January 23, 2007

Wagging Tail in the NFL

Jan. 23, 2007

By Steve Conn, Yale Sports Publicity Director

There was a lot of tail wagging in the National Football League this year, and not just because the Bulldogs grabbed a piece of the 2006 Ivy League title.

Yale's championship season was enjoyed by both current and former players around the world, including the Elis working in the NFL. Chris Hetherington '96, Dick Jauron '73, Eric Johnson '01, Nate Lawrie '04, Mike McCaskey '65 and Bob Wallace '78 all played for the Bulldogs and are now employed by NFL teams.

Hetherington, who started some games this season at fullback for the San Francisco 49ers but was listed as the backup at season's end, caught two passes and was used more as a blocking back for the 7-9 team that barely missed the playoffs and knocked off Seattle twice.

The former Bulldog quarterback from Branford, Conn., who was at Yale Bowl for the OT victory over Penn on Oct. 21 (the 49ers' bye-week), has been with six NFL teams. Hetherington's 11 years as a pro have taken him to Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Carolina, St. Louis, Oakland and San Francisco and might get another on his resume next fall. He has played in 126 games with 22 starts while hauling in 50 catches and rushing for 91 yards with three TDs as primarily a special teams player and blocker.

"My 11th season in the NFL and second with the Niners was a little frustrating," said Hetherington, who is also an accomplished golfer. "We had a young team, and I think I was a victim of the youth movement. I didn't play as much this year, but the games I started and played in were fun and I played well. I'm looking forward to free agency and getting a fresh start with another organization."

Hetherington has always tried to see a Yale football game whenever his pro team was off for a weekend.

"It was great to see Yale win the Ivy League this year. I was really excited for the players, coaches and the entire Yale football community. I was fortunate to see the Penn game and really enjoyed the experience."

Johnson, who lined up as a wing back or wide receiver in Yale Bowl, has become a solid professional tight end with 47 starts in 57 games played as a Niner. He has caught 192 passes for 1,800 yards and seven scores in four seasons. Johnson missed the 2003 and 2005 campaigns with injuries. The player who won the 1999 Harvard game with a last-second grab snared 34 passes with two TDs while starting nine of 13 games played this past fall for the NFC team in the Bay area.

"The 2006 NFL season was a challenge for me but it turned out to be very rewarding. While I was coming back from a year on injured reserve, the 49ers drafted tight end Vernon Davis," said Johnson. "They obviously wanted to get him on the field to develop as quickly as possible. After starting every year in the NFL it wasn't easy to have someone step into that role ahead of me. But I kept a good attitude and worked extremely hard so that I could make the most of the playing time I got. That work paid off when Vernon broke his leg in our third game against the Eagles. I stepped in for him and started the next six games. I played well and we had a three-game win streak. It was great playing for the 49ers this year because we had a positive group of coaches and a great group of players. This was a great step forward from the last couple of years."

Living 3,000 miles away did not prevent the Yalie best known as "EJ" from keeping tabs on his alma mater.

"I felt a great sense of pride when I heard Yale won the title again," said Johnson. "I was able to watch most of the Harvard game, so I got to check out the team in action. They looked great. I miss playing at Ivy League stadiums. There's nothing better than a Saturday game at Yale Bowl."

Johnson was recruited by the current Yale coach but when Jack Siedlecki was still at Amherst. EJ, who could have become a Lord Jeff instead of a Bulldog, was very happy to head South from his Duxbury, Mass., home.

"My favorite thing about Yale football is the team and the coaches. There's nothing like 100 guys coming together and committing to winning without contracts or scholarships," said Johnson. "Most guys hold day jobs in the summer and get together at night to lift and run. My team consisted of a group of guys that succeeded academically at the highest level and still had the passion to put the rest of their energy into being the best football players they could be. I can tell it's that same way now. I also miss Saturday games followed by sweet tailgates and Coach Siedlecki saying `frickin.'"

Jauron, the first-year Buffalo head coach who led the Bills to a 7-9 mark that included a win at the playoff-bound New York Jets, is in his third stint as an NFL top man. The former Yale runner and NFL All-Pro was the 2001 AP Coach of the Year for Chicago (1999-2003) before serving as interim head coach at Detroit for the last five games of 2005. Jauron, who has coached 21 seasons in the NFL, began his coaching career with the Bills in 1985 where he served as the defensive backs coach. He moved on to coach defensive backs in Green Bay from 1986-94 and became the defensive coordinator of the Jacksonville Jaguars from 1995-98.

Jauron, who played for the Lions and Bengals over eight seasons while picking off 25 passes (2 TDs) and recording a 10.2 yard punt return average, keeps an eye out for Yale scores each Saturday.

There isn't much time to follow his alma mater with the hours Jauron puts in as an NFL head coach, but the new Bills leader still has plenty of Yale pride.

"Congratulations to Coach Siedlecki, his entire staff, and the 2006 Bulldogs on an outstanding season. Winning a share of the Ivy Championship and restoring the Bulldog to his rightful position at the top of the mountain is a tremendous accomplishment. Best wishes for a repeat in 2007," said Jauron.

Lawrie, one of the best tight ends to play for the Blue, was on the New Orleans roster for the 2005 and 2006 seasons before being released this past December. He had been with Tampa Bay for two falls before the Saints picked him up. Lawrie has seven career games played in the NFL with one reception as a Buccaneer.

None of the Elis playing or coaching pro ball this year made it to the postseason, but a recent Yale graduate has just joined a 2006 NFL playoff team. Jeff Mroz '05, who finished his collegiate career after the 2005 season, has signed with the Philadelphia Eagles. Mroz, in the Dallas Cowboys' camp last spring, had been referred to by Bill Parcells as the "genius" before he was released. He worked out for a number of teams after Dallas.

Mroz, who shares the school record for TD passes in a season (22), reports to Philadelphia in March to begin training.

"They [the Eagles] have a great organization and have been very successful recently. I'm excited to start the off-season program with the Eagles," said Mroz. "In just the short time I've been in the NFL, I have learned so much about the game from some of the great coaches and players in Dallas as well as some of the other teams I've worked out with, which will definitely help elevate my level of play."

The Bulldog associated with the pro football team that enjoyed the most success this season is McCaskey, chairman and part owner of the 2006 NFC Champion Chicago Bears. McCaskey, the grandson of legendary NFL coach George Halas, earned two varsity letters playing receiver for Carm Cozza and is now headed for his second Super Bowl with the Bears.

Wallace, a former Yale halfback, played behind some of the best runners in school history, but he is at the forefront of administration in the National Football League as Executive V.P. and General Council for the St. Louis Rams. His pro team did not enjoy the success of his alma mater in 2006, but Wallace got full enjoyment from his collegiate allegiance. "For the first time in NFL history the outcome of the Harvard-Yale game was of great conversation in an NFL locker room, as the Rams, proudly but to my dismay, had two Harvard players (Ryan Fitzpatrick and Isaiah Kacyvenski) on their team," said Wallace. "They both looked good in Yale attire after we beat Harvard and won the Ivies."

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