“I never had an experience like last year,” says fullback Brent Grinna ’04, one of the Bears’ 2003 tricaptains. “I had seasons in high school where you had that one heartbreaking loss and you relived that game so many times. But last year there were so many games which were that ‘one heartbreaking loss.’ Those losses take an emotional toll.” Fortunately, he adds, “Winning the last two games really gave us some momentum to carry forward to this year.”
Moving back into the Ivy League’s high-rent district will take all of coach Phil Estes’s ingenuity. Last May, Brown lost sixteen of twenty-two starters and twenty-eight lettermen from the 2002 squad. “Losing that many starters puts a big dagger in the success of a team,” admits Estes, now in his sixth year as head coach. “But we’re not in a panic mode. I really believe we recruited well the last couple of years. We’re talented in certain areas, and we’re young in other areas. The question will be, are these players ready to step up and make the big plays at the big times?”
Everywhere Estes looks he sees a potential problem. Brown’s injury-riddled running backs rushed for just seven touchdowns last year, and five of those were scored by Joe Rackley, one of the May graduates. Record-breaking receiver Chas Gessner ’03 took his 114 catches and team-high eleven touchdowns to the New England Patriots. The offensive line was scheduled to return two starters, guard Will Burroughs ’05 and tackle Lawrence Rubida ’04, but a knee injury has knocked Rubida out for the year. The defense’s top three tacklers have passed through the Van Wickle Gates; the defensive line returns just two starters, and two-thirds of the secondary is likely to be made up of sophomores—although one of them, Jason Ching, has been a two-time Ivy Rookie of the Week. Placekicker Paul Christian ’06 made just one of six field-goal attempts last year and twenty-two of twenty-five extra-point attempts. Still, Estes insists that “he’s going to develop into the best placekicker in the league.”
Estes identifies his offensive line as “the biggest concern”: “We lost a lot of kids and a lot of depth. It will be a big burden on [offensive line coach] Frank Sheehan to find five starters ready for that first game [September 20 at Albany]. A lot of young kids will have to mature quickly before you can put a label on us that we’re a running team or a passing team.”
Whichever direction the Bears go with their offense, Kyle Slager ’04 will likely open the season as starting quarterback. Slager, a University of Arizona transfer, was I-AA’s fifth-leading passer last year, with 230 completions and 2,609 yards, but he was hampered by an injury-plagued, unproductive running game. When Slager struggled, Estes didn’t hesitate to insert Nate Poole ’04, who hit on forty-four of seventy-eight passes for 354 yards and two touchdowns. “They both have a dimension we can use,” says Estes. “I’ll go with the guy who’s hot.”
Tristan Murray ’06 and Nick Hartigan ’06, meanwhile, may emerge as the Bears’ prime running backs. The highly regarded Murray earned his first start in Brown’s fourth game, at Fordham; he rushed for fifty-eight yards before suffering a season-ending ankle injury in the second quarter. Hartigan impressed in Brown’s Spring Game, rushing for ninety-eight yards. Jarrett Schreck ’06, who closed 2002 with a touchdown against Columbia, and six-foot, four-inch Lonnie Hill ’06 are the top contenders to fill the sizable receiver void created by Gessner’s graduation.
Linebacker figures to be the strength of the Bears’ defense, thanks to the return of hard-hitting inside backer Andrew Gallagher ’04, who missed all of last year after surgery for a herniated disk. Estes says Gallagher’s return is “huge” in terms of ability and leadership. Jermaine Griffin ’04 and Anjel Gutierrez ’05 return as starters at outside linebacker. Of the incoming recruiting class, Estes says it’s possible that two sons of former NFL players—linebacker/free safety Zackary DeOssie ’07 and six-foot, five-inch, 260-pound tight end Matt Krevis ’07—could have an impact this fall along with six-foot, 205-pound running back Brandon Markey ’07.
Last year marked Brown’s first losing season since 1993. This season the Bears will try to make that a one-year dip instead of a nascent trend. “Last year,” Estes says, “we did not make plays at the end of games to sting teams, like we did in the past. The big question this year is, do we have the type of team that will make these plays, or will we be a year from doing that?”