October 18, 2006

Sprint Football Team Rife With Tradition

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Wednesday night “Group Therapy” is as much a Cornell tradition as the study week scream and the 4 a.m. walk of shame. But while many a Cornellian will be slamming down pitchers of Beast and shots of mystery drink at Dunbars tonight, the sprint football team will be indulging in a form of hedonism it seldom gets to enjoy: eating.

Wednesdays are the second of two weekly weigh-ins for the team, whose players must come in under 172 pounds to be eligible to play in the Collegiate Sprint Football League.

And so, when tonight’s practice lets out at around 8 p.m, the sprint football team will make its weekly pilgrimage to the Ivy Room on a gastronomical mission of astronomical proportions.

After sucking weight since the weekend, the players can finally unbuckle their belts and unhinge their jaws. The menu ranges from chipwhiches to chili dogs, and senior co-captain Mike Fullowan has to turn off his cell phone because it’s a rule: no girlfriends allowed at Ivy Room Wednesdays.

But the scene along the oaken picnic tables isn’t simply one of well-deserved gluttony. Ivy Room Wednesdays are more than just chow time for the sprint football team — they’re family time. I’m not talking about the tired “band of brothers” clichés ubiquitous in post-game interviews and ESPN documentaries. This metaphor is real and crucial to understanding the success and continued existence of a Cornell sport funded entirely by the generosity of its 1,100 alumni. Family ties permeate every level the sprint football team, starting at the top.

Head coach Terry Cullen joined the Red back in 1964 as an assistant coach to his father, Bob Cullen. He took over as head coach in 1977, and in 2001, the position became endowed for the man who had led Cornell to five CSFL championships. That’s right, Terry Cullen is the “Terry Cullen Head Coach of Sprint Football.” The only things named after me are the Paul Testa memorial couch in my friends’ apartment and those jokes you make in class that no one laughs at.

But the sprint football genealogy doesn’t stop there. As Cullen notes over 10 of the players and managers on this year’s team are second-generation members of the sprint family. Two of these legacies, sophomore starting quarterback Zak Dentes and senior offensive lineman Scott Dentes, are townies, making the transition from being Little Red at Ithaca High School to little Big Red at Cornell.

Their father, George Dentes BS ’76, JD ’79, played varsity football at Cornell until his senior year, when his fraternity brothers convinced him to play sprint. The switch was far from easy, as George’s girlfriend of the time and future wife Elsie Dentes ’77 will tell you.

“He dropped down like 20 pounds,” Zak said. “Mom talks about him being really ornery those six weeks he had to suck weight.”

Scott and Zak now know their father’s pain. When Scott woke up this past Monday morning weighing 183 lbs., he spent his day in Sisyphean pain on the sloping pavement of East Buffalo street. Eleven pounds lighter and later at the weigh-in, Scott knew who to blame for his misery.

“It’s my mom’s fault,” he said. “She cooks to well. Pumpkin pie Sunday night — how can I say no?”

Having tasted Mrs. Dentes’ world-class pesto pasta, I can understand Scott’s plight. But cutting weight has always been a tradition in the CSFL and is an important part of the bonding that occurs between teammates.

“I think that’s the unifying force,” Cullen said. “There’s a common bond from not eating. For a lot of the bigger guys, 172 pounds is really a struggle; and then to maintain the academics and play football, and not be able to eat at night makes it even harder.”

Founded in 1934, as the Eastern 150-Pound Football League, the league’s weight limit was supposed to reflect the average size of the collegiate male. While the weight limit has increased, the league’s size has shrunk from seven to five teams, leaving Cornell, Princeton, Penn, Army and Navy to carry on the tradition. In the eyes of Cullen, the potential decline of one last true walk-on sports is a shame.

“I think it’s a fantastic opportunity for Cornell students,” Cullen said. “It’s one of the few sports anymore that you could come out and try out and probably make the team if you were an athlete. … You can’t learn how to play baseball, or lacrosse or squash in college. You can learn how to play football.”

This year’s squad of Rudys is apparently studying for a doctorate in gridiron perfection. The team’s 4-0 start is the best since 1986 and the Red leads the league in team defense (190 yards per game), making Princeton’s ground game look only slightly better than that of the Arizona Cardinal’s in last Friday’s 35-0 shellacking of the Tigers.

The Red’s offense isn’t too bad either. Playing behind a line of returning seniors, Zak Dentes has thrown for 650 yards and five touchdowns in four games this year.

Sprint’s success isn’t limited to the turf of Schoellkopf. The team sends on average three-to-four kids to medical school and consistently boasts one of the top GPAs for Cornell athletics. And while its alumni have gone on to become CEOs and ambassadors, they continue to return for the annual sprint football alumni game, where, for the price of $2 for every pound over the 172 limit, they can relive the glory and pain of their sprint football days.

Fortunately, for the rest of us looking to indulge our gridiron cravings, the price of admission to the sprint football team’s last home game this Friday against Penn is free. Now I’ll drink to that.

Paul Testa is a Sun Assistant Sports Editor. Cleveland Rocks will appear every other Wednesday this semester.