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Friendship Survives Dream

By Arsi Sefaj '11

On the first night of preseason camp during his freshman year, Max Newton awoke to the sound of his roommate screaming at the top of his lungs. Justin Oplinger was sitting up in bed, yelling loudly and incoherently. Oplinger wouldn’t wake up despite Newton’s best efforts, but eventually he stopped yelling and got back in bed of his own accord.

“I was definitely a little freaked out,” said Newton. “Even though he eventually quieted down, I slept with one eye open for the rest of the night.”

“Sometimes I get nightmares or sleepwalk or talk in my sleep,” explained Oplinger. “I obviously hadn’t told Max yet, since this was only our first night of camp, our first night rooming together.”

“Justin explained it to me in the morning and I thought it was hilarious,” said Newton. “But it was definitely an odd introduction.”

Though their first night as roommates was an adventurous one, that certainly didn’t prevent the two from eventually becoming best friends. In fact, after the end of their sophomore year, they decided to move off campus and be roommates during the school year as well as during the preseason. Now near the end of their Yale careers, Newton and Oplinger have much more in common besides a room: the outside linebacker position, the economics major, lots of good times, and a close friendship.

Newton and Oplinger are both from northern New Jersey. Even though they were both good high school players, they hadn’t ever met before their decision to come to Yale. Their high schools played in different conferences, so the two had not played with or against each other. As it happened, getting recruited to come to Yale -- and their subsequent friendship -- was certainly not guaranteed; among other things, it involved position switches for both players.

The two attended Yale’s football camp the summer before their senior year in an attempt to get recruited. Because Oplinger was big for a high school player (6-foot-3 and 254 pounds), he was worked out as an offensive lineman.

“Initially they wanted me on the O-line,” said Oplinger. “But then Yale sent a coach out to one of my high school games and he saw me lining up at wide receiver or playing safety, so he said I wasn’t a lineman and he put me in touch with the defensive ends coach.”

Meanwhile Newton, who had been a good high school quarterback, was asked to work out as a defensive end at the camp.

“When I was young, I thought I wanted to go to a big football school,” said Newton. “But as I got older I thought I’d use football as a tool to get a good education. Luckily one coach [former Yale assistant Jeff McDonald] saw something in me and switched me up.”
The switch worked out and in a fortunate coincidence, Newton received the call notifying him that he would have a spot at Yale on the day of his birthday.

“We always say, if it wasn’t for that, we’d have been playing against each other in ‘The little Game’,” said Newton. “Justin was getting recruited by Amherst and I wanted to go to Williams to play for my dad’s rival school.”

Newton and Oplinger met for the first time the summer before they were to come to Yale. The defensive ends coach had asked them to come up to Yale for a day to get acquainted with the defense before the start of training camp.

“We met in a Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot halfway between both our houses, and drove up together,” said Oplinger.

“A two-hour car ride alone is definitely a good way to start a friendship,” said Newton. “You learn a lot about people in long car rides.”

“We were in my car and I was driving,” added Oplinger. “I was scrambling going through all my CDs trying to find the right music. Then when we got up there, Coach was explaining the defense and for Max, it was clicking. But I just wasn’t getting it at all. The D-End coach must’ve thought ‘This kid is an idiot.’”

“We spent the entire car ride back to Jersey working through the defense together,” said Newton.

When they got to preseason, the two decided to room together because they did not know anyone else on the team at the time. It was during that first night that Oplinger’s famous sleep screaming incident happened. Between that and the long car trip, their interactions were admittedly a bit awkward at first. However, it rained a lot that preseason and practice was canceled often, giving the two ample opportunity to get to know each other. Given that they both played defensive end, Newton and Oplinger had the same schedules, so they spent their down time together as well, often using facebook to introduce one another to their friends and former lives.

During their freshman fall, both guys played on the JV squad, but both played well enough during their freshman spring to start rising up the depth chart. In their sophomore season, Newton and Oplinger traveled with the varsity and saw some varsity playing time. They roomed together on more away trips as their similarities developed: both were playing the same position, both were seeing about the same amount of playing time, both were economics majors. As they became better friends, their families started talking. During one summer break, Oplinger’s family invited Newton’s family to come down for a day to their house on the New Jersey coast.

During their sophomore year the two decided that they wanted to room together during the school year. Given that they were in two different residential colleges (Oplinger was in Silliman and Newton was in Jonathan Edwards), they would have to move off campus in order to make that happen. Luckily, they were able to find a nice apartment using craigslist, and junior year they lived together along with fellow football players Ben Meyer and Jack Wallace.

“The whole experience of living together was lots of fun,” said Oplinger. “We both have the same competitive spirit and one way it manifested itself was in really intense, fun video game battles; in fact there is a hole in our ceiling from this one time I came from way behind to beat Max at ‘Need for Speed.’ He jumped up and accidentally hit the ceiling.”

The two friends also bring that competitiveness and fun to the football field. Although Oplinger started during their junior season, they each received about an even number of snaps. In fact, the two joke about how Newton got a sack that year even though Oplinger did not.

“Football was fun,” said Newton. “It’s good to play across from someone that you trust. You have a lot more fun on the field when you are close to that person.”

“Communication is huge for us,” added Oplinger. “What makes our defense unique is our position; outside linebackers confuse the other teams. In that context, understanding what the other guy is doing is important and we are pretty good at that I think. We communicate pretty well.”

Their new position coach, Doug Semones, seems to agree: “Max and Justin are both leaders on this team. They are selfless players who will do whatever is asked of them to help the team. They are also good friends and roommates, and are on the field together at the same time.”

Looking forward to the rest of their senior season, the two friends have very particular goals. After the tough loss against Cornell, they want to win out from here onwards so as to compete for the Ivy League title.

“We want to win the Ivy Championship, but we also want to enjoy every game and every chance we get,” said Oplinger. “The coaches do such a good job of preparing us, so that by Thursday or Friday we are just itching to get to the game. And the games themselves have been so much fun, we look forward to the game every weekend.”

“Because the coaches do such a great job and always put us in a great position to win, if we keep playing hard, I think we have the potential to win out,” added Newton. “It’s going to be tough because there is so much parity in the Ivy League, but I think we can do it. But more importantly, we want to savor every day and every game, because we know exactly when we will be done with football for the rest of our lives; we only have seven left.”

Looking to the future after football, Newton and Oplinger are both trying to get jobs on Wall Street. In their dream scenario, one day this coming summer, they would simply load their big screen TV into a U-Haul truck and relocate it further south to a new apartment in Manhattan, continuing a friendship that began so distinctly that one loud night in New Haven years ago.