Commentary

Culbreath perseveres for Senior Day

Originally Published: November 16, 2009
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Senior Day is coming in Gainesville, and you know The Swamp will be submerged in tears for Tim Tebow. It will be similarly maudlin in Austin for Colt McCoy.

[+] EnlargeJordan Culbreath
Princeton athletics Jordan Culbreath led the Ivy League in rushing his junior season with 1,206 yards.

But the Senior Day that really should put a walnut in your throat passed without much notice Saturday at Princeton. A round of applause, please, for Jordan Culbreath.

You probably don't know the name. Haven't seen him on TV. Didn't obsess over his recruitment. Don't know his stats.

But in a season smeared by punches and eye gouges and armed robberies, Culbreath deserves your respect and support. He is everything that's good and right about college athletics -- former walk-on turned all-Ivy League running back, team captain, mechanical and aerospace engineering major -- and he's going through hell. You should hear his struggle, and appreciate the way he and his football family are enduring it.

Jordan wore his No. 21 jersey for Senior Day on Saturday when Princeton played Yale, but that was it in terms of uniform. He put away his pads and helmet for good in September, when a sprained ankle helped save his life.

That injury led Jordan to break down and tearfully confide to team medical personnel that he just wasn't right. Coaches, trainers and doctors already wondered whether something was wrong with one of the hardest workers on the team -- his luminous smile had gone missing for long stretches during preseason camp.

"He'd run one play and be exhausted," coach Roger Hughes said.

But every time they asked the stoic senior if something was bothering him, he said he was OK. Finally, felled by injury against Lehigh, Jordan opened up to team doctor Margot Putukian.

He had been bone-tired for weeks, suffering headaches, had sores in his mouth, even felt some numbness in his arms and legs. Walking up a flight of stairs drained him. He had been dragging himself through the opening stages of a season he'd been anticipating for months.

Putukian had Jordan undergo blood tests. When she saw the results, she was confronted with an emergency.

"His counts were all at panic values," Putukian said.

Putukian relayed Jordan's blood work to a hematologist at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in New Brunswick, N.J. The answer came back: He needs to be in the hospital right away. Putukian called defensive back Cart Kelly and asked him to drive his close friend there.

[+] EnlargeJordan Culbreath
Princeton Athletics Culbreath wasn't on the field, but he got to see his teammates beat Cornell on Halloween.

Once admitted, Jordan was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, a life-threatening disease in which bone marrow does not produce enough blood cells. Chances of infection skyrocket. Risk of hemorrhaging is greatly increased as well -- a potentially calamitous condition for a football player, especially a running back.

Had Jordan taken a significant blow to the head or been cut before spraining that ankle in the second game?

"He could have bled to death," Hughes said.

His football career was over -- no chance to repeat as the Ivy League's leading rusher. Worse than that, his senior year of school was derailed. His life was in the balance.

Given that sobering diagnosis, Jordan's family drove up from their home in Falls Church, Va. With Jordan in the hospital for the next eight days, the family got a crash course on aplastic anemia and all the challenges associated with it.

The first treatment option was finding a bone marrow donor. Coincidentally, Princeton's football team had participated in a bone-marrow registration drive during spring practice, and every player was responsible for getting five potential donors. They simply had the inside of their mouths swabbed for cells and were entered into a national database.

Among those Jordan signed up was his 25-year-old sister, Carissa. The immediate hope was that she would be a match, but she wasn't.

In fact, Jordan's ethnicity is a complicating factor in finding a match. His father is African-American. His mother is part Japanese, part German-Irish. That limits his pool of potential donors.

Doctors have found a near-total umbilical cord match that could be the "ace in the hole," according to Jordan's mother, Alma. But first Jordan is undergoing antibody therapy over the course of a few months to see if it allows the bone marrow to grow and create new blood cells.

In the meantime, he is undergoing platelet and blood transfusions and having his blood tested regularly. The family's moods tend to rise and fall with his blood count.

But as serious as the diagnosis was, it at least alleviated Jordan's own self-doubt. An overachiever who had always prided himself on outworking others, he was his own worst critic in August when he struggled through preseason camp.

[+] EnlargeJordan Culbreath
Princeton athletics Had Culbreath taken a severe blow to the head or been cut, he could have died.

"He's very determined, very competitive," Alma Culbreath said. "That keeps him trying to do the best he can in everything. When he sets his mind to something, he accomplishes it."

For weeks, it was hard to accomplish the kind of athletic things that had come easily ever since he walked on at Princeton and forced his way into the lineup as a sophomore. That preyed upon his mind -- especially since, as a team captain, he was trying to set an example for the younger players.

"I was pretty hard on myself," Jordan said. "I realize now, I was pretty depressed."

His teammates were pretty depressed without him. What many thought could be a promising Princeton season quickly became an injury-and-illness-riddled disappointment. After Jordan was diagnosed, the 1-1 Tigers promptly lost four straight.

"We were shocked," said defensive lineman Joel Karacozoff. "Devastated. More than just his ability, we missed his leadership on the field more than words can say. You really can't replace a guy like Jordan Culbreath."

The disease forced Jordan to move home for ongoing treatment at the National Institute of Health -- though he had determinedly kept working on his senior thesis project. He also learned how many people he's touched on his quietly charismatic path through life.

Jordan set up a journal at www.CaringBridge.org to keep people up to date on his condition. His guest book has been overrun with well-wishers ever since.

"I know my kid, and I'm very proud of him," Alma Culbreath said. "But I never knew he affected so many people. I look at his guest book and it's just overwhelming."

That support has helped him deal with the ups and downs of his disease. With his immunities lowered, he got an infection in October that required hospitalization and an upper-arm catheter for regular antibiotic treatments.

Eventually the infection cleared up, and Jordan's blood counts stabilized enough that he was allowed to return as a surprise visitor for Princeton's Halloween home game against Cornell. Jordan went out with his fellow captains for the coin toss and was on the sideline as the Tigers scored a 17-14 victory.

[+] EnlargeJordan Culbreath
Beverly Schaefer Culbreath did not miss a chance to be on the field with his teammates for Senior Day.

Naturally, Hughes awarded Jordan the game ball in the locker room.

"Coach was holding up the ball," Kelly said. "Before he even got Jordan's name out of his mouth, we all started screaming and yelling. Pretty much everybody in the locker room broke down."

"Not a dry eye in there," Hughes confirmed.

There were more tears this weekend on Senior Day. But once again Jordan was there to help lift Princeton to a victory, this time a 24-17 upset of Yale -- a rival the Tigers had beaten only once in the previous seven years.

Before the game, Jordan was on the field to be honored with his classmates. That time-honored rite of college football passage would not be denied to him.

"So much was going through my head," he said. "I was excited to see the guys, but I wanted to be out there so bad to play in that game."

Jordan reflected on his bittersweet Senior Day while driving his Ford Explorer home Sunday night from New Jersey to Northern Virginia. He was feeling good.

"Sometimes I have to remind myself I am sick," he said.

Having the catheter out of his arm helped his mood. So did the chance to make that trip alone, driving himself. And so did that Princeton victory.

"One of the great wins we've had in a long time," he said. "It was a good day."

Nobody in America deserved a better Senior Day than Jordan Culbreath.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.