Humble Breunig leads Bulldog defense

While quarterback Alvin Cowan ’05 and running back Robert Carr ’05 continue to grab headlines for rewriting the Yale record books, few have noticed the strong, steady play of another Bulldog senior — linebacker Ben Breunig ’05. Breunig is Yale’s leading tackler for the second season in a row, but the ferocious hits he delivers belie his mild manner.

Breunig has been a fixture on the Yale defense for the past three seasons, and his role only grew larger when all-Ivy linebacker Ken Estrera ’05 broke his leg in the second game of the 2004 season.

Growing up in Dallas, Breunig took to football at an early age. He recalled his third pee-wee season with a smile.

“In sixth grade my dad coached my team,” Breunig, the son of former Dallas Cowboys great Bob Breunig, said. “That was a lot of fun. He let me play quarterback. [He] was a huge influence in my life. Not just as a great athlete, but also as a dad figure.”

There were fewer smiles in high school football. A torn left anterior cruciate ligament cost Breunig all of his sophomore and half of his junior season at Lake Highlands in Dallas. Finally healthy, Breunig led the Wildcats in tackles his senior season, but the team finished 1-9.

“It was definitely a frustrating season,” Breunig said. “But being healthy made me want to play in college.”

The motivation from his injury-plagued high school career and a one-win senior season has fueled Breunig in his four years with the Elis. He was one of a small group of freshmen to see varsity action in 2001, notching four tackles between special teams and linebacker duties.

“In preseason of his first year, he not only jumped into the huddle one time with the first team but jumped right in front to call the D,” Yale defensive coordinator Rick Flanders, who also serves as linebackers coach, said. “I knew right then we had a special kind of leader.”

In 2002, Breunig won a starting job at linebacker and finished second on the team in tackles with 74. Last season, he was named Yale’s defensive back of the year — there is no award for linebackers. But while his ascent to a key role on the Bulldog defense was rapid, it was not without growing pains.

“My freshman year against Fordham — first time I got any significant playing time at linebacker — they had a 270-pound fullback,” Breunig said. “He pretty much gave me a wake-up call. Ran me over pretty good.”

Most of Breunig’s stories about his playing experiences are like the Fordham one — funny and self-deprecating. He uses no superlatives to describe his talent, no adjectives to support his statistics. Three consecutive seasons with over 70 tackles speak for themselves — and that is just the way Breunig wants it.

He would rather discuss more important things, like his service work. Rather than his contributions to the football team, Breunig is most proud of his job as student-director of Yale’s chapter of Athletes in Action, a nationwide Christian ministry for student-athletes.

“Ben is one of the finest young men I have ever coached,” Yale head coach Jack Siedlecki said. “He is a great player, a great team leader, a great student and an even better person.”

Siedlecki said the first time he met Breunig, at Breunig’s home in Dallas, in December 2000, he had planned to talk about the Cowboys.

“I was listening to the Cowboys game on the radio on the way to his house,” Siedlecki said. “I wanted to be on top of it because I knew his dad had played for the Cowboys and figured it would be a big topic of discussion. They wanted to talk Yale education and Yale football.”

Like his coaches, Breunig’s teammates always speak about his character before his talent. Linebacker Cole Harris ’05 talked about Breunig as an athlete, an avid film watcher and an instinctive player, yet he would always call him a friend first.

“[Ben is] very respectful of all people and I can pretty much count on him to do anything for me if I need him to,” Harris said, adding that his most indelible memories of Breunig have nothing to do with football.

But even with all of Breunig’s interests, Saturday will be all about football.

“I’m sure afterward it’ll be nostalgic for the last game in the Yale Bowl,” Breunig said. “I’ve had a great experience playing Yale football.”

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