by John D. Hubbard
Ron Burton '69 takes the snap and hands off to Tommy Parr '74. Parr laterals to Bobby Relph '78, who hits Steve Calabria '85 in the flats. Calabria pitches to Tom Burgess '86 and Burge tosses the ball to Ryan Vena.
The branches on the Colgate quarterback family tree make a noble canopy and tell a story of leadership, athletic achievement and daring do. Since the days of Andy Kerr's perplexing offense, Colgate has attacked opponents with innovation, a willingness to take what is available and the grit to make it happen. Often the spearhead of this philosophy has been a quarterback, and Ryan Vena '00 is forging his way to the head of the long, distinguished line.
After only two seasons, Vena is ranked ninth in career total yards and is the first quarterback to lead the Red Raiders to a league title. Now a junior, he and his teammates are aiming for a national championship. Not bad for a team that was 0-11 just three seasons ago and a program that was kept out of playoff consideration for a decade.
Vena admits he was concerned as a recruited high school student about Colgate's winless season. "I was tentative at first but thought Colgate was a good place for me -- great academics and a chance to play."
That concern turned to freshman frustrations when the team opened the '96 season by extending the winless streak. "Man, this stinks," Vena remembers saying after the third straight loss. "And I couldn't even do anything about it because I wasn't playing."
Vena got his chance to contribute sooner than he anticipated, in the fourth game -- another defeat -- against Penn. He came on in relief and made things happen. The next week the freshman started against Brown and led the team to its first win in ages. The skid was over and a new era had begun.
The reversal of fortunes climaxed in the last game of the season at Bucknell, where Colgate met the Bisons for the Patriot League championship. The Red Raiders went for the win in overtime but lost when a pass was batted away in the end zone. "I'd go for it again the next 100 times out of 100," says Vena.
Last fall Colgate squeaked by Cornell, played well in a loss to Army and raced through the Patriot League to set up a championship rematch with undefeated Bucknell. The game was never close. Colgate 48, Bucknell 14.
"It's exciting," says Vena, during a break from preseason double sessions. "There's a lot to live up to but I think we can repeat." Goals don't end with a consecutive Patriot League championship, however. Colgate was the first football team, since the league was formed, to qualify for NCAA post- season play. The Red Raiders were pitted against number-one-ranked Villanova in the playoffs. Leading 28-27 after three quarters, Colgate eventually lost 49-28.
The game and Colgate's philosophy of playing a tough non-league schedule translates into confidence and optimism among the players. No one is more convincing than Vena. "Right now I want to focus on this season and what we have to do to win a national championship."
Having a two-time Patriot League Most Valuable Player at the helm is a good place to start, but the honoree points elsewhere. "Without the offensive line we couldn't do anything." In fact, Vena is so confident about the line he feels whoever is in the backfield will succeed.
The quarterback also knows he will have people to catch the ball. Wide receiver Corey Hill '99 holds the Colgate record for most catches in a season, is all-league and made two all-America teams.
"Corey is just a tremendous player. He makes awesome catches and gets me out of trouble. I can count on my receivers being there for me." Split end R.J. Gregory '99 is also an underrated deep threat and there is depth at tight end.
Defensively, the Red Raiders have veteran leaders to help inculcate a batch of new starters. Overall, depth and injuries -- more of one, few of the other -- will determine the potential of this team.
That and Vena. Born to run the option out of the I, Vena is quick to take off -- "I'm not going to sit in the pocket and take a sack." Once on the run, he has an uncanny ability to make decisions -- keep the ball and run, pitch to a back or pass to a receiver.
Vena is tough enough to absorb punishment and ornery enough to dole out some of his own. He chafes in the green jersey (that means "hands off") quarterbacks wear in preseason and initiates as much contact as he can. Watching Vena pursue a defender following an interception is instructive. A two-way player in high school in Colorado, he says, "I still miss defense."
Vena loves quarterback, though. His grandfather got Ryan involved in flag football as a kid and he was a tailback until making the switch in high school. During his first two years at Colgate, Vena studied with coach Fred Dunlap '50. "He taught me so much -- reading defenses, seeing coverages, recognizing line fronts. He taught me how to lead the team, too. Coach D was fun to play for. He's like a kid himself on the field."
College quarterback is a demanding course, but the syllabus was given to Vena in chunks as a freshman, and while it made for a full first semester, he survived. A sociology/anthropology major, Vena learned what was required to balance Colgate's exacting academic load with football.
As a kid, Vena dreamed of playing college football and he admits he still has dreams but for now reality is enough. He's the leader of a potentially very good team, a team good enough to dream its own national championship dreams and he's the once and future quarterback.
"It's the greatest position out there," says Ryan Vena, and there is a long line of Colgate stalwarts who share the feeling and can rest assured their place is in good hands.