Alone at the Top

By Stephen Colelli '08 / January / February 2006
April 18th, 2007

NOVEMBER 19, 2005. The champions are waiting for their head coach. The last game of the season has just ended, andthe players, still in pads and helmets, are crowding into the hallway on the Columbia campus in New York City. Every few seconds a few more players, coaches, photographers, and alumni enter. With a 52-21 pummeling of Columbia, the Bears have just clinched their first-ever outright Ivy football championship. Linebacker Zak DeOssie '07 can be seen chomping on a Honduran victory cigar and passing out others to whoever happens to be closest to him. Tricaptain James Frazier '06 pushes his way through the crowd while clutching the coveted silver trophy, the most significant piece of hardware in Brown football history. The sight of it sends the players into a frenzy.

Finally, Phil Estes, head coach for the past six seasons - two of them championship seasons now - appears, still wet from the Gatorade bath he received a few minutes earlier. As he works his way to the front of the crowd, another celebratory chant breaks out.

"Hey, listen up," he shouts, quieting the eruption that followed the inadvertent popping of a champagne cork.

Estes congratulates his players, especially the seniors. "They showed us how to win," he says. "They showed us how to finish." His seniors suffered through a 2-8 freshman season, but improved to 5Ð5 sophomore year, then 6-4, and now 9-1. Half of them - ten players - will be named to the All-Ivy squad in the coming days. "They showed us that we can be champions," Estes continues, "and the outright champions when you set your goal to it. You did it, you set your goals, and you went out and you kicked some - "

The shouting and cork popping have already resumed, drowning out the end of Estes's sentence.

Estes has managed to put together whatmight be the best eight seasons in Brown football history. In addition to earning two Ivy championships, his teams have produced three finalists for the Walter Payton Award, which goes to the best Division 1-AA player in the country. Over its four years, the class of 2001 won more games than any other football class in school history; the class of 2002 won only one fewer. Estes's 1999 team - which tied with Yale for the Ivy championship - lost only one game all season, something no squad had accomplished since the 1926 Iron Men. It has just been repeated by the 2005 team.

Brown's two previous Ivy championships - 1976 was the first - had to be shared with other teams, however. Estes and the 2005 Bears are the first Brown football team ever to end the season in sole possession of first place, and faced with this accomplishment, few players can put their emotions into words. "Surreal," says defensive lineman Pat Curran '06, raising his voice to be heard over the din. "I had championship seasons as a kid and in high school, but this is unbelievable."

Most seasons have a turning point, when a tough loss tests a team's resolve, or an exhilarating victory creates a momentum that carries through for weeks. The 2005 Bears were tested on September 24 at Harvard Stadium, when the Bears endured a crushing double-overtime 38Ð35 defeat. Not only was it the second game of the season and the Ivy opener; it was the day Brown believed it would avenge Harvard's 2004 come-from-behind win, a game whose memory still hurt.

It was at that game that the Crimson had rallied from a 31Ð10 halftime deficit to shock the Bears 35Ð34. The comeback propelled Harvard to an undefeated Ivy season and a league championship. The 2004 Bears, on the other hand, never fully recovered. They struggled to put up a 3Ð4 league mark. No wonder that when DeOssie was asked before the 2005 season which game he was most looking forward to, he answered emphatically: "The Ivy opener. We lost to Harvard by one [point] last year - that's always the biggest one in our mind."

On September 24, 2005, the Bears were not only looking for revenge; they wanted to send a message to the rest of the Ancient Eight that they were the ones to fear. Back in August, Estes had distributed tiny business cards to his players. Printed on one side was the team's Ivy schedule; on the other were the words "Win it Outright," and a photo of the Ivy League trophy.

At first, everything seemed to be going Brown's way in Cambridge. The Bears jumped out to a 16Ð0 first-quarter lead, but in the second half Harvard surged to tie the score at twenty-five. With 4:09 left in the fourth quarter, quarterback Joe DiGiacomo '07 hit Jarrett Schreck '06 with a thirty-four-yard strike that Harvard head coach Tim Murphy later labeled "a dagger." Score: 32Ð25.

But then Harvard marched eighty-two yards in fewer than four minutes to tie the game and force it into overtime. Each team booted a field goal, triggering a second overtime, during which Harvard booted a game-winning twenty-nine-yard field goal for the 38Ð35 victory. For the second consecutive year, the Bears had had the Crimson on the ropes, and for the second year they couldn't keep them there. Already, in the second week of the season, 2005 was looking a lot like 2004.

But the Bears quickly refocused and prepared for the 90th annual Governor's Cup, hoping to shut down URI's potent rushing attack. James Frazier had already mapped out a new plan for taking the Ivy trophy. "We need to go 9Ð1," he said days after the Harvard loss. "The last Brown team to win the Ivy League went 9Ð1, and that's what we need to do now."

Then, the day before the October 1 game, DeOssie suffered a back injury. The Bears would have to stop URI's dangerous rushing offense without their star middle linebacker. That Saturday, the Rams bulled their way to 379 yards on the ground and posted thirty-five points. But the BearsÊ scored forty-five points while racking up more than 600 yards of total offense.

"It would have been easy for us to have thrown in the towel after the Harvard loss and say, 'There goes the title,' " defensive back Jamie Gasparella '06 said. "But we regrouped and kept our focus."

The domination of Columbia in the final game was the last action step in Frazier's plan, giving the team its 9Ð1 record, equal to that of the 1999 champions. The Bears finished the year with an average margin of victory of seventeen points, while the offense scored more than thirty points in nine games out of ten. Running back and tricaptain Nick Hartigan '06, kicker Steve Morgan '08, and the return combination of Brandon Markey '07 and Nkosi Still '08 all broke league records. Week in and week out, Brown took advantage of big plays.

Not that it was easy. Although there were standouts, it seemed that a different player stepped up to play a key role each week. To overcome the absence of DeOssie, the leader of its defense, for example, Frazier, who began the season as a defensive end, was converted to linebacker before the URI game. By the end of the season, he had made the All-Ivy team at a position he hadn't played since high school. Down the season stretch, Eric Brewer '08 and Frank Nuzzo '08 played important roles in the middle of the defense, as DeOssie's absence seemed to strengthen the resolve of the defensive linemen.

Gasparella, a unanimous All-Ivy selection, had seven interceptions and was the top shut-down cornerback in the league. His penchant for making game-changing plays could be seen in the Yale Bowl, where he intercepted an attempted fade pass in Brown's end zone to snuff out a late comeback attempt by the Bulldogs.

On the other side of the ball, Brown's offensive line overcame the graduation of four of its starters and developed into one of the best units in Division 1-AA. Rotating in seven men to fill the five spots on the line helped pave the way for Hartigan's record-breaking campaign. As a result, offensive linemen Alex Jury '06, Noori Abdul-Ghani '06, and Alex Doty '07 received All-Ivy honors.

Steve Morgan, meanwhile, established a new Ivy League record for points by a kicker in a season (ninety-eight), making eighteen of twenty-three field goal attempts. He tied another Ivy mark in the loss to Harvard by kicking five field goals in a single game. Jarrett Schreck, another All-Ivy selection, caught an eighty-five-yard touchdown pass against Cornell - the second longest reception in Brown history - and torched Harvard for 223 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns. His 223 yards against the Crimson ranks third on Brown's all-time single-game list, behind his own 253 yards against Harvard in 2004 and a 269-yard performance by Chas Gessner '03 against URI in 2001.

For his part, Hartigan, who's first-rate in academics, has brought new depth to the concept of the scholar-athlete. He broke the Ivy League record for career touchdowns (fifty-four), career rushing touchdowns (fifty-two), and career points (324). He established the Brown single-season record for rushing yards (1,727), which is also the second-best in Ivy history. He rushed for more than 190 yards in five out of the season's ten games. And despite carrying the ball in his senior year an average of more than thirty times a game, he never missed a start due to an injury. He was the unanimous choice for Ivy Player of the Year and the first Brown football player to make the final three for the Walter Payton Award.

Hartigan was also a first-team National Academic All-American in his junior and senior years, and this year received the CoSIDA/ESPN The Magazine National Academic All-American of the Year, which is widely considered the most prestigious award given to a student-athlete. Estes praised Hartigan after the Columbia game by saying he was "by far the finest back" he had ever coached.

Together in the Columbia hallway, the Bears are already searching for perspective on what they've accomplished. "After the loss to Harvard," DeOssie says, "we just approached each game one at a time. We really bought into that. I'll never forget these teammates as long as I live. This was the best bunch of guys I have ever been around."

And then he disappeared into the crowd of champions.

Stephen Colelli covered the 2005 football season for the Brown Daily Herald.
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