November 22, 2005

Just Give Him the Ball: Yale Captain Jeff Mroz

Nov. 19, 2005

By Ron Vaccaro `04

Jeff Mroz needed the ball.

Yale and Princeton were tied 14-14 with 49 seconds left in last week's game. Mroz and the Bulldog offense had struggled for much of the first 58 minutes of the contest. The Eli captain had taken several hard hits, but the 6'5, 230 pound quarterback stood tall in leading his team in the game's key moments. Just 25 seconds earlier on fourth and goal from the 10 with Yale trailing by seven, Mroz connected with senior wide receiver Todd Feiereisen in the corner of the end zone to tie the score. Then, the Yale defense's seventh takeaway of the day gave the Bulldog offense a first and goal from the one-yard line with 1:04 left on the Princeton Stadium clock.

Bulldog tailback Mike McLeod carried the ball on first down but was stopped for no gain. Second and goal from the one with 56 seconds left. Mroz - who has had the freedom to choose the majority of Yale's plays from the field this season - called his own number and got within inches of the goalline but the officials signaled him to be short. Forty-nine ticks remained on the clock. Mroz's rocket right arm would do him little good now, but it was no matter that he had not rushed for a touchdown in his career. He sent two wide receivers to the right and had McLeod in the backfield, but there was no question as to who was getting the call. The Greensburg, Pa. native had carried the Elis this far through a trying season, and this was the biggest play to date. Third and goal to go from the one. Mroz willed his way in for the game-winning touchdown, then jogged to the sideline pumping his fist in jubilation.

"There was no way I was going to be stopped," Mroz said. "I thought I got in on the first attempt, and there was not a chance of me calling anything different. I wanted the ball in my hands."

Those 27 seconds highlighted what Jeff Mroz is all about. He did not have anywhere near his best day statistically. Despite being heavily pressured for most of the afternoon, Mroz never got rattled. With the game on the line, the Eli signal-caller came through. Big time. It wasn't easy, but then, that word is not in Jeff Mroz's vocabulary.

Good thing, too, because the Eli captain's path to the starting quarterback role has been anything but easy. After an outstanding career at Greensburg Central Catholic high school, Mroz - whose longstanding goal has been to play in the NFL - had offers to Division I-A schools but chose Yale for several reasons.

"I figured football-wise, if I was good enough, the pros would find me," Mroz said. "And, if I wasn't good enough, then, I would still graduate with a Yale degree, and that's not too bad either."

He had planned on being the starting quarterback for at least two or three full seasons, but instead found himself backing up Alvin Cowan as a sophomore in 2002. When Cowan went down with a season-ending injury during the second game at Cornell, Mroz came in and led Yale to five wins and four losses. That included a thrilling 31-27 victory at Brown in which he threw four touchdown passes and a gutty 7-3 defeat of Princeton at the Bowl one week later. He had developed into one of the more effective quarterbacks in the league by season's end.

But it was not enough to earn him the starting role for 2003. Cowan, who did not possess Mroz's arm strength but could attack opposing defenses by passing efficiently and running the option offense, was named the starter. Mroz threw one pass in 2003 - a touchdown to Chandler Henley - and was not happy with his situation. Cowan had to take spring semester in 2003 off from school because he had received a medical hardship waiver, so Mroz led the Bulldogs in spring practice. He was brimming with confidence and was optimistic that he could win the starting role for the 2004 season.

"I went in to Coach Siedlecki and asked him if I was going to play in 2004 and he was honest with me and told me, `no'," Mroz said. "So I decided to take the year off. I did not want to be on the bench for my last year of football."

He worked out after the team's official practices last year. Once the 2004 season was over, he immediately began his efforts to steer the 2005 Bulldogs to success. Just a few days after students returned from Thanksgiving break last fall, Mroz sent an e-mail to the team asking for players to join him on the fields for 7-on-7 drills.

"Twenty five people showed up for the first workout, which was very exciting, because everyone was so passionate about it," Mroz said. "The past seasons had ended in disappointing fashion, but these guys were committed to turning it around."

Mroz continued to lead workouts through the winter, and then, not surprisingly, he was voted captain by his peers last spring.

Upon being named captain, Mroz turned to the legendary former Yale head coach Carm Cozza - whom he had become very friendly with - for advice.

"Coach Cozza told me just to be myself," Mroz said. "He said that I was elected because of who I am and if I changed anything, then I really wouldn't be the person they elected."

Happily for all concerned, the person they elected happens to be one of the finest men to don the Yale uniform.

"Whenever someone takes a year off and the team still believes in him enough to elect him captain, that says a lot about the individual," Cozza said. "Jeff is a very special guy, and the respect he has for his teammates - all of them, whether they play or not - is incredible. I told him the same thing I used to tell all of my captains: be yourself, or you will lose credibility."

Mroz has had no problem staying true to himself - and the unparalleled work ethic and competitive drive that define him.

It would be nearly impossible for anyone to have worked harder at improving himself and all of those around him any more than Mroz has. Blessed with good size and athletic ability, Mroz challenges himself and his teammates every day to get better, faster, stronger.

"We usually run the stairs at Payne Whitney Gym on Monday, our off day," said Josh Rodarmel, one of Mroz's best friends on the team. "One day, we were walking down the stairs after the workout and Jeff looked at me and said `If you're not working now, somebody somewhere else is, and when you meet them, they will beat you.' That's Jeff, right there."

His hard work is not limited to the physical aspects of the game. He has taken the most active of roles in the Yale offensive game planning this year, and is constantly watching film.

"Jeff's dedication to watching tape and learning more about the game is unmatched by any player I have ever coached," said head coach Jack Siedlecki. "I think all quarterbacks have to be very interested in the game plan, but I have never coached one that has spent as much time on his own learning the nuances of offensive football as Jeff has."

Things were looking up for Mroz and the Bulldogs as summer practices began this August. Mroz was finally the starting quarterback and, as the captain, there was no doubt this was his team. Everyone was eagerly anticipating the Mroz-to-Chandler Henley connection, as the two had been working out constantly during the spring and summer, even playing catch for a few hours on Easter Sunday. But the football gods, proving to be about as stubborn as Mroz himself, refused to make things easy. Henley suffered a season-ending injury in summer practice and Mroz was left with a highly inexperienced - though talented - receiver corps.

To their own credit and thanks to Mroz's efforts to maximize their potential, Yale's receivers have outperformed even the loftiest expectations this season. Ashley Wright and Todd Feiereisen are the Ivy League's top two receivers, though neither had caught a touchdown pass entering 2005. Feiereisen had been a quarterback until, last season, realizing Mroz would be the starter, he asked to change to wide receiver. Now, entering the Harvard game, Mroz has launched a combined 17 touchdown strikes to Wright and Feiereisen.

As the season began, Mroz worked to make the most of the situation, organizing weekly informal meetings with all of the receivers at his apartment. There, he makes sure he is on the same page as each wide-out, goes over game film and makes any necessary adjustments.

"We make s'mores on the oven because we don't have a grill, but we try to keep things loose and enjoy the time," Mroz said. "It is a way for me to speak candidly with the receivers, and tell them what I will be looking for in the game, as well as get their thoughts on what they anticipate being able to have success with. It has worked out well for all of us."

The weekly meeting with the receivers is one of many examples of Mroz going above and beyond the call of duty for the betterment of the entire team. In football or anything he sets out to do, there is no quenching his desire to be the best.

One night this past July, he was watching the ESPY Awards when he learned of the remarkable story of former Yale football player Jim MacLaren '85, who was awarded the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. MacLaren earned three varsity letters in football and two in lacrosse for the Bulldogs. He was hit by a New York City bus at age 22 and lost a leg. After the accident he battled back to become a top marathoner and Ironman triathlete, racing against and beating able-bodied competition and earning the rank of the fastest amputee athlete in the world. Eight years after the first accident he was struck again, this time by a van during a triathlon, and became an incomplete quadriplegic. He is now a motivational speaker who uses his courageous attitude to inspire others to greatness.

Mroz, who had not known of MacLaren before seeing the ESPYs, was moved to do something. He e-mailed MacLaren the next day and invited him to speak to the Yale football team. MacLaren responded almost immediately and accepted. He spoke to the Yale squad Friday night before the San Diego game in a truly inspirational moment for everyone lucky enough to be in the room. Mroz was highly eloquent in his extemporaneous introduction of MacLaren that night and continues to be inspired by the incredible story.

"I have always been drawn to stories of people fighting through a physical ailment," Mroz said. "Here I am a healthy person, and if somebody like Jim MacLaren can overcome great challenges just to function on a daily basis, then how can I ever justify not doing my personal best?"

As a quarterback from the Pittsburgh area, he needn't look far for inspiration from those who are physically gifted, either. The "cradle of quarterbacks" for the NFL, western Pennsylvania has produced some of the game's all time greats - and Mroz can rattle them off as if he was reciting the alphabet. George Blanda, Joe Namath, Joe Montana, Jim Kelly, just to name a few. Mroz was often compared to Dan Marino in high school for being a pure pocket passer with a strong arm. But his personal favorite native son is Johnny Unitas.

"I have a Johnny Unitas SportsCentury DVD that I watch about once every two weeks," Mroz said. "I have it memorized by now. One of the best quotes I've ever heard is that `having Johnny Unitas in the huddle is like having God call your plays.'"

Jeff is the middle of Ken and Linda Mroz's three sons, all of whom have played quarterback in the Ivy League. Older brother Dave graduated Princeton in 2003 while Greg is currently a sophomore there. Combine Jeff Mroz's work ethic with natural brotherly rivalry and you get some fascinating tales of just how driven to succeed the Eli captain is.

This past summer, Jeff worked out with his teammates in New Haven early one evening, then drove through the night to his home in Greensburg for "vacation." But this was not your usual time "off."

"Jeff got home around 3 am, came into my room, woke me up and made me spot him while he lifted for an hour," Greg Mroz said. "Then, after lifting, he had me out there in the driveway throwing footballs at four in the morning. He will not be out-worked by anyone."

The above account is by no means an isolated incident, as Dave Mroz, now enrolled in Syracuse Law School, can attest.

"There have been several times when I would be home over Christmas break and I would be out with friends and get home around one in the morning, walk into the house and there's Jeff in the basement lifting weights," Dave said.

Mroz is not all work and no play, however. He has as much fun as anybody on the team, be it at practice or in a game. Convinced that a winning football team is one that enjoys every moment on the field, Mroz has succeeded at keeping the mood light this year.

After Yale built a large lead at Columbia, Mroz decided to play a joke on senior receiver Will Blodgett, one of this squad's true characters.

"Jeff was talking on the headset to Coach Lamb, who was in the press box," Feiereisen said. "After he was done talking, he looked over to me and said, `watch this.' He told Will that Coach wanted to talk to him about a certain play we might want to run. The receivers never talk to the coaches on the headset, so Will was a little reluctant, but finally Jeff convinced him to talk to Coach."

Blodgett began talking to Coach Lamb about why the play idea Mroz had described in jest would not work.

"I had no idea what was going on and neither did Coach Lamb," Blodgett said. "So here we are not really sure what the heck is going on because I have never spoken to him in my entire life on the headset, and I look over and there is Jeff and all the other receivers just dying laughing. I knew then, Jeff just got me. He seems to get me a lot. He is a great leader who knows when it is time to have fun and when it is time to be serious. Against Princeton last week, when I went in with two minutes left and we were down by a score he didn't tell me Coach Lamb wanted to speak to me on the headset but rather said, `Will, it's your time.' With those words he got me right where I needed to be mentally. Obviously he was already there based on his performance."

Similar stories about the Eli captain abound. In the second game of this season against Cornell, Mroz had just recorded his fourth touchdown pass of the afternoon, when coming off the field, Henley issued a challenge.

"I told Jeff that he needed one more touchdown pass to tie the school record for touchdowns in a game," Henley said.

"Alright, I'll do it," Mroz boasted at the time.

"No you won't," Henley retorted. "We have a big lead in the game, you're just going to run the clock out."

But sure enough, moments later, with Yale on the Cornell 31-yard line, in the huddle, Mroz told receiver Ashley Wright to run a slightly different route than what had been called for. The play resulted in his fifth touchdown pass of the afternoon, tying Pete Doherty's mark that had stood untouched since 1966.

"He came back to the sideline with a wide grin on his face," Henley said. "But that is Jeff. He said he would do something and he went out and did it."

Despite the many on field successes, Mroz's favorite memories of Yale will be the people he has encountered, including the late voice of Yale football, Dick Galiette.

"There are so many amazing individuals associated with the football program," Mroz said. "My teammates are incredible. I have been blessed to get to know Coach Cozza so well, and I really enjoyed spending a lot of time with Dick Galiette at practices, especially last year when I wasn't with the team and could watch and talk with him. His love for the game was infectious and he was a great influence on me."

Mroz also considers himself highly fortunate to have been able to live with Rory Hennessey - last year's captain - during the past few years. But for Hennessey, as with anyone else lucky enough to get to know Jeff Mroz, that feeling of affection is mutual.

"The guy doesn't shy away from anything - he is extremely confident in himself," said Hennessey, himself a top-notch competitor with NFL aspirations. "Jeff and Carm Cozza are probably the two finest people I've met at Yale. He will always do what is required to try and win, at anything. He has the gifts to do it and the faith in himself to do it."

Mroz hopes that his faith will be rewarded with a shot at his lifelong dream - to play in the NFL. This past summer, Rodarmel introduced Mroz to one of the top quarterback coaches in the nation, Bob Johnson, who runs the Elite 11 Quarterback camp. Rodarmel, who worked out often with Mroz last season, had played quarterback for Johnson to much success in high school, so he suggested Jeff attend one of Johnson's clinics, where Rodarmel is one of the instructors. Mroz spent a week at Camp Quarterback in southern California, where Johnson's son Rob, a 10-year veteran of the NFL, was one of the mentors.

"One day, when Jeff was nowhere in sight, Rob Johnson came up to me and said, `You know, Jeff has a shot at the NFL,'" Rodarmel said.

A shot is all that this Eli captain has ever needed. A message to the NFL teams, some of whom have already expressed some interest in Mroz:

Just give him the ball. Jeff Mroz will find a way to get the job done.

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