While football success is traditionally measured in touchdowns and winning records, Cornell Football Head Coach David Archer ’05 and senior linebacker Jake Stebbins ’23 are being recognized for their commitment to leadership, academics and service through nominations to the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team.
Twenty head coaches and 136 student-athletes were nominated nationwide. The final “team” is selected by a voting panel — which consists of former Good Works Team selections, current and former head coaches and journalists — and will have one honorary head coach and 22 players. Once the roster of players is finalized, fans can vote among the selected athletes for an honorary captain of the team.
The College Football Association established the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team in 1992 to annually recognize the exemplary efforts of college football players and staff off the field. The American Football Coaches Association assumed the role of governing body of the award in 1997.
When Archer became the 27th head football coach at Cornell in 2013 at 30 years of age, he was the youngest National Collegiate Athletic Association Division 1 football coach in the United States. Today, Archer is one of the longest tenured head coaches in Cornell history.
Archer recalls seeing the AFCA team’s announcement every year at the annual Allstate Sugar Bowl and noted his surprise and appreciation regarding his own nomination for the award.
“[I was] really shocked and [felt] almost [a sense of] imposter syndrome, like I bet that can’t be me,” Archer said. “[I overall feel] shocked, humble and grateful.”
As a coach, Archer’s teams have accumulated a total of 63 All-Ivy League selections. Furthermore, Archer led the team to fourth place in the Ivy League in 2019, its best finish since 2006. With a 5-5 record in 2022, the program also boasted its best win total since 2005.
However, the football team also thrives off the field. With Archer’s academics-first perspective, the football team possesses a 97 percent graduation success rate.
To fuel his approach to coaching, Archer draws on his lived experience as a former Cornell Football player and team captain.
“[In making decisions], I’m thinking about knowing the schedule and the rigor that these guys go through academically, knowing the schedule and the rigor that the game of football demands, physically, and trying to position them and create systems and hire people that can best allow them to thrive,” Archer said.
To enrich players’ lives, Archer particularly tries to create pathways to student resources on campus, such as with pre-professional services in the Cornell Career Services or identity-related resources like the Asian and Asian American Center.
“I think being a former student-athlete at this place allows you to have the perspective of, oh, if I could do it again, here’s the resources I wish I [knew about, or] if this system was built when I was a player, maybe I could have thrived a little better,” Archer said.
Archer is also a leader in mental health advocacy. Throughout Covid-19 lockdowns, Archer used the time away from traditional coaching responsibilities to reassess if there was a way he could use his platform to make a greater positive impact. This reflection inspired Archer to become a board member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Finger Lakes, which works to support individuals whose lives have been impacted by mental illness.
In partnership with Cornell Health, Visions Federal Credit Union and NAMI Finger Lakes, Archer established “Huddle Together for Mental Health,” which brought mental health programming to about 200 people while bringing $5,000 in funds to NAMI Finger Lakes.
Furthermore, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the following nationwide social justice reckoning, Archer introspected on how he could best contribute to an inclusive, equitable environment. To Archer, establishing a safe space for all student-athletes to be themselves and to thrive is woven into his job as a coach.
Archer co-founded the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Athletic Committee and drove the creation of “Campus Partner’s Creating Pathways Luncheons.” He also worked with Cornell’s talent acquisition and human resource leaders to ensure best practices in hiring, including casting a broad net and considering hiring factors holistically.
Archer was particularly happy to connect with the coach of the Ithaca High School Girls Flag Football Team through one of these luncheons. After staying in touch with the coach over the past couple of years, Archer coordinated a day last spring to host the girls at Cornell as if they were recruits, where they could ask players about the game and stay and watch practice.
Archer connects his passion for service as a coach to his post-graduate experience with Teach for America, where he taught in Newark, New Jersey for two years.
“Cornell’s awesome but it can be this insulated bubble,” Archer said. “Being able to […] teach and see the achievement gap firsthand, to see systemic inequality firsthand, to be able to look those kids in the eyes, name those kids, see that, that experience doesn’t leave you. […] Teach For America does a really nice job of saying, hey, whatever you go on to do after your two years of teaching, keep this [experience] in mind, if you get to be in a position where you can affect that type of change or influence or policy.”
Altogether, Archer connects athletics to life lessons, both in his own life and for his players.
“There’s so many skills that are being taught on this field like resiliency, teamwork, collaboration, discipline, being part of something bigger than yourself [and] being able to work and relate to people that have the same perspective as you and have different perspectives as you,” Archer said.
Stebbins is a Cornell Football middle linebacker and captain who will enter his fourth season of eligibility this fall. He enters the season among the team’s all-time best, ranked 15th best in tackles, 22nd in forced fumbles and 24th in tackles for loss over his career. Among the Ivy League, he ranked fifth in tackles. Stebbins has collected three All-Ivy selections.
Off the field, Stebbins is a biometry and statistics major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He has done three internships with Highmark Health and plans to work with them in an actuarial role after graduating next December.
Stebbins has been deeply involved in community service throughout his time at Cornell. Stebbins credits his passion for service to his upbringing, describing how his mother would bring him and his older sister along to volunteer at places including the church they want to and in senior communities.
“The way [my mom] did it was she made [community service] fun for us, somehow, some way,” Stebbins said. “So I enjoyed it growing up.”
Stebbins was also inspired by his mother and sister’s mission trips to Kenya. In high school, he completed two mission trips to Kenya himself which included building a hospital in one of the villages and supporting one of the schools.
“Seeing how blessed we really are to have what we have makes you want to use what you have for those who don’t,” Stebbins said.
At Cornell, Stebbins is involved in Cornell’s Red Key Athlete Honors Society which consists of varsity athletes dedicated to academics and service. When Stebbins heard of Red Key’s clothing drive for Cayuga Medical Center, he led his team’s participation by turning collecting clothing into a competition.
Throughout the spring, the football team creates internal teams which compete with each other by accumulating points in workouts and other activities. Stebbins had the idea to establish point opportunities for bringing in clothes, aiming to make service interesting to the competitive-minded players. Altogether, the team gathered about four or five large bags full of clothing.
Stebbins also led a group of athletes to participate in a polar plunge that raised money for the Special Olympics. Stebbins said the Special Olympics is a particularly special cause for himself due to a close relationship with an uncle with cerebral palsy.
Currently, Stebbins and a few of his teammates are planning a youth football camp for first graders through eighth graders at Ithaca High School. Last summer, Stebbins helped coach a youth football camp at his previous high school in Pittsburgh. Throughout this camp, Stebbins had a lot of fun connecting with young athletes which inspired him to establish a similar program where Cornell athletes could connect with the larger Ithaca community.
“Being around kids and being able to have an impact on young lives is something that I really enjoy and I feel like it’s really powerful to have positive role models and positive people out there for the youth to look up to and be influenced by,” Stebbins said.
Throughout leading these initiatives, Stebbins has found teamwork to be just as important in community service as it is in football.
“The biggest thing I learned [about community service] is that you can’t do it alone,” Stebbins said. “Just like any other sport, you need to rely on your teammates and everyone else to help you out.”
On balancing athletics, academics and service, Stebbins noted the importance of setting priorities and staying focused. Furthermore, Stebbins described that athletics has strengthened his tenacity and altruism through its emphasis on the impact of his own work on others.
“In athletics, […] there’s a lot of things you don’t want to do at a workout or to get better, but you know they’re going to benefit the team,” Stebbins said. “You can apply that [perspective to] so many different [situations, such as in] an opportunity to help someone where it’s not necessarily convenient for you, or it doesn’t fit into our schedule, but you know it’s the right thing to do.”
Julia Senzon is a reporter from the Cornell Daily Sun working on The Sun’s summer fellowship at the Ithaca Voice. This piece was originally published in the Ithaca Voice.