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Sitting at the heart of a tenacious Bulldog defense is strong safety Cole Champion ’16. The Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. native has been near the top of Yale’s leader board in tackles in both of his seasons with the Elis. Going into The Game, the sophomore leads the team with three interceptions and leads the Ancient Eight with four fumble recoveries. Champion also leads all Yale defensive backs with 69 tackles. Champion ranks sixth in the Ivy League in tackles per game.
“Whatever challenge comes his way he meets it,” captain Beau Palin ’14 said. “He prepares the details during the week as far as knowing the tendencies of the offense and then, because he feels prepared, he just cuts it loose on Saturday. He’s not the biggest guy out there, but he’s fast and he hits really hard because he’s going all out.”
This season, Champion had his best game to date on Oct. 5 against the then nationally-ranked Cal Poly Mustangs. The defensive back had 14 tackles, a fumble recovery and two interceptions, in Yale’s 24–10 upset.
It is not unusual to see Champion’s name at the top of leaderboards. Going back to his high school days at St. Thomas Aquinas, Champion was a three-year starter and a two-time defensive MVP. He left the school as the career leader in tackles, all while helping his team to two state championships and two national championships.
Champion got his start in football due to his athletic-minded family.
“I have an athletic family, so I’ve played pretty much every sport at some level,” Champion said. “I’ve played tackle football since I was seven.”
His father played football at New Hampshire, and his sister played lacrosse at Tufts. Champion also played lacrosse, playing on four district championship teams, but was eventually forced to choose between which of the two sports to pursue — and found football the easy answer.
The usually soft spoken, though tough, tackling defender said that he models his game on the New York Jets’ Ed Reed, but said his favorite player is former Notre Dame standout Tommy Zbikowski. Coming out of the prestigious football program at St. Thomas Aquinas, Champion was courted by several BCS schools, but chose Yale because of the high priority he placed on academics.
Champion came into a Yale defense dominated by seniors, but quickly established himself as a key figure in head coach Tony Reno’s defense.
“At times [adjusting to college football] was difficult, but last year’s senior defensive backs like John Powers ’13 and Kurt Stottlemeyer ’13 helped me a lot in the transition,” Champion said. “I came in wanting to work as hard as I possibly could to give myself the best chance to play. I was fortunate enough to have some success early.”
After claiming a starting spot four games into last season, Champion played a key role in the Bulldog defense. Champion enters the year as Yale’s leading returning tackler and is one of the most experienced members of a defensive unit dominated by freshmen. The Elis feature four starting freshman and nine rookies on the two-deep depth chart.
Despite the unit’s relative inexperience, the Bulldogs possess one of the most fearsome red-zone defenses in the nation, ranked third and allowing their opponents to score on just 65.5% of their plays inside Yale’s 20-yard line.
“The best part about our freshmen is that they don’t play like freshmen,” Champion said. “Coach Reno does a great job recruiting guys who are going to compete for spots right away. Because of that I don’t feel any added pressure.”
The Elis hope that this defense, paired with a fast paced offense, will allow the Bulldogs to snap Harvard’s six-game win streak in The Game on Saturday. Last year in Cambridge, Yale led with just 7:07 left, but the Crimson came back to win 34–24.
Champion had six tackles in that game, but has not placed emphasis on last year’s game or any other game as a rallying point for the team heading into Saturday’s matchup.
“We’re focused on this year and our captain Beau Palin ‘14 has preached a ‘one team’ mentality, which includes playing one play at a time [and] executing our game plan regardless of who we are playing,” Champion said. “I think our fans did a good job of traveling last year, but we’re definitely excited to play at home on our field with our fans.”
The Yale Bowl is expected to be near capacity for the 130th installment of The Game, and the Bulldog faithful will hope that Cole can champion a Yale victory by helping to stymie the Harvard offense, which ranks first in the Ivy League in total offense.
Champion has averaged 7.7 tackles per game this season and will be in the teeth of the Bulldog bite on Saturday.
He is one of the most dependable guys on the field,” quarterback Hank Furman ’14 said. “Coming from the offense, I have complete trust when Cole is on the field at safety.”
Yale kicks off against Harvard at 12:00 p.m. this Saturday at the Yale Bowl.