Tag Archive: Bulldogs

  1. FOOTBALL: Reviewing the rise of Foye Oluokun ’18 and Jaeden Graham ’18, Yale’s duo in the NFL

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    In the second week of the NFL season last month, the Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons found themselves in a game for the ages.

    Atlanta’s early 20-point lead had all but whittled down to two in the fourth quarter, and with four seconds remaining, a 46-yard field goal attempt by Dallas split the uprights, crushing the hearts of Falcons players and fans alike. Yet, in a game filled with dreadful negatives for Atlanta, there emerged one positive in the form of a 6-foot-2 linebacker who finished the game with three forced fumbles on only 17 recorded snaps, which Falcons head coach Dan Quinn described as the best 17 snaps he could remember from a linebacker.

    Quinn was referring to Yale football alumnus and sixth-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Foye Oluokun ’18. While his performance against the Cowboys may have been an eye-opener for Falcons fans, it was merely reaffirmation for Yale fans. Former classmate Jaeden Graham ’18 plays alongside Oluokun in Atlanta, and the pair constitute Yale’s two active alumni playing in the NFL. 

    “Our players go on to do some pretty amazing things,” Yale football head coach Tony Reno said. “All Yale students do, but to have [Oluokun and Graham] playing professionally is awesome for us. We’re really excited for them and their journeys — journeys that were both a little different. They all had moments of adversity that hit, and they pushed through. 

    “The commonality I see between them is that they were very, very driven to be the best they could be, not only on the football field but in everything else in life. They were not going to take no for an answer, and they were going to exhaust all areas necessary to make sure they had a chance to play professionally.” 

    The Falcons declined requests to interview Oluokun and Graham.

    Oluokun’s journey: From St. Louis to New Haven to Atlanta

    Oluokun began his football career as a linebacker at John Burroughs School, a premier college-preparatory school located in Ladue, Missouri. Its football program has been just as preeminent — it has won the Missouri State Championship eight times. Oluokun’s arrival made an already illustrious team history even more distinguished. Alongside future NFL All-Pro running back Ezekiel Elliot and Indiana State phenom Jake Bain, Oluokun helped lead his team to three district championships and two league titles. During his senior year, Oluokun was awarded All-League, All-District and All-State honors, making him one of the highest-rated recruits in Missouri. Of the offers he received from the Ivy League in Harvard, Yale and Penn, Oluokun landed on the Bulldogs, and his collegiate career donning the Blue and White was officially set to begin.

    Oluokun entered his 2013 rookie campaign with high expectations to perform well on a defense that ranked seventh in the Ancient Eight the fall before, and the St. Louis native lived up to the hype. In the 10 games he started as a first-year, Oluokun accounted for nearly 60 tackles, the most by any rookie in the Ivy League, earning him Second Team All-Ivy honors. In those 10 games, none stood out more than a November matchup against Brown — a contest that saw Oluokun tally what was then a career-high 13 total tackles in a 24–17 victory.

    “[Oluokun] has performed well all this season. He brings size, speed, strength and physicality to our secondary,” Victor Egu ’17 told the News during the 2014 season. “He really pushes our defense to the next level because of his effort. I trust [Oluokun] to do his job well and perform well on the field.”

    Picking up right where he left off during his sophomore year, Oluokun racked up a team-high 79 total tackles to go along with a pair of interceptions and a blocked kick. The bar had been raised, and he entered his third season poised to have even more success. Then, all of a sudden, adversity struck.

    During week three, Olukun suffered a pectoral tear in his chest, and the Yale star was forced to miss the remaining seven games of the season. Amidst a sidelining that had the makings to be a devastating blow to Oluokun’s football career, the Ancient Eight granted the Missourian an extra semester to play football, Reno said. In his fifth season as a red-shirt senior in 2017, Oluokun finished second on his team with 50 tackles, and in a must-win game against Harvard to close out the season, Oluokun finished the game with nine tackles and a sack, helping hold the Crimson offense to a meager three points as the Bulldogs went on to secure their first outright Ivy League crown in 37 years.

    Kurt Rawlings ’20, who quarterbacked that 2017 team, said he was impressed every week by the drive Oluokun displayed to perform his best on defense.

    “Foye’s willingness to play any defensive position was evident throughout his entire career,” Rawlings said. “His talent as a player, and even more so as a leader, was invaluable for us at Yale. I believe that Foye’s selflessness as a leader has allowed him to flourish into an incredibly versatile player many NFL teams seek to have on their defense.” 

    After ending his collegiate career with an Ancient Eight title, Oluokun wasted no time in taking whatever steps necessary to make it to the professional stage. Although he did not receive an invitation to the NFL Scouting Combine during his last semester at Yale, Oluokun did participate in drills at a Pro Day with 20 NFL scouts in attendance that Fordham hosted, according to ESPN. There, he recorded a 4.48 in the 40-yard dash and a 4.12 in the short shuttle, times that would have ranked sixth and second, respectively, among all linebackers at the NFL Combine.

    After the workout at Fordham’s Pro Day, Oluokun attended pre-draft visits with several NFL teams, and the Atlanta Falcons selected Oluokun in the sixth round of the 2018 NFL draft. He became the first Yale player drafted by an NFL team in seven years. 

    “I viewed myself as an undrafted free agent, especially because I came out of a small school, so I wasn’t sure how much film they had watched of me,” Oluokun said to the media after a training camp session in August. “I did everything I had to do to prove to them I had what it took. I realized very early on that everything I did was evaluated … My coaches loved the grit that I showed. They didn’t know I had that much grit at Yale, which was all we preached there. I was ready to do whatever it took to make the team.” 

    In early 2018, Oluokun recorded a 4.48 in the 40-yard dash and a 4.12 in the short shuttle, times that would have ranked sixth and second, respectively, among all linebackers at that year’s NFL Combine. (Photo: Courtesy of Yale Athletics)

    Graham’s path: A positional switch and a breakout senior season

    Just about a month after the Falcons drafted Oluokun, his classmate Jaeden Graham ’18 signed with the Falcons as an undrafted free agent.

    Graham was born and raised in Colorado, and it was at Cherry Creek High School where his athletic prowess began to shine through. Not only was he a football defensive star, earning First Team All-State safety honors and the Iron Man award twice, but he was also a First Team selection in baseball and the captain of the track team. When he had to choose which sport to pursue in college, Graham went with football.

    Graham’s first three years as an Eli, however, were anything but perfect. In the five games he played as a rookie in 2014 alongside Oluokun on defense, he managed only five total tackles, splitting time between being on special teams and as a long snapper. Things did not improve much in the seven games he played in his sophomore campaign, while Oluokun was enjoying the best season of any Blue and White defender. Then, in the fateful months leading up to the 2016 season, Reno made a decision that forever changed the course of Graham’s football future.

    “After his sophomore year, the other Yale coaches and I came together and ultimately decided that [Graham] might be better served on offense,” Reno said. “So he transitioned to a position that he had never played in his career before: tight end. It took him his whole junior year to try to get his bearings. And then as a senior, the rest is history. He simply redefined the position of tight end for us at Yale.”

    After serving as the backup tight end his third year, Graham as a senior had one of the most successful seasons a tight end has ever enjoyed in the Blue and White. His four receiving touchdowns, 26 receptions and 380 yards led all tight ends in the Ivy League that year. His historic season did not go unnoticed by the FCS, which awarded the Colorado native with First Team All-ECAC honors to complement his First Team status in the Ancient Eight.

    After graduating, Graham received no invites to any combines or pre-draft NFL camps and was not picked up by any team in the 2018 NFL draft, Reno said. Nevertheless, the same resolve and tenacity Graham exhibited when transitioning to a completely new position would be on full display yet again, as he worked his way onto three NFL mini-camps: first the Oakland Raiders, followed by the Detroit Lions and finally the Atlanta Falcons, with the Falcons deciding to sign the undrafted Graham to a spot on their practice squad. 

    “Jaeden has an incredible story of perseverance,” Rawlings said. “[Graham] never once complained about not playing on defense, or switching to take on an entirely new position at ground zero. The easy thing to do in Jaeden’s situation would have been to just show up and have the days pass by until his playing days came to a close. Instead, he attacked each day with an enthusiastic attitude backed by truly wanting to be a difference maker for Team 145. You certainly do not become an All-Ivy and NFL tight end in one season out of luck.”

    Where are they now?

    When the 2018 NFL season rolled around, Oluokun — whom Falcons columnists did not expect to be anything more than a special teams contributor — suddenly assumed a starting role at middle linebacker after an injury to Atlanta’s Pro-Bowl linebacker Deion Jones. Exceeding expectations for a sixth-round draft pick in his rookie year, Oluokun finished the season playing 525 snaps and led the team with 67 tackles and 31 run stops in the process.

    Graham did not see much action on the NFL stage in 2018, but in Week 11 of the 2019 season, Falcons starting tight end Austin Hooper was sidelined with a knee injury, opening the door for Graham. In his two weeks as the team’s starter, Graham collected five catches for 94 yards and a touchdown. Meanwhile, with Falcons veteran Jones healthy again, Oluokun saw his snap totals on defense sharply decrease, but he still finished his second season with 56 tackles, with 45 of them coming during the final eight games of the year.

    “[Graham and Oluokun] are incredible athletes, but they are where they are now with the Falcons because of who they are as people,” Rawlings said. “The effects of these two outstanding leaders, along with the rest of their class, continues to take shape within the Yale football program. Their efforts and sacrifices have set a standard of excellence that was crucial for Team 147’s journey and will continue to be for Team 148, 149 and so on.”

    With the 2020 NFL season underway, Oluokun is now the Falcons’ starting outside linebacker, while Graham continues to serve as the backup tight end. 

    Jared Fel | jared.fel@yale.edu

  2. MEN’S BASKETBALL: Before year of uncertainty, a summer workout with Azar Swain

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    STOUGHTON, MA — On an August night at the Dana Barros Basketball Club — a shiny five-court facility that normally hums with AAU teams, parents and tournament referees — the parking lot was mostly empty. 

    Azar Swain ’21 entered through the back door, picked a hoop and kicked off his slides. Sitting on the sidelines, he laced up a pair of white basketball shoes and acknowledged that certainties are rare in 2020.

    “I’m still not sure — you know, nobody’s really sure — what’s going to happen in the winter,” he said, a mask hiding most of his face and a backwards hat with “Boston” above the brim covering his head.

    The Yale men’s basketball guard and All-Ivy first team selection has not played a real game in more than five months — the last one occurred 40 minutes north of Stoughton at Harvard’s home court, Lavietes Pavilion. And with the Bulldogs’ nonconference basketball slate canceled this fall and any hope of Ivy League basketball this winter in jeopardy, Swain has no way to predict when he’ll take the floor again. 

    Amid the uncertainty around college basketball, his final two semesters at Yale and life itself, Swain is focusing on the positives, finding the time to recuperate his body while training roughly six days a week. Quarantine has shifted Swain’s basketball routine “backwards,” he said, bringing him back to the outdoor court in his neighborhood, bodyweight exercises, a few dumbbells and a tall hill for sprints near home. His father, LaWan Swain, was with a younger Azar when he would shoot at the park back then and almost always accompanies him for workouts now. At Dana Barros, they take advantage of a night inside with polished floors, an indoor rim and no wind.

    “Obviously, it’s been tough for a lot of people,” Azar said. “For me personally, I try to find the silver linings in a lot of things. For example, this summer, especially with the uncertainty of the Ivy League cancelling and all that, [has] given me a really long time to work on getting healthy and getting my knee better … When we got home [in] March to our next game is January hopefully, that’s a nine-month process. That’s been the biggest thing, trying to get healthy.”

    Swain’s coronavirus-era workouts have brought his body and left knee back to his senior year of high school –– he said he has not felt this good since then. Of the 91 games Yale has played since Swain started with the Blue and White, the 6-foot guard has only missed one. Game adrenaline helped him through any pain that would follow a layup off his left leg, he said, and he underwent surgery on his left patellar tendon a few weeks after the end of his sophomore season in April 2019. Last summer, he crammed, trying to fully recover his knee while simultaneously working on drills to return him to “game shape” by the first day of class in August. But by the end of the season, soreness after practices and games became routine.

    Few people could tell Swain was dealing with a knee issue when he played. He averaged a team-high 33.4 minutes a game last season and knocked down 93 three-pointers to capture Yale’s single-season record in the process. But summer under quarantine gave him the chance to resolve lingering pain, and he moved with fluidity during his evening workout at Dana Barros.

    LaWan rebounded like he always does, and Azar began in a ring around the basket, taking light shots to warm up. He emphasized his form, getting his wrist into rhythm, before moving beyond the three-point line to attack the basket with layups on both sides. For someone who is 28 career three-pointers shy of Yale’s school record (he sits at 201), Swain very rarely practiced spot-up shooting in his workout. Instead, he incorporated movement into nearly every drill. He glided past imaginary defenders on the way to the basket. He jabbed and hesitated before making a break or stopping to launch a mid-range shot. Even towards the end of the night, when he walked paces beyond the three-point arc, he dribbled through his legs before launching deep triples. Everything was fluid, patient and deliberate.

    “No matter if it’s running on a track, running on a hill, outdoor shooting, or I try to lift four or five times a week, [I’ve put a] lot more emphasis on skill work as far as basketball goes and less [on] game-conditioning workouts,” Swain said. “My mind is more focused on getting better individually — I know different things I need to get better at — so trying to focus on that and tighten up some of the fundamental things as opposed to thinking about an Alabama or something like that.”

    Without a set date for the start of the season, there is no Stony Brook, California or Creighton — Yale’s season-opening opponents the last three years — circled on the calendar for preparation. Swain said he thought this fall’s nonconference schedule, which would have featured a game against Alabama in New Haven, would have been Yale’s strongest. The lack of distant matchups on the calendar has allowed Swain to invest his time into expanding his layup package, finishing off his right foot with his left hand and continuing to expand his seemingly limitless range.

    He has barely played any five-on-five this summer, but said he made it to one summer scrimmage hosted by Boston-area coach and Penn State graduate assistant KJ Baptiste. Baptiste’s “Summer Runs” now boast their own Instagram account and an impressive list of New England-based participants, including many fellow alumni of the Mass Rivals grassroots basketball program. Among others, Swain said former high school teammate and current Villanova forward Jermaine Samuels, Villanova’s Cole Swider, former Notre Dame forward Bonzie Colson and UConn graduate Jalen Adams also scrimmaged the day he played.

    Zoom meetings and virtual work with Yale coaches throughout the summer have complemented his own training. Initially, the team gathered on the platform to chat and check in with each other. But as the summer went on, players took part in virtual scouts and studied game film via shared screens.

    “I’m a single child, so I’m used to being alone,” Swain said. “I can be in the house not doing much, but I have some people in my family and close friends who have really gone through it with everything being shut down and not being able to see other people. I guess having that support group in a sense, being able to talk to them sometimes — I think that’s been good for our team.”

    Teammates have come up with their own training solutions during quarantine, as many across the world, not only college basketball players, adapt their daily lives to take place outside or at home. Guard Matthue Cotton ’22 said he had to be more creative with his basketball-related work than in previous summers, and he turned a training project into a family activity.

    Back in March, his father ordered the dimensions for the college game’s deeper three-point line in order to paint new lines around the Cottons’ outdoor hoop. By May, a hot day allowed Cotton, his parents and his older brother, who plays basketball at Division II Lincoln University, to place and paint down the permanent three-point line. Since then, Cotton said he has managed to gain access to a few indoor gyms but still uses the outdoor court to shoot and play one-on-one with his brother.

    “Doing countless at-home workouts during the beginning of quarantine was extremely frustrating since I was so used to being able to go to a gym and lift weights,” Cotton said. “Researching various workouts, buying bands, buying a heavy basketball and utilizing equipment in my house that I’ve never used beforehand allowed me to make the best of quarantine. For me, working out without a game to look forward to has not had much of an effect.”

    Back at the Dana Barros Basketball Club, Swain strolled to the free throw line. He had built a sweat, and he stood, hands on knees, collecting his breath. He picked up the ball and sized up the rim, shooting free throws before moving on to iterations of jump shots and free throws, jump shots and free throws. Azar and his father consulted throughout the sequence, talking briefly about where to shoot or mechanics to keep in mind.

    Shots from deep — way deep — concluded the workout before one final run at the free throw line. “Watch his feet,” LaWan said when Azar was launching shots from the top of the key at one point. “If they’re both straight, it’s going to go in.”

    LaWan said he shouts the same reminders from the stands sometimes at games when Azar finds himself in a cold streak. LaWan, who grew up in Boston and played high school basketball, attends nearly every Yale game, but no matter whom the Bulldogs face — whether Oklahoma State on the road or Harvard at home — he makes a point of sitting with the opposing team’s fans.

    “When we’re there, I’m listening to what people are saying,” LaWan said. “I’ll take notes from the game, not from what I’ve seen that he did good, but what I hear people say that he did bad, and then we’ll go back and we’ll work on it. As a dad, as a fan, maybe I only see the good stuff. So they’re going to tell me what they think that the best way to attack him is.”

    The next time LaWan can catch a game may remain an open question into 2021, even in the case that Yale plays its conference schedule this winter.

    But for now, Azar is still shooting, fine-tuning his fundamentals and his body as he waits for his career to resume. 

    “Everything kind of happens for a reason,” he said. “I just try to take that mindset and roll with the punches.”

    William McCormack | william.mccormack@yale.edu

  3. MEN’S BASKETBALL: After season in Bulgaria, Blake Reynolds ’19 signs with Poland’s Zielona Góra

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    Blake Reynolds ’19, former Yale men’s basketball captain, was putting up big numbers in Bulgaria earlier this year when COVID-19 cut his rookie season short.

    Few Yale graduates take their first job in eastern Europe, but Reynolds thrived in his role, leading Chernomorets Burgas in its first season in Bulgaria’s top division, the National Basketball League. By the time he took a flight back home to the United States in early March, Reynolds ranked third in the league with 17.5 points a game and was averaging 7.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists for Chernomorets, which never got the chance to complete the final third of its canceled season. 

    Now, nearly five months after his last start in Bulgaria, Reynolds is set to return to Europe. Earlier this week, he inked a one-year deal with the reigning champions of Poland’s first division, Stelmet Enea BC Zielona Góra. Sportando, a European publication that covers basketball, first reported the signing on Tuesday.

    “Going into last season, I didn’t know what to expect,” Reynolds said. “After I was over there and was able to get a feel for everything, I felt like I could play at a higher level … It was midway through the season when I kind of started feeling like I can move up and continue to play for better competition and bigger clubs in Europe.”

    Reynolds said teams from leagues in Spain, France and Germany reached out to his agent, Charly Mandic, after seeing film from his first professional season. Former Yale assistant coach Tobe Carberry, who enjoyed his own successful career in Europe after graduating from the University of Vermont, was originally the one who helped connect Reynolds with his agent, the forward said.

    But Zielona Góra, which finished first in the Polish Basketball League five times in the last decade, stood out to Reynolds. The club’s head coach Žan Tabak, who also leads the Slovakia national team, played eight seasons in the NBA — and though he was never a star center in America, he began coaching after rounding out his playing career in Europe. Tabak served as an assistant at Real Madrid, one of the most dominant teams in Europe, before earning head coaching gigs in Spain, Israel, Italy and now Poland.

    With training set to begin at the end of August, Reynolds said he plans to fly to Poland early next week. Although he has not yet spoken with coach Tabak and his new teammates, the 6-foot-7 forward — whose height is advertised as 201 centimeters in European basketball circles — has shared calls with the club’s general manager and media relations director.

    For Reynolds, a return to Europe caps a year of significant change brought on by his first professional contract in Bulgaria and the coronavirus in America. A family move this summer from his hometown of Jackson, Missouri to Florida, where he participated in a Wednesday phone interview with the News, only added to the constant adjustment.

    “[Moving to Bulgaria] was a big, big lifestyle change,” Reynolds said. “I’d been to a lot of western European countries in the past, but never explored eastern Europe and the differences in lifestyle, in food and just overall culture … You miss your family a lot for sure, it gets lonely at times, you’re kind of questioning like, ‘Man, I’m in Bulgaria. What am I doing?’ But the game is amazing. I love it. I never regret being over there just because I get to wake up and play basketball every day and that’s my job. It doesn’t really get much better than that.”

    International basketball also presented differences. European teams play four quarters of 10 minutes each, which sums to the two 20-minute halves men’s college basketball teams play. But unlike the NCAA, Reynolds said his Bulgarian league lacked media timeouts, which required significant conditioning for a player who led his team with 33.7 minutes per game. Reynolds sometimes played eight or nine straight minutes without a break from the floor if neither coach called any timeouts.

    Zielona Góra welcomed Reynolds to the team earlier this week. (Photo: Courtesy of Blake Reynolds ’19)

    Professional basketball required serious commitment from Reynolds. At Yale he and other student-athletes balanced a significant amount of practice and competition with coursework and other campus activities, but his experience in Bulgaria was completely basketball-centric. He said his Bulgarian teammates “gave their whole lives” to basketball, and he appreciated being able to learn in that environment. His club often practiced twice in one day. He would wake up and leave his apartment for a morning practice, return home in the middle of the day for a nap and then head back to the gym.

    “There’s really not time for anything but that,” Reynolds said. “You eat, sleep and breathe it.”

    Zielona Góra promises a new adventure, though the focus remains on basketball. The club handles the flight to the city next week and will also set him up with a car and apartment, Reynolds said. Reaching the Polish city of about 140,000 residents requires a five-hour drive from the capital in Warsaw, but the city sits closer to the German border. Berlin and Dresden are about two and a half hours away by car. 

    Fellow Yale alumni in the midst of their own basketball careers also surround Reynolds on the continent. Justin Sears ’16 has played the past four seasons in the German Basketball Bundesliga (but parted with EWE Baskets Oldenburg last weekend), Brandon Sherrod ’16 has spent three years in Italy and Makai Mason ’18, who spent his rookie season with Alba Berlin in Germany, will play next year with Manresa in Spain’s top division. Yale’s all-time blocks leader Greg Mangano ’12 has also played overseas for eight years, landing with teams in Turkey, Spain, Germany, Finland, Belgium, Ukraine and Japan.

    Reynolds said he talked a lot last summer with the group of Mason, Sears and Sherrod as he was preparing to launch his European career, seeking advice on everything from how European teams operate to handling life with no family or friends in a foreign city. All four played on the 2015–16 Yale team that captured the program’s first NCAA Tournament win over Baylor. Mason went on to captain the Bulldogs during the 2017–18 season, and Reynolds succeeded him in the role. By the end of his career with the Blue and White, Reynolds had made 86 starts and scored 970 points.

    Reynolds walks off the court after the final game of his Yale career against LSU in the 2019 NCAA Tournament. (Photo: Joey Kamm)

    “Blake was definitely a guy that led by example rather than being super vocal all the time, and I think that’s a super important aspect that can be kind of forgotten by people in general when they’re thinking about leadership,” former captain Eric Monroe ’20 said last October as his senior season began. “If you’re a guy that shows up every day when you’re supposed to, gets extra work in, work as hard as you can on a daily basis, that will rub off on others … Blake was great with just being super professional about everything.” 

    In an official release, Zielona Góra announced that Reynolds will wear number 32, the same number he sported at Yale.

    William McCormack | william.mccormack@yale.edu

  4. Boola Boola?

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    The “Yale College Class of 2018” Facebook page launched on Dec. 16, 2013, the same day that admissions decisions were delivered to the University’s early action applicants. Within minutes, the site’s membership swelled with excited prefrosh, who peppered the “timeline” with exclamation marks, congratulations, caps-locked comments and other expressions of sheer elation.

    Just a few years ago, I stood in their shoes. I posted overeager comments and questions in the group, made new Facebook friends and planned out the next four years in my head, considering all the interesting people I was sure to meet and the enlightening courses that I would take.

    “So excited to bond with you guys over Taylor Swift’s new album!”

    “Any other people here who are interested in both pre-med and the humanities?”

    “What is everyone’s favorite movie?

    But this winter break, I was the one congratulating students and offering some answers. As an undergraduate recruitment coordinator for the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, I engaged with admitted high school students whose attitudes ranged from relieved to overwhelmed, extroverted to insecure.

    One sentiment, however, was common among the new admits: They were all happy with their acceptance. They all appeared to be unmistakably in love with the University.

    When I arrived outside of Lanman-Wright Hall in 2012, suitcases in tow, I shared in this idealism. It took just a few weeks for me to realize that Yale was not the fairytale fortress that I had envisioned. There were people I didn’t like, classes that were at once boring and incredibly stressful, and a social culture that I wasn’t used to.

    But I was still happy — and am still happy — with my time here at Yale. For a while, I assumed that we all were. Even if I can never seem to muster the level of school spirit that pervades Harvard-Yale Games, or if I sometimes wonder whether I would have been “a better fit” at Harvard or Princeton, I am content with where I am.

    Recently, however, I have been getting a far different impression. If my Twitter feed and the string of national headlines are any indication, Yale has been faltering under the limelight.

    In a Jan. 21 New York Times piece, the University was described as having “gotten a schooling” from the founders of Yale Bluebook Plus, an online course catalog that was conspicuously shut down by the administration on the first day of the semester’s shopping period. Students and onlookers alike denounced Yale for practicing censorship, and for its opaque handling of the situation.

    This incident, along with a slew of others including negative reactions to Title IX reports and criticism of the search for the new Yale College Dean, pointed to a striking dissonance between our professed pride for our school and our willingness to condemn it.

    When I revisited the Class of 2018 Facebook group in early January, I saw that the Times story had been posted by an admitted student. The bad news had reached the incoming class — a group of students just recently inundated with reasons for why Yale was the ideal place to spend the next four years — and I wondered what I would have thought if the controversy had surfaced two years ago. I wondered if I would still have chosen to be a bulldog.

    * * *

    Suzanne Ingram ’86 gets the Yale Daily News delivered to her door each morning in Wilton, Conn. At the end of the week, after she’s done with the papers, she walks over to the house of her neighbor, Adrian Offinger ’42. They look at the papers again together, and oftentimes, they talk about some of the pieces for a few minutes.

    Lately, Offinger has been dismayed by the paper’s opinion section. Every piece seems to argue against something or advocate for some sort of change, he told Ingram.

    If everyone wants to change the University so badly, why do they even choose to attend Yale? he asked her one day.

    Offinger attended Yale during a completely different era — a time in which, for instance, there were still no female students on campus. But his concerns about criticism of the University are shared by some students today.

    “There are a lot of things that we can’t understand because we’re not on the administration side,” Hannah Gonzales ’16 said, adding that she often wonders if students are too forceful in their demands for change.

    While she generally supports student initiatives, she said she sometimes feels out of place for not agreeing wholeheartedly with some of the arguments made against the University. As a prestigious brand, Yale has to protect itself, she said, which may mean restricting student voices —  the University’s power to do so is one Gonzales does not always support, but ultimately accepts.

    It’s possible that this more sympathetic view toward administrative control is something that comes with age. All three Freshman Counselors interviewed acknowledged that there exists, to some extent, a “culture of controversy” — or more crassly, complaining — within the student body.

    Yale students enjoy the attention that accompanies having their opinion heard, Gonzales observed.

    This social impulse is rooted in psychology. According to Professor John Bargh, people generally pay more attention to negative events because they challenge our survival and are unusual occurrences in our otherwise consistent lives. When compounded with the human instinct to focus on the local, this negativity bias causes students to focus their attention on even minor incidents.

    * * *

    Prospective students don’t appear to be fazed by this year’s controversies. This winter, Yale College received more applications for admission than ever before in its history.

    Stephen Hall ’14, a Jonathan Edwards College freshman counselor, isn’t surprised by this development. To him, the national headlines don’t signify scandal. Rather, they are manifestations of the student body’s culture of activism and innovation — traits for which Yale recruits.

    Moreover, Hall said the current student body forgets that these controversies are often preceded by prior instances of cooperation between students and the administration. He recalled entering an app competition in which Yale Bluebook was a contender. Although Yale Bluebook was not selected as the contest winner, the then-newly designed website was eventually acquired by the University.

    “It’s not like they’re quelling all the innovation,” Hall said, adding that the University’s move to buy a student-developed application was “just as revolutionary” as its recent blocking of Yale Bluebook Plus.

    If we really looked, Hall said, we would be able to find examples of the University paying attention to student voices everywhere. Newer developments include the implementation of fall break and the extension of dining hall hours after Commons was closed for dinner in 2011. Hall said even his job as FroCo could be viewed as teamwork between the administration and students. Few other universities have such a position that juggles being an employee of the residential college administration with being a student and representing that voice.

    Michael Protacio ’14 added that he believes we pay insufficient attention to the positive happenings around us. Even the claim that there are no positive voices in campus publications, he said, is ignoring writing venues such as Vita Bella, the student magazine celebrating all forms of beauty in life. Still, he conceded that Vita’s small campus presence is perhaps another indication of our fixation on the negative.

    “This is an environment where everyone has been successful by meticulous self-improvement,” he observed. “It’s logical when you see something that you think could be improved to take action.”

    All students interviewed came to a similar conclusion — that the criticisms against Yale only persist because the students behind them love the institution and are driven to improve it.

    For activists such as Sophie Nethercut ’14, a former member of Students Unite Now, vocalizations of student opinion are the only way to propel the University’s progress. She noted that many of the University’s most triumphant policy changes have come about as a result of persistent activism, citing principally the movement to bring coeducation to campus decades ago.

    “Without student voices, you fall behind the times,” Nethercut said. “I think some people are afraid to speak up because they are so thankful to be here, but you can still voice your demands in a way that is respectful.”

    Hall viewed the desire to take action as generally positive. Students may be perceived to be complaining, but they’re largely making things better, he said.

    And it’s this process and act of fighting for change, Hall said, that might actually make Yalies happy — not just the ultimate change itself.

    “If they’re seeing themselves as making a difference and growing here,” Hall noted, “then in some sense they’re achieving their goals and being happy.”

    * * *

    Dec. 15, 2011

    It was 5:09 p.m. when I received my decision. In my excitement, I had clicked past the singing bulldog — my sound was off — and arrived immediately at the welcome letter, so it took me a while to realize what the verdict was.

    No one else was home except for my Bichon puppy Lily, who wagged her tail and shared in my happiness.

    My parents had already each called me twice in the nine minutes between the expected decision time and when the news arrived. My mother later confessed to me that she had gone to church every day that week and kept a Bible in her purse, praying for good news. My father, ever the solemn and quiet type, did nothing of the sort. Instead, he offered words of support over the phone.

    I called my mother first. She cried and yelled the announcement to her colleagues in the bank where she works. I called my father, who said, “Good job, son.” I understood then that this was his way of freaking out.

    My mother and I went out for sushi. I had been too nervous to eat during the day, but even at dinner, I could only bring myself to pick at a few pieces. I was still in disbelief.

    Later that night, my father arrived home and we replayed the opening greeting a few times, to make sure it wasn’t all a mistake. We would do so every day for the next week, just in case.

    I like this story because it reminds me of the good that Yale tries to do. The University’s decision to grant me admission, as unlikely a candidate as I saw myself to be, brought my family together for a moment that has never left me.

    I’ve had my doubts about my place inside Yale’s gothic walls. My idealistic notions have been replaced with sentiments much more muted and complex. And maybe that makes my school spirit more real than the image that first attracted me as a prospective student commenting excitedly on the Class of 2016’s Facebook group.

    I’ve realized, much like the students interviewed, that my dissatisfactions with Yale are rooted in a deep gratitude: for me, everything changed on December 15, 2011, at 5:09 p.m.

  5. Yale Football: Rebuilding a Dynasty "One Game at a Time"

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    When the Yale football team arrived at JFK airport last Thursday, a visage of 65 towering men wearing coats and ties, a sense of readiness pervaded the atmosphere. For the players, it was an unusual setting: rather than cramped on a dingy bus, rolling up and down the East Coast, they found themselves about to embark on the team’s first cross-country journey in recent memory.

    Their plane was set to arrive in Santa Maria, Calif., in mere hours. Upon landing, they would travel some 30 miles north to San Luis Obispo, where they would set up camp in preparation for their Saturday match against the Cal Poly Mustangs. The players were steeped in something of Yale history: in the team’s illustrious 141-year arc, it was just the third time the Bulldogs would face a squad in the Golden State.

    For this group of Elis, however, institutional memory did not provide the best sendoff. With last season’s dismal 2–8 finish fresh in mind, a sense of uncertainty toward the next few days seemed apropos. Yet the players crowded around the airport gate seemed unfettered, wearing confident smiles and relaxed postures as they prepared to board the plane.

    Indeed, the opportunity to take on a nationally ranked football squad, to announce Yale’s rebuilding efforts to the Ivy League and to the country at large, was much cause for excitement. Because for the 2013 Bulldogs, this weekend represented far more than a sunny departure from New Haven’s chilly, grey October — rather, it presented the chance for the team to redeem the missteps of years past, to put to the test head coach Tony Reno’s master plan.

    ***

    The Bulldogs’ presence in JFK that Thursday afternoon may seem a novel sight today, but it wasn’t that long ago that Yale football players were travel veterans, often crisscrossing the nation to battle — and defeat — college football’s most prominent teams.

    With 27 national championships, and as alma mater of the “Father of American Football,” Walter Camp, Yale has more total wins than any school not named Michigan. But as newer programs have picked up speed over the last decades, Yale has lagged behind: the team now stands mired in a six-game losing streak to Harvard, attempting to claw back to respectability after a mere two wins last season. Home games are routinely played in front of an audience of 50,000 empty seats, with many Yalies proud to tell you they’ve never been to the Yale Bowl.

    But early this summer, hints abounded that the 2013 season could signal a turning point. Tony Reno, hired as head coach in January 2012, used the offseason to institute a sweeping set of changes to the team, both in playbook and spirit. And so far, it’s working: using a brand new no-huddle offense — a strategy to quicken the Bulldogs’ tempo and wear down opponents — Yale secured a win in its season opener at Colgate, following suit with a 15-point victory over Cornell.

    For Reno, however, these victories are rooted not just in better execution of plays, but also a change in team culture. The Cal Poly game represented a chance, in Reno’s words, for the team to bond, to put to the test the emphasis on camaraderie he’s been attempting to cultivate within his players.

    Throughout the trip, this emphasis was evident. During those short moments of downtime, players prodded each other for advice on their fantasy football teams, chided teammates for attempting to catch up on schoolwork, and enjoyed the California sunshine while swimming in the hotel pool. Even with this general sense of ease, however, Reno was quick to reassert the importance of the journey at hand, encouraging his players to adopt a “business trip” mentality for the days ahead.

    Under Reno’s careful eye, each day was structured by the minute, beginning with 8:00 a.m. staff meetings and ending with a strictly observed bed check at 10:00 p.m. On game day, players departed for Cal Poly dressed in coat and tie, with kickers and punters expected on the field first — at 12:24 p.m., to be exact.

    Nobody strayed from the plan.

    “It’s a new era, I guess you could say,” said defensive tackle Jeff Schmittgens ’15 with a smile.

    ***

    On Friday, instead of completing their final pregame practice at Cal Poly’s stadium, Coach Reno chose to hold the first half of the walkthrough in a less obvious venue — the parking lot of the Hilton Garden Inn. Against a backdrop of rolling hills, palm trees and a bright yellow Denny’s sign, the team ran plays in helmets and jerseys, far from the potentially wandering eyes of the Cal Poly coaching staff.

    Though the location itself was atypical, Friday’s practice was emblematic of Reno’s larger coaching philosophy: sharpening Yale’s competitive advantage, even if it means practicing alongside a handful of hotel guests’ cars. These new spins on practice strategy perhaps stem from his age: at just 38, Reno is the second-youngest coach in the Ivy League, allowing him to rethink a system to which more senior coaches may feel inevitably married.

    But Reno’s greatest talent might be found not in his ability to design masterful plays, but rather, in his ability to recruit the players who carry them out.

    For Reno, Saturday’s game readily fulfilled this reputation. Victor Egu ’17, one of Reno’s key recruits who spurned offers from Berkeley, Oregon and Notre Dame to play for the Bulldogs, stunted the Mustangs’ efforts at one of the game’s most crucial moments. With 11:03 left in the game, following an interception from Yale quarterback Hank Furman ’14, Egu sacked Cal Poly’s quarterback from behind, preventing the Mustangs from scoring off of Yale’s blunder.

    But it was safety Cole Champion ’16, part of Reno’s first recruiting class, who especially made his presence felt on Saturday.

    According to Reno, Cole had “never played safety before in his life until he came [to Yale].” But when pitted against the Mustangs, Cole rose to the occasion, leading all players with fourteen tackles. He also had a hand in three Cal Poly turnovers: a fumble recovery where he alertly dove on a poor pitch from Cal Poly’s quarterback, an interception cutting short a Cal Poly drive, and a second interception that halted the Mustangs’ last gasp and effectively clinched the win for the Bulldogs.

    Egu’s and Champion’s efforts exemplify well the extent of Reno’s recruiting prowess. Reno’s personal recruits, however, were not the only players to turn in game-changing performances, pointing to another facet in the team’s overall rebuilding phase: Reno’s ability to further mold, and form relationships with, players who came to Yale under the auspices of Tom Williams.

    “One more year of the new coaching staff has given us the opportunity to buy into Coach Reno’s system,” Schmittgens said. “One more year of familiarity with the program, bringing in a lot of good underclassmen to build the program — that has definitely brightened the outlook of where we’re at right now.”

    It’s an attitude that was clearly in force on that crisp California Saturday. Upperclassmen stood tall alongside Reno’s handpicked players, finally comfortable with the new staff’s style after a full year of practice. Juniors and seniors contributed big plays on both sides of the ball, and in the fourth quarter, when every play’s importance is magnified, the veterans stepped up to the challenge.

    With less than nine minutes left in the game, the Cal Poly faithful were rallying one last time, standing and screaming at full volume. The mercury showed a temperature well above 80 degrees, not including the effects of playing football in full pads. And Yale faced a crucial third down, deep in their own territory, clinging to a seven-point lead.

    Furman remained unfazed. He rolled left, pump faked a throw, and then launched a beautiful rainbow deep downfield, where wideout Deon Randall ’15 managed to settle under it. The crowd was silenced. Any remaining doubts about the Bulldogs’ newfound resolve was quashed a few plays later, when Furman converted a third down into a touchdown by way of a diving Chris Smith ’14. Yale fans erupted, and the raucous cheers of the coaching staff rang clearly, penetrating even the walls of the insulated press box.

    For the parents, relatives and supporters, all wearing white shirts commemorating the game, the final score reflected a crossroads for Yale football. At 24–10, it was a satisfying outcome for the Bulldogs’ first pilgrimage in recent memory — and perhaps one unexpected, too. Celebrations were certainly in order, and even Reno allowed a smile to crack through his typically stoic demeanor.

    Undergirding the excitement, however, was a more sobering realization: for this group of players, moving forward, Yale’s legacy depends on much more than one California victory.

    “We celebrated on Saturday night, but we were back focused on Dartmouth on Sunday,” offensive lineman Luke Longinotti ’16 said. “It was obviously a signature win, but 10 years from now this single game isn’t going to be what turned Yale football around.”

    Furman had a slightly different spin. “We haven’t been good in a while, so everyone is in good spirits,” he said bluntly. “We’re at the point where we decide if we want to be a good team or a great team.”

    ***

    After a long flight, every single person that stumbled into JFK Airport at 4 in the morning was ready to get back to campus and sleep. As the team waited for their bags near baggage carousel #4, however, Reno called everybody together for one last huddle. He delved into the team’s schedule for Sunday — which included trekking back to Smilow Field Center within six hours of returning to campus — and then briefly complimented the offense and the defense. But his focus quickly shifted to the team’s next game against the Big Green, a nod to his personal mantra of taking victory “one game at a time.”

    “Dartmouth is a very good football team. Their backs are against the wall, and they need to win this game,” Reno asserted. “This is a must-win game for us.”

    Reno’s words took on a new significance, as they resounded with a team now wholly familiar with and confident in his vision as a coach. He signaled to captain Beau Palin ’14 to gather the team for the weekend’s final huddle, and stepped back as the players drew together. A sense of anticipation coursed throughout, and any semblance of celebration was long gone — the players instead heeded their coach’s advice, turning their eyes fully to next Saturday’s challenge. One game at a time, indeed.