seems everyone has one for whichever disease or summer camp comes first in their life. The newest arrival on arms this fall has been the Cornell football ’05 edition – red, of course, with Commitment, Pride, Unity, and Toughness inscribed in white letters. Everyone on the team – managers, players, coaches – wears one and carries those qualities with them every day. When Knowles says he dies inside every time an opponent gains a yard, he’s dead serious. When senior tri-captain Kevin Rex says every last one of the 110 guys on the team believes, he’s right.

And what do they believe? They believe that, like the 2005 Cornell football t-shirts say, we are headed “Straight to the Top.” Maybe the preseason rankings say we’ll finish fifth in the Ivy League, but you know what – we were picked to finish eighth last year, and the polls were dead wrong. Spend five minutes around the team or the coaches and you’ll be convinced they’re wrong again. Those wristbands don’t lie – commitment, pride, unity, and toughness – these guys have it all.

Knowles, Rex, and everyone else working with the team on a day-to-day basis is doing their job. They’re building a program that matters, a team that’s as far removed from the doormat of the Ivy League as you can possibly get. But they can’t do it alone. So even if you don’t have one of those red pieces of plastic around your wrist, show up at Schoellkopf this Saturday and be a part of the journey back to upper ranks of the Ivy League. Take a page from Knowles’ book. Show some commitment and unity. Have some pride, and get behind these guys. The tough part is almost over – all we have to do is be there to cheer them on.

Olivia Dwyer is a Sun Assistant Sports Editor. Forever Wild will appear every other Thursday this semester.

Archived article by Olivia Dwyer
Sun Assistant Sports Editor