November 10, 2005

Football Senior Captains Set to Complete Careers

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When senior offensive lineman Kevin Boothe first came to visit Cornell as a high school student, the Floridian was definitely out of his element. One couldn’t blame him – after all, it was only three or four degrees outside. But, something drew him to Schoellkopf Field and the people on East Hill.

“It’s hard to explain,” Boothe said on Tuesday, years since he first decided to come to Cornell. “I don’t know how to put it in words, but there’s something special about this place. Something just clicks, you can’t really explain why or how.”

For fellow captain Joel Sussman, a Great Neck, N.Y., native, he knew all about Cornell – his parents, Don and Karen, both went here as undergraduates.

“I just fell in love with the place and I’ve wanted to come here for as long as I remember,” Sussman said.

And for the team’s third captain, Kevin Rex, he was not even that familiar with the Ivy League. Coming from sunny Thousand Oaks, Calif., Rex was initially disillusioned with Ithaca’s climate. But, even though he was thousands of miles away, those around campus made Rex feel like he was home. Plus, studying at Cornell gave him a chance for a top-class education.

Now, years older and wiser, teammates on the field, friends off it, all three will converge on Schoellkopf Field this Saturday against Columbia for their final home game.

“I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. I’ve been dreading it,” Rex said.

Much of it has to do with all of the memories generated over each players’ career, both as football players and as students.

Rex remembers when he first came as a freshman – he was a smaller, but extremely confident player. His coaches wanted him to be an outside linebacker, and emulate a player named Joel Sussman.

“I was like, ‘Be like him?’ I want to be better than this kid,” Rex said Tuesday, laughing.

But, when he saw Sussman on the field, he was in awe.

“Watching Joel play my freshman year, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ Joel was one of the hardest hitting football players that I had ever seen,” Rex said.

Not that there’s no praise to spread around about the other two captains.

“Kevin [Boothe] is the best player in the Ivy League – has been for at least the past three years,” Sussman said. “Rex has been one of the top defensive players in the past two years. I can’t catch him on tackles, and it gets to me, I’m not going to lie, but he makes great plays when we need them.”

The three captains have been through a rollercoaster ride during their careers, facing major injuries – Boothe with two broken hands and a season-ending ankle injury, Sussman with a torn ACL and meniscus – and adversity.

While head coach Jim Knowles ’87 has brought Cornell football out of the depths of the Ancient Eight cellar over the past two years, Boothe, Sussman and Rex all experienced rock bottom during the Red’s 1-9, 0-7 Ivy season in 2003. But, all three stayed optimistic.

“It was definitely a tough season, but we knew we had the talent to compete,” Boothe said. “We were very fortunate to have Coach Knowles come in and really turn the program around in one year.”

That turnaround included a third-place finish in the league last season, in which this year’s senior class – including the three captains – was a huge part of.

This season, expectations were higher and despite getting off to a 1-2 start, the Red rallied back with wins over Harvard – its first victory over a Top-25 team since Cornell joined I-AA – and Georgetown. Even though the fact that the Red dropped close contests to Brown and Princeton – games Sussman said they should have won – the Class of 2006 is leaving an up-and-coming program.

“There were some close losses that we really wish we could take back, but, I think the guys on this field right now are going to win a championship in the next year or two years, and I think we’ll all know that we played a big part of that – not [in the sense] of playing on the field, but setting an example that they can follow,” Sussman said.

Hailing from different areas of the country, the three captains’ personalities and goals after college are as different as the leaves on the autumn trees. For example, Rex is one of the most talkative and boisterous people one would ever meet, while Sussman and Boothe are quieter and more reserved.

Boothe has been projected as the top Division I-AA prospect in the nation and will likely be taken in the next NFL Draft. As a biological sciences major, Rex wants to do medical missionary work in South America after he graduates, while Sussman, probably true to his ability to handcuff opposing offenses as a linebacker, would like to find employment in federal law enforcement.

However, all three are solely focusing on the team’s last two games – at home against Columbia, and on the road to Penn.

But while the senior class will be retiring their pads, the three captains all agree that the friendships and bonds made between players will endure longer than anything on the football field.

“My favorite memory from Cornell is just marching up with the band from the [pre-game meal at the] Statler,” Rex said. “The feelings I have at that moment – just excitement and nerves, [being] scared, and intensity. I look next to me and all of my best friends are just standing next to me marching up, ready to put together all of our hard work for that week, for the whole summer, for all of spring ball and showing what we can do. That is one of the greatest feelings in the world.”

And for the three captains as well as the other 15 seniors who will run onto Schoellkopf Field this Saturday for once last time, though they might not be able to put the feeling in words, as Boothe recognized a long time ago, everything will just click.

Archived article by Brian Tsao
Sun Assistant Sports Editor