November 13, 2009

Making A Statement

by Tommy Hine

John Sheffield had seen enough. He had stood there in frustration as the final seconds wound down last season when Harvard shut out the Yale offense for its seventh win in their last eight games. He had been there when Yale’s offense struggled this fall in consecutive losses to Cornell and Lafayette.

Before Yale took the field against Dartmouth in the fourth game this season, Sheffield took the floor.

“I was frustrated. I think the whole team was a little frustrated,” Sheffield said. “We were kind of disappointing on offense. For the past year and a half, we haven’t felt like we were playing up to our expectations.

“When I talked to the guys, I asked for personal accountability from everyone. If we don’t like what’s going on, it’s our responsibility to change it. I asked everyone what they individually were going to do to help the team.”

The seeds for Sheffield’s disappointment were sown last season in Yale’s low-scoring losses to Fordham and Penn before the 10-0 shutout loss to Harvard.

“At the end of last year, we were frustrated that with the great defenses we’ve had, as an offense, we kind of let the defense down,” Sheffield said. “For me, it stems back the past couple years. This year, we didn’t play that well offensively against Lafayette or Cornell before that.

“That’s when I thought about talking to the guys, although I didn’t know exactly what I was going to say. I hadn’t formulated that yet.”

First, Sheffield talked to Tom Williams, Yale’s Joel E. Smilow ’54 Head Coach of Football, following the Lafayette loss.

“We talked about the things we could change to make to make ourselves a better football team,” Sheffield said. “Coach Williams encouraged me to talk. On offense, I have some of the most experience. Coach Williams said that because of that, it was kind of my responsibility to step up and be more vocal.”

It apparently helped in the Dartmouth game. Following Sheffield’s pre-game talk to his teammates, Yale scored its most points in more than a year in its 38-7 win. Quarterback Brook Hart threw for 390 passing yards, the sixth-highest in Yale history, and Sheffield had a game-high eight receptions.

With seven catches in the win at Lehigh, four more in the loss in the rain at Penn and seven in last week’s win at Columbia, Sheffield has a team-high 43 receptions for 421 yards. He had 108 career catches, and 10 more receptions in Yale’s final three games would vault him past Dean Athanasia ’88 (112), Chandler Henley ‘06 (115) and Nate Lawrie ’04 (116) on Yale’s all-time list. Only Ralph Plumb ‘05 (195) and Eric Johnson ‘01 (181) would have finished with more catches in their careers at Yale.

“I had no idea. I really didn’t know at all,” Sheffield said. “Playing with Mike McLeod the past couple years, he was the prestigious one who got all the records. I’m just trying to help the team out however I can.

“I didn’t have a clue I was among the top 10 receivers. I didn’t even know.”

But Sheffield does know how the loss at Penn hurt Yale’s Ivy League chances.

“That was a very tough loss. It’s disappointing, because it really hurts our chances for an Ivy League title, which was our goal from the beginning,” Sheffield said. “There’s a lot of disappointment on the team, but if guys take it the right way, we’re not going to stop competing, not going to stop going out there and giving it our best.

“Now, we’ll try to have fun out there and play the best we can and try to take care of what you can control. If we take this the right way and run the table and finish 7-3, I’ll feel good about what we did this season.”

Sheffield hopes his football career doesn’t end with the Harvard game this fall. He would like to catch passes at the next level if given a chance.

“It would be an awesome experience, and I would love to do that,” he said. “It’s kind of been a childhood dream of mine, even though I never thought of myself as being good enough to do that. If I have a legitimate shot, I’ll definitely try to pursue it.”

Williams, who was an assistant with the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars prior to coming to Yale, thinks the 6-foot-2, 235-pound Sheffield will get that opportunity. “I think John Sheffield is as good as I have been around in a long time,” Williams told the New Haven Register after the Dartmouth victory. “He is very versatile. He catches. He blocks. He plays special teams. There is nothing that he can’t do well. As long as he stays healthy, I think he will have a chance to play professionally.”

As good a receiver as Sheffield is, he is probably the last person to imagine he is catching footballs at Yale.

“When I was a senior in high school, I didn’t think I was going to be able to play college football. I didn’t think I was good enough to do that,” Sheffield said. “I had planned on playing lacrosse in college.”

Still, Sheffield played both football and lacrosse at Lincoln High in Portland, Oregon, and he was a team captain in both sports. He was first-team all-state and team MVP in football and an All-American and two-time first-team all-state in lacrosse.

“My senior year, I was on a football team that threw the ball a lot, and I had a pretty good season, in fact, I had a really good season,” Sheffield said. “Midway through the season, I thought, ‘Maybe I should look into playing college football.’

“I went to see my guidance counselor with my Mom (Sheri), and she was aghast. She had been doing all this work on where I could play lacrosse. Mind you, this was mid-October of my senior year. The rest is history. The football thing worked out for me.”

Sheffield sent out football tapes to close to 30 schools. He was recruited by some, and Yale offered him a spot, much to the delight of his father (Roy), who was thrilled his son would attend the school where former Yale and Dallas Cowboys star Calvin Hill once played.

Oregon State was also in the running for Sheffield’s pass-catching talents, and it recruited him hard for football up until a fateful visit to his home by the recruiting coach.

“My Mom thought I was going to go to Oregon State, and she really wanted me to come to Yale because of all the opportunities,” Sheffield said. “She thought I was kind of blinded by the possibility of playing in the Pac-10.

“The Oregon State offensive coordinator who had recruited me was in my living room, and my dog came in and had an accident right in front of him. My Mom thought it was hilarious. Actually, the recruiting coach thought so, too. I was probably never more proud of my dog.”