September 29, 2015
NEW HAVEN >> If Yale’s football team wants to continue the current trend of winning exclusively on fourth-quarter comebacks, the university may want to consider complimentary stress tests at the ticket window.
Two heart-stopping wins in two games may be tough on the collective ticker of its fan base. Yet to Yale, winning in improbable fashion has become second nature. And while hardly by design, this is no fluke. The Bulldogs have trained hard to thrive in these types of situations. They understand exactly what it takes to pull off a stunning comeback.
Embrace adversity. It’s an oft-repeated phrase from coach Tony Reno. Not only do these Bulldogs embrace adversity, they squeeze the living daylights out of it.
Two weeks ago Yale trailed by two touchdowns in the fourth quarter of its season-opener at Colgate, only to pull off a 29-28 victory. Last weekend at Yale Bowl, Cornell led by 10 in the fourth only to allow two touchdowns in the final 72 seconds to become victim No. 2.
“There’s such a strong belief in what we do and how we do it that nothing really comes as a surprise,” says Cheshire’s Sebastian Little, who caught the winning 52-yard touchdown to beat the Big Red with 32 seconds remaining on Saturday. “There’s big plays in a game and plays you wish you could have back. But every play has a life and history of its own. And the only thing you can do is play the next one.”
That philosophy has helped keep the Bulldogs calm in the roughest of seas. The results began to pile up a year ago. Five times they trailed only to come back and win. Twice, the Bulldogs fought back from three-touchdown deficits to beat Lehigh. Down 14 points in the third quarter to FBS opponent Army, they tied the game with under 2 minutes in regulation and won in overtime. Colgate was beaten in the fourth quarter.
At Harvard, with the Ivy League title on the line, Yale scored 21 unanswered fourth-quarter points to tie the score only to see the Crimson pull off the last-second victory.
How does a team overcome early inconsistency to consistently win in the closing minutes? Talent certainly helps. Tailback Tyler Varga, now with the Indianapolis Colts, was the weapon of choice last fall. Quarterback Morgan Roberts has inherited the role, tossing four of his six touchdowns in the final quarter.
Still, this type of success takes a little more.
“It all comes back to Tony,” says Larry Ciotti, retired after 22 seasons as an assistant and now a special advisor to Reno. “He’s such a positive influence on our team. Sometimes, myself, I see what happens and get frustrated. He’s always optimistic. The training that Tony has brought beyond football; mentorships, internships, leadership programs. It teaches our players to embrace adversity. This is what they do.”
Last fall, Reno instituted a mental conditioning program that includes seminars with Brian Cain, a motivational speaker and trainer who travels the country teaching applied sports psychology and leadership skills. His exercises run from traditional to extreme. In addition to lectures on the power of visualization, Yale players have bent reinforced steel bars with their necks and swallowed fire.
And yes, you read that correctly.
Teammates are paired off and given thin torches, which are then lit. One tips his head back and opens his mouth; the other inserts the torch. The fire is doused when the mouth closes around the torch, cutting off oxygen and extinguishing the flame. It’s an old magician’s trick. But, done in this manner, the teammates have to trust the method and each other.
“I had a really tough time with the fire,” Little said. “It took me two or three times and I almost burnt myself. I don’t want to go near that one again, but it’s all great team bonding stuff.”
In a perfect world, Yale wouldn’t need to play from behind so often. Reno says there have been inconsistencies that must be fixed. Mistakes on both sides of the ball and a handful of bad penalties helped dig early holes. Fixable problems.
What separated the Bulldogs from Colgate and Cornell was an ability to immediately overcome and execute. In the meeting room under the stands at the Bowl on Saturday, his team trailing Cornell 26-13, Reno encouraged his team to “make a memory.”
They responded with one for the ages.
“Whenever we’re behind in game like that, there’s a quiet urgency that OK, now we need to go out and perform the way we’re capable,” Little said. “We did it a lot last year, coming from behind. With the guys we have back and our senior leadership, there’s never any panic.”
There’s no need to panic when a team has built a foundation based on trust, trust in each other.
For the team that swallows fire together, wins together.
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