Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Garrett Helps Them See The Forest Through the Trees


Three hundred and two inner-city football players who likely haven’t been looking much past the next touchdown had their horizons expanded Saturday at Princeton.

Jason Garrett, Coach of the Dallas Cowboys, has never been able to see the point of being a famous football personality without giving something back to the community. So after a morning seven-on-seven mini-tournament of high school players bussed in from places such as Brooklyn, Queens, Philadelphia, New Haven and Asbury Park, Garrett ‘89 and his wife Brill ’88 led a procession of participants in the annual Jason Garrett Starfish Charities Camp on a campus stroll designed to grow legs on these kids’ desires for higher educations.

“That’s the best part of the day,” said Coach Garrett. “The kids look around and say, ‘I’ve never been to a place like this’ and ‘I would like to come to place like this.’

“We’re not doing this to attract them to Princeton, just put a place like Princeton on their radar screens.  They come from places that aren’t like this at all, so you try to instill in them a belief they can belong. Hopefully that triggers in their minds they can do the things necessary to come to college and graduate.”

After the walk, when they sat down at McCosh 10 for some life skills lessons, Freddie Santana, alum of the program and -- as a result, Holy Cross University -- was among those who told the kids they shouldn’t sell themselves short. 

“I never saw a squirrel or chipmunk until I came here either,” Santana said Saturday. After captaining the Crusaders, becoming All-Patriot League receiver, and going on to Teach for America in Atlanta, he might be the program’s best salesman but hardly is the only one.

Garrett hosted the first of these programs at Giants Stadium 10 years ago when, as backup quarterback for the Giants, he had an in to a free speakers bureau that included Michael Strahan, Tiki Barber and Amani Toomer. This year not only did the Cowboys Coach lasso Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, Garrett hardly had to threaten to cut Jason Witten, DeMarcus Ware, Miles Austen and Sean Lee to get them to Princeton for a day of enough star power to makes these kids’ heads spin straight with their own possibilities.

Newark’s Tahir Whitehead, the Lions’ fifth round pick in the 2012 draft from Temple, Florida defensive back Josh Evans from Irvington, NJ, and Brooklyn’s Ishaq Williams, soon to be a freshman at Notre Dame have all been participants.  Many of these kids are not talented enough to earn football scholarships.  All are smart enough to do college work if they find the motivation.
 “The message is ‘there may be nobody in your family who has done this, but you guys can,’” said Garrett. “I always share with them the Starfish story from which I named my foundation 15-16 years ago. 

“The valedictorian told this at Brill’s graduation in 1988:  Following a storm, a woman comes across a young boy on a beach throwing starfish back into the ocean before the afternoon sun would cause them to dry up and die.   The woman asks: ‘why are you doing this? There are millions of starfish on this beach, too many to make for you to make a difference.’

“The young man says: “It will make a difference to this one.’ and throws it in the water.’ 

“We help many more than just one kid to college each year, but from that one it grows exponentially.”

The Play It Smart Program of the National Football Foundation that spawned and ran these camps has ended, but an initiative that has spurred 95 percent high school gradation rates and 80 percent college enrollments goes on in individual efforts like Garrett’s. Charles Gomes of the NFF assembles the invitation list via the recommendations of high school teachers and administrators who would know best which students are most open to having their minds opened.

“Best-laid plans, the first year we did this at Giants Stadium it rained so hard we had to go inside,” said Garrett. “So we assembled the kids at the bottom of one of the spiral (spectator) ramps while I stood about halfway up.

“I remember being really nervous about their behavior, so I told the coaches to make sure they are listening and behaving.  I started with this aggressiveness to my voice and these kids looked up at me completely locked in.  It was amazing,”

Ten years later, they may still come for the football, the celebrities, and the lunch but they not only leave with an impression but leave one behind, too. “We have had not one problem with one kid,” said Brill. 

Even before Jason’s time with the Giants ended and his coaching career began with the Dolphins, the Garretts thought their program needed a permanent home. Princeton opened up big arms.  

“(Former Head Coach) Roger Hughes was great from the beginning,” said Brill Garrett. “(Associate Head Coach) Steve Verbit knows everything and everybody here, don’t know what we would do without him. 

“(Head Athletic Trainer) Charlie Thompson and his wife Sandy have been amazing, doing more than just the training stuff we need, helping us with the t-shirts and hats and even the Kettle Chips.
“The whole thing has been an inspiration to all of us.  I’m walking behind the kids as we go up through campus, so I hear their comments.  They don’t live far away from here but they have never seen trees and buildings like this and they think it’s incredible.

“But what I think is incredible is seeing deserving and underserved kids being so eager when people are trying to help them.”

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Game of Tim Boardman's Life


Old Princeton football players don’t fade away, they keep coming back for alumni games during reunions weekend.  Nobody built Tim Boardman the float he deserved in this year’s P-Rade,  but he floated to Powers Field on Friday regardless.

“Been thinking about this for two-and-a-half years,” said Boardman ’08. “When I was sick, I never thought I’d be able to run around this field again.

“I made what was once impossible a reality. This is phenomenal.”

Tim Boardman
No tackling was allowed, even if it is fair to say that by evening some ex-Tiger linebackers were pretty well blitzed. But whatever the rules—in this case two-hand toucheverybody in Princeton Stadium on June 1 was exceedingly touched to see Boardman, starting middle linebacker on Princeton’s last Ivy League champion in 2006, all the way back from a heart attack and stroke that almost cost him his legs soon after they almost ended his life.

By now it seems like the dreaded clot is part of a massive plot against young and vibrant Princeton football players.  After almost winning the Ivy League rushing title as a freshman, Chuck Dibilio will not likely return to the field if doctors continue to be stymied by the cause of the stroke he suffered in January. But it should be consolation and inspiration to Dibilio, that Boardman is back from hell and telling his story.

“I kind of felt weak for about two weeks but thought I just had a flu or something,” Boardman said.  “I was a young guy, working out, always in shape.

“Turns out, I had had a heart attack. They still don’t know why. But it caused a clot to form in my left ventricle, which was about to cause another heart attack.

“October 13, 2010, a week before HomecomingI was all amped up to come watch Princeton play Harvard... I was in the shower after a workout at a gym in Manhattan [working as an equity trader].  I had chest pain, then it started to subside, then I started to feel my legs tingling and cramping, like a Charley horse after a football game, only really bad.

“The clot had broken up into pieces, gone to my kidney, lung, spleen and into my legs. I was locking up.  Everything clenched up in my legs, then I lost feeling in my feet. I just collapsed on the floor, still conscious. Pretty scary experience.’

He was rushed to Bellevue Hospital Center in Manhattan, where doctors had to take out his spleen, the least of his problems. They had to go into his groin to scoop out of his veins the long clots that were totally blocking circulation below his knees.

First Day Out of Bed After 2 1/2 Months
His legs were saved, or so he thought.  Two weeks later it was discovered Boardman was allergic to Heparin, the blood thinner of the doctors’ first choice, causing more clotting, this time in his brain, too, which led to a stroke causing temporary paralysis in his face and numbness in his left arm.

“Almost killed me as well,” he said. He responded better to another intravenous blood thinner, Argatroban, but because of the open wound in his leg, caught a massive infection.

“I had footballs for calves,”  he said, forcing a bilateral fasciotomy, a procedure in which his calves were cut open to open up blood gates.  Because he was on the Argatroban, Boardman went through 20 pints of blood in a 48-hour span.

“Everything that could go wrong did go wrong,” he said.  He had seven surgeries, and was bedridden for two-and-a-half months in Bellevue, and NYU Medical Center before spending another month at Kindred Hospital, a rehab facility in Wayne, N.J.

“As a former football player the most frustrating experience of all was teaching myself how to walk,” he said.  “I had so much atrophy I couldn’t stand, was so thin that at therapy I looked like a cancer patient.”

It was nine months until he could begin to jog and a year until he began to feel “halfway decent.  Putting it all behind him remains a work in progress.  

“I was like in a weird blackout phase during the first few weeks when I was on morphine and that really messes with your mind.” said Boardman.  “I thought I was dreaming half the time, didn’t have an understanding of why this was happening to me.

"I still have flashbacks.  That’s okay, it reminds me, like the scars on my legs.  I could have received plastic surgery but I had been through seven surgeries and wanted to heal naturally.

"I wanted the scars."

Boardman Led the Tigers in Tackles in 2007
He runs two miles daily secure in the knowledge that an internal defibrillator will prevent a future heart attack.  Last week his cardiologist and hematologist took him off Coumadin just in time to clear him to play in an alumni touch game that beat the previous most triumphant contest of his lifethe comeback win at Yale in 2006 that put Princeton in position to nail down a piece of the title the following week.

“The doctors think my signs of recovery are miraculous,” said Boardman.  “I have gone from lucky to be alive and lucky to be walking to running a couple miles a day. 

“I’m actually back to around my playing weight.  So I’m excited to run around here today.

"There are three of us here—Chuck, myself and Jordan Culbreath­—who have overcome emergencies (Culbreath suffered from aplastic anemia) on a near-death level. This is a miraculous event.”

But one backed by the anything-but-unexpected support he received from the Princeton community. 

“Homecoming week, right after I went into the hospital, there were so many alums, classmates, teammates coming to visit, they had to close it off,” he said. “The outpouring of support was just phenomenal, gave me inner strength during the most difficult time I ever experienced.”

After home wins, Tiger linebackers still lead the “Whose House?" “Our House” cheer in the locker room that Boardman began.  “So I left some kind of legacy here,” he said. 

And he hardly came back to campus last weekend a stranger.  Last year, together with former teammates Kevin Kelleher '08 and Scott Britton '10, plus the assistance of Coach Surace and assistant coach Steve Verbit, Boardman initiated a mentorship program to ease the transition of freshmen football players into life at Princeton.

“The coaching staff matches up the [upperclass] mentors,” he said.  “Our role is to be point persons for the captains and mentors to ensure that there is an open communication line and active participation.
“Not one freshman quit last year, I think for the first time in 10 years. We also introduce players to other alumni.
“I’m using this weekend as a networking opportunity for myself, too.  I became unemployed about three weeks ago.  Restructuring.  So I am looking for opportunities at other Wall Street firms.  I’ve always traded equities but I’m willing to try anything right now, in other asset classes. 

“Here I am, a guy in need again, but I have been through worse, obviously.  This a slight hiccup in my life.  In a weird way I prepared for the pain and adversity I went through by handling the pressure of playing football here.  So I have a good perspective on things, a good inner strength of mind.

"I chatted with Chuck.  I basically told him to continue to improve his body during his recovery.  I never anticipated running around like I am.  He should have faith he will suit up again.”