Sober Soldiers

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Photo by Allie Krause.

On Friday, Feb. 15, a few hundred students filed into the John J. Lee Amphitheater in Payne Whitney Gymnasium. For most of them, the night ahead would be a busy one — pregames, parties, late-night Wenzels. But the first stop was watching the men’s basketball team take on Cornell, where the evening’s entertainment was provided in large part by sophomores Javier Duren and Brandon Sherrod.

Duren, a guard from St. Louis, is known for his slick no-look passes and a signature flattop. He’s also one of the most emotional players on the court. Early in the first half, a quick grin after a teammate’s heads-up play turned into visible frustration a few seconds later when the Bulldogs committed a turnover. His play style, too, shows the scrappiness and selflessness of someone determined to assert his place on the court. Head coach James Jones said, “Javier … plays with a chip on his shoulder. When someone messes with that chip, he turns into ‘Beast Mode,’ if you want to call it that.”

Meanwhile, Sherrod, who grew up just a few miles away in Bridgeport, is considerably more stoic when it’s game time, but his intensity crops up in different ways. Yale’s strength coaches ranked him as the most powerful male athlete on either football or basketball this preseason, and it showed with just 1:05 left in the second half, when he threw down a one-handed slam to bring Cornell’s lead down to four.

Despite falling to Cornell 68–61 that Friday, Duren and Sherrod played to their strengths. Duren had seven points — and a career-high seven assists. During Sherrod’s limited playing time after returning from injury, he had two mega-blocks, stuffing the Cornell offense with his 6-foot-6-inch, 240-pound frame. “The story [against Cornell] was that we didn’t come out aggressive enough,” Duren told the News. “Once we finally got going, we were battling the whole game.”

 

Duren and Sherrod are Division I athletes, with profiles on ESPN and MaxPreps and highlight reels on YouTube. After the Cornell game, you might expect them to spend their Friday night like their fans — you know, the wild fraternity parties and nights at Toad’s that have led to recent stories damaging the reputation of Yale student-athletes. Yet both Duren and Sherrod completely abstain from alcohol. Driven by their strong Christian faith and health concerns, the two have dismissed the stereotypical lifestyle of the Division I athlete.

Don’t get it wrong — they still want to be out there on Friday night, hanging out with the team and exploring Yale’s nightlife. “We’re always outgoing guys. We want to be at the latest scenes and parties. But we [don’t] drink at all,” Duren said. “Brandon and I [are] comfortable with who we are. We can walk into any scene, any party, and be perfectly fine with not drinking.”

Duren and Sherrod decided to go public with their perspective during their freshman year when they created “#TeamSober.” The rules of the group are simple.  “All you have to do is sign a pledge,” Sherrod said. If you’re under 21, joining #TeamSober is a pledge to abstain from the consumption of alcohol and other illegal substances. Once a member turns 21, #TeamSober members pledge to not “overindulge” in alcohol. The goal is to provide “a place for people who may feel uncomfortable in other situations, just to have people who feel the same way they do,” as Sherrod put it. “We’re not going to try and impose Prohibition or something like that.”

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I met up with Duren and Sherrod on the Thursday after the Cornell game on the second floor of the Gourmet Heaven on Broadway. Duren arrived first just after 11 p.m., headphones in place and basketball jacket full-zip. Sherrod strolled up shortly after, the on-court intensity replaced by a big grin. (“Brandon is a big, strong, feisty kid,” Jones said. “But off the court, he’s a teddy bear.”)

“We didn’t really know each other when we were on our official visits,” Duren explained over the din of the late-night GHeav crowd. “When we got on campus — my family is really faith-based — I found out that his family is really faith-based. That was the link. ‘Hey, you’re a Christian? I’m a Christian too!’ And it just sort of meshed from there.”

But faith wasn’t the only link that led to #TeamSober. The missing piece of the puzzle was, of all things, one night at a frat party.

“We were just standing there, watching things, just being the cool dudes at the party,” Duren started off. “A guy comes up to me and he’s like, ‘You want a drink?’” Duren declined, but this friendly — if persistent — Yalie moved on to Brandon to ask the same question. Brandon’s response? “Nah man, I’m good. I’m with Team Sober.”

“The guy walks off, and I give it a couple seconds,” Duren continued. “Then I look over at Brandon, and I’m like, ‘Team Sober? That’s kinda hot! We could do something with that!’”

Of course, #TeamSober was founded on more than just a witty rejoinder. The project crystallized the pair’s personal experiences and aspirations. Sherrod initially struggled with Yale’s drinking culture as a freshman. “My teammates were doing it, so I thought I was fitting in by drinking with them. It just wasn’t really me,” he said. “If I had a group like #TeamSober that would provide me with people who had the same walk I had … I would have definitely joined.” Sherrod also pointed to the health advantages of the #TeamSober pledge. “For me personally, as an athlete, you don’t want to have such substances in your body because you want to live the healthiest lifestyle possible,” he said.

Both see their status as Division I athletes not as a license to party, but rather as an opportunity to spread a message. Social media is integral to the #TeamSober mission: the #TeamSober name includes a hashtag to encourage members to share their pledge, and the group’s hub is a Twitter account with the handle “@SoberSoldiers.” “As Division I athletes at Yale University, we are blessed every day,” Duren said. “God has given us a certain platform that we would like to use to express our views and show our faith.”

#TeamSober was born from faith and a frat party, and it still enjoys close ties with Yale’s Christian community. Duren and Sherrod met with Christian groups on campus several times for advice and funding as they worked to launch the group. The two themselves are involved in a number of faith-based organizations on campus, including the new Yale chapter of Beta Upsilon Chi, which drew controversy earlier this year when it was reported that the fraternity effectively requires its members to be Christian. Because of the fraternity’s alcohol policy, all BYX brothers are #TeamSober members. BYX brother Will Davenport ’15 says he was drawn to #TeamSober as a concept because for him, “the principle behind [#TeamSober] is based on Scripture … not filling yourself with wine, but filling yourself with the Holy Spirit.”

But Duren and Sherrod stress that #TeamSober is not faith-exclusive. “It’s definitely just a campuswide organization. It’s not faith-based at all,” said Sherrod. “We don’t want to pigeonhole the group in that way.” Duren agreed: “We wouldn’t want people to be like, ‘I don’t drink, but I’m not Christian, so I can’t join.’”

The two also want to make it clear that the organization isn’t intended to be forceful or militant with its message of sobriety. “We think that by providing an outlet, we could eventually change campus culture, but we’re not here to infringe on anyone’s right to drink,” Sherrod explained. “I think that’s cool. [#TeamSober] sends a message, and it’s a very light one. … It’s not one that really tries to malign or judge others for what they do.”

Teammate Will Childs-Klein ’15 affirmed the respect Duren and Sherrod have for the choices made by their teammates and classmates. “They don’t talk about #TeamSober very much in the locker room. They’re always willing to answer any questions people have, but they don’t force their beliefs on others.”

While no other teammates have joined the cause, everyone interviewed agreed that #TeamSober is respected in the Yale athletics community. Not that they don’t get light ribbing from teammates. “We definitely get some little jabs [from teammates] like, ‘Hey, #TeamSober is in the building,’” Sherrod exclaimed, laughing. “They’ll hit us up and say, ‘#TeamSober, bring mixers.’” Childs-Klein admitted the playful jokes, but said the team “is very supportive of everybody’s pursuits off the court, and [#TeamSober] is no exception.”

Coach Jones also speaks highly of the group and its stand against “doing things in excess.” On a more personal note, the 13-year coach thinks the strong bond that Duren and Sherrod have formed along the way is essential. “Javier having Brandon, Brandon having Javier. That’s important.”

 

#TeamSober has big plans and big ideas, but has their message truly spread to the campus? Right now, the group counts over 40 pledge-signers over their first few semesters in action, many of whom signed up during #TeamSober’s recent publicity push during the basketball season. #TeamSober has even spread “Ivy League-wide,” said Duren with feigned smugness. The group counts members at Dartmouth, Princeton and Harvard, including many students who signed up during the 2011 edition of The Game at the Yale Bowl.

Sherrod and Duren laid out a handful of ideas for expanding #TeamSober’s reach, particularly at Yale. First up is getting official recognition as a student group and using Bulldog Days to get in touch with incoming freshmen. In the long term, they’d even like to work with the Yale College Dean’s Office on future alcohol-related initiatives. Said Sherrod, “I think [Yale College Dean] Mary Miller would love #TeamSober, considering all the emails we get from Dean [of Freshman and Student Affairs] Gentry about alcohol.” Duren chimed in, “They need to recognize that we have things like BYX and #TeamSober on campus that implement what they’re trying to persuade.”

“Mary, if you see this, I’ll be seeing you soon,” Sherrod said jokingly.

Student Affairs Fellow Hannah Peck DIV ’11 said the Dean’s Office is definitely aware of #TeamSober. “In fact, we provided some funding for them to hire security at a party a few weeks ago. I’m impressed with the work they are doing and the maturity with which they approach their social life in college,” she explained.

 

Two days after our meeting at GHeav, the Bulldogs took on Harvard in a nationally televised matchup with huge Ivy League implications. Many students in the stands wore their orange #TeamSober shirt as a part of an “Orange-Out” event publicized by their two leaders on the court. Yale President-elect Peter Salovey and Dean Gentry were also among those in attendance, and they watched the Elis come close to taking down the Ivy League’s top team.

With 13:21 left in the second, Duren brought the ball past the time line and into Yale’s half-court. Filled with confidence, and yes, swagger, Duren kept possession, drove inside the 3-point line, pulled up and drained a 15-foot jumper, putting the Bulldogs up 44–43. The Crimson called timeout and the amphitheater exploded.

Dean Gentry definitely saw that. And if he hasn’t already, he’ll be hearing from #TeamSober soon.

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