People often ask me why I chose to go to Yale, and I invariably reply that it was something I couldn’t afford not to do. By the age of 17, I had grown tired of uncertainties — of not knowing whether my parents would be around, or whether my friends would make it out of our neighborhood, or whether I’d have the chance to do something of note in my short time on earth.
Then Yale came along. For the first time in my life, I had encountered something that seemed like a sure thing. Six years later, Yale still hasn’t let me down — largely because of the wisdom and bonds that I gained as a man of Yale football.
A lot has changed about the program since Walter Camp roamed the sidelines. Looking at the new Kenney Center two Novembers ago, my teammates and I couldn’t help but feel a bit small next to Heisman trophies, nationally ranked teams and Hall of Famers. So it’s understandable for many to long for olden days of yore and be unsure of the program’s relevance in the 21st century.
But for a young man like me who considered Yale a miracle as much as an education, I can assure you that our program is more relevant now than ever before. There are very few places in America today where a boy can be given everything he needs to become the best man he can be. Yale Football is one of those places. It may no longer share the national spotlight, but what is left is raw devotion, an understanding of sacrifice and a chance to live the dream of college football with 100 other men who will lead this world in the years to come.
Yale Football made my story possible and put me in a position to always have a chance — in part because I learned the lessons from the game of football that motivate me in my current work and aspirations. As Teddy Roosevelt said, “In any republic courage is a prime necessity for the average citizen if he is to be a good citizen; and he needs physical courage no less than moral courage, the courage that dares as well as the courage that endures, the courage that will fight valiantly alike against the foes of the soul and the foes of the body. Athletics are good … because they tend to develop such courage.”
At every step of my journey through Yale, there was a Yale football alumnus who helped me develop the courage that Roosevelt endorsed. Pat Ruwe ’83 mended my body so I could play for an Ivy League Championship. Greg Hall ’77 coached me through the job market and told more outrageous stories than I can remember. Kurt Schmoke ’71 and Jack Ford ’72 counseled me during the Rhodes Scholarship process.
So when faced with the decision to fly to Houston for The Interview or ride to Boston for The Game, I agonized far more than most people could understand. On one hand, I was in the position to become one of 32 winners of the most prestigious scholarship on the planet. On the other hand, I had one more chance to be taken seriously while playing a game in tight pants.
But looking past the prestige, I could see quite clearly that the men in Boston were the driving force behind anything that I could do to impress a committee in Houston. They were the ones with whom I had bled, sweat and cried. They were the ones who looked out for me when I was a little country bumpkin from Texas. They were the ones who would be at my wedding and my funeral — and would torture my children with stories of football glory and disappointment in between. They, and those who came before them, were my family.
This, I’m sure, is the realization Pat Witt ’12 came to as he withdrew his application for the Rhodes and decided to take the field for one last time as a man of Yale Football.
In the end, I was able to split the difference — I missed the last few days of football practice and the second day of the Rhodes interview. I flew to Texas on a Thursday night with the words of my teammate, Brandt Hollander ’08, in my heart: “If you lose, no one will ever remember; if you win, no one will ever forget.”
About 30 hours later, I was whisked from the airport in Newark to a hotel in Boston — arriving with a cold at 5 a.m. — with the words of my faculty advisor, then-Dean Penny Laurans, in my head: “Casey, humans can endure anything over the course of 48 hours.”
Within two hours, — 7 a.m. Boston time — I woke up to stale waffles and the voice of coach Tony Reno in my ear: “Case, let’s go; it’s time to play.” No pomp. No circumstance. Just game time.
Game time wasn’t kind to us that day, the 125th time Yale met Harvard on the gridiron. The score (10-0, Cantabs) was as bitter as the weather, and my classmates and I — members of one of the most successful classes in decades — walked off the field in tears and shock that it was all over.
Shortly thereafter, in a scene I thought only happened in movies, I opened a text on my phone that informed me that I had not, in fact, been one of the 32 winners of the Rhodes. There I was, a celebrated student-athlete who had been convinced that life was all about winning, and now I was a loser — a double loser, at that.
But now I know what I won that day. I gained the peace of knowing that failure is the price we sometimes pay for daring greatly. I gained the faith to believe that the value of the people in our lives will far outstrip the value of the lines on our resume.
In the end, you were right, Brandt. People don’t forget when you win. But they also don’t forget when you lose — just ask the reporters who have reached out to me over the past few weeks to hear my opinion on what Witt should do now that he was faced with the same decision I had to make. So if they’re going to remember either way, you might as well win big or lose big so the story will be somewhat entertaining.
You were right, too, Penny. Humans can endure anything over the course of 48 hours. Faulkner would add to Penny’s mantra: Not only can we endure — we can prevail. The life Yale Football allowed me to lead proved this to be correct.
Most of all, you were right, coach Reno. It’s game time. Always.
So as the Bulldogs prepare for yet another contest against our misled brethren to the North — with their quarterback by their side, no less — let us all remember the battles that we each must fight, the only battles that are worth fighting in the first place: the ones about something bigger than ourselves.
Only those battles allow us to fulfill our commitment to God, to Country, and to Yale.
Casey Gerald is a 2009 graduate of Morse College.