There is no better way to make a statement about your goals than by naming a player with the last name “Champion” as your leader.
Just two days after the close of its most successful season since 2007, the Yale football team turned the page by electing safety Cole Champion ’16 to captain the 2015 squad. Head coach Tony Reno introduced the new captain, who was elected the night before Yale’s matchup with Harvard, at the annual Yale football banquet on Monday, Nov. 24.
“As a player, [Champion] is an all-star,” defensive backs coach Steven Vashel said. “Cole has a strong passion for football. I think his biggest attribute is a real high capacity to accept and apply coaching … As a leader, he’s earned a lot of respect from teammates.”
Champion, a Fort Lauderdale, Florida native, has started every game for the Bulldogs since week four of his freshman season. He will enter his senior campaign with 125 solo tackles, 205 overall tackles and four interceptions in his career as one of the Elis.
The defensive back, who is the 138th elected captain, enters his new role with arguably the most leadership experience under his belt out of all the juniors on the team. In 10 games this season, Champion was the only starting player in the secondary who was not a freshman or sophomore. Teammates Foye Oluokun ’17, Spencer Rymiszewski ’17, Dale Harris ’17 and Jason Alessi ’18 joined Champion to form the youngest unit on the team.
This captaincy is not Champion’s first official leadership role: He served as captain of his high school football team in 2011, when he led the St. Thomas Aquinas Raiders to a berth in the state playoffs. He was on the 2008 and 2010 Raiders squads that were voted national champions in the USA Today/National Prep Poll. He graduated as the school’s leader in career tackles.
Champion then excelled from the moment he stepped on the field at the Yale Bowl. He topped all Eli defensive backs in both solo and overall tackles in his freshman and sophomore seasons. In 2013, he was named second-team all-Ivy after recording 49 solo tackles and 78 overall, in addition to three interceptions and four fumble recoveries.
“Cole is a great leader who works hard everyday, comes to work and really knows what his responsibilities to the team are,” defensive tackle Jack Rushin ’17 said. “He’s played the whole time he’s been here. He’s not the most vocal leader, but he leads by example better than anyone else on the team. He puts in extra effort whenever he can, and we try to emulate that.”
This year, Champion tallied 30 solo and 51 total tackles while starting all 10 games. Against Brown, he intercepted a pass inside the red zone that stopped the Bears from scoring, and also set up the Elis for a field goal that would eventually decide the game.
Vashel said that Champion’s experience as a key defensive contributor gave him the confidence necessary to hold himself and his teammates accountable. In his first three years, Vashel noted that Champion was unafraid to set a high standard and utilize his capability to keep his teammates focused.
“I like to think that I was elected for who I am right now,” Champion said. “I’m going to continue being myself. Obviously, I have more of a speaking role now, but I’m not going to change much.”
As is tradition at Yale, only one player can serve as captain for each varsity team. Champion is just the second Yale football captain from Florida in history, and he is the eighth defensive player to be elected captain in the past nine years.
The only offensive captain since 2006 was Champion’s predecessor, wide receiver Deon Randall ’15, who led an 8–2 Eli squad and also broke Yale’s record for career receptions with 219 catches in his four years. Champion also served under former defensive end Beau Palin ’14 in his sophomore season.
“He’s had two captains that were great role models in Beau Palin and Deon Randall,” Reno said. “Cole has absorbed every bit of it, and he’ll take what he’s seen work well with Beau and with Deon and add his own element to it, take it to another level.”
Champion noted that he will follow the example that Randall set in connecting with every player on the team. As captain this season, Randall formed relationships with younger players by spending last summer on campus with many underclassmen.
Though Randall served as an example for Champion, he noted that Champion will have the opportunity to pave his own path during the offseason.
“Obviously it’s overwhelming at first, everyone wants to congratulate [Champion] and share advice,” Randall said. “I told him I’d be there as a soundboard for him … I just encouraged him, told him he’s going to do a great job. I tried not to overwhelm him because I think the beauty of being captain is trying to figure things out on your own.”
Randall is graduating this year, along with several key offensive players who contributed to the highest-gaining offense in the Football Championship Subdivision this past season, such as wide receiver Grant Wallace ’15, running back Tyler Varga ’15 and offensive linemen Ben Carbery ’15 and Will Chism ’15. The graduation of so many offensive starters seemingly left an opportunity for a player from Yale’s previously young defense to step up as captain.
Champion said he did not know why defensive players have so often been elected captain, but like Randall did many times throughout this season, he acknowledged the presence of other leaders on the field that do not share the title of captain.
“[Quarterback] Morgan Roberts ’16, [tight end] Sebastian Little ’16 and [offensive lineman] Luke Longinotti ’16, all three of those guys and a couple others are great leaders on offense,” Champion said. “I feel that there won’t be a discrepancy between offense and defense. We have many leaders on this team.”
There is no doubt that Champion will lead a 2015 Yale squad that looks quite different from this year’s team that surprised many fans with its performance. With Randall, Wallace and Varga — the three Yale players with the most all-purpose yards in 2014 — all graduating, the Bulldogs will likely need elevated performances from players on both sides of the ball. Champion’s defense, though still young, will have to build on experience gained this past season, and the offense will have to replace the graduating players in order to match its output this past season.
Champion said that the captain’s role in the offseason is to facilitate the growth of younger players, but he added that the team is not yet concerned with its performance a year down the road.
“Right now, we’re worried about getting stronger and faster and closer as a team,” Champion said. “As long as we do that every day, and take it one day at a time in the weight room and the film room, that’ll take care of itself, as far as progress we want to see in the offseason.”
Winter workouts for the Yale football team began this morning.