Nov. 24, 2008
NO CUTTING CORNERS
Yale Captain Bobby Abare
By Steven A. Conn
It's not unique for a football team's most dangerous weapon to be a defensive player. But if he's not a two-way player or a kick returner, you have either a struggling offense or a great individual story.
Yale, which has taken its lumps on offense this year, has a special scenario in senior linebacker and captain Bobby Abare. He's turned a good defense into one that can go a step further.
In the four seasons before Abare arrived, Yale's defense totaled 29 interceptions and one touchdown. Since he came to New Haven, the Bulldogs have picked off 65 passes and have six defensive TDs.
Yale's defenders have gained yardage when they've had their hands on the ball. Abare alone has more career yardage on fumble and interception returns than the Bulldogs accumulated as a team from 2001 through 2004.
The Abare story goes much deeper than the Yale career records he owns - touchdowns by a defensive player (four) and interceptions by a linebacker (nine). Abare, whose twin brother, Larry, is a starting safety, shows the passion, intensity, focus and anticipation of a top-level professional star. His speed - only average - and a banged-up 6-foot-2, 218-pound body will more than likely mean his playing career will end with this season. His limitations make what he's attained all the more remarkable.
"We all wish we had his passion and heart, said senior Ty Davis, Yale's starting center. "There is a ferocity about him that I've never seen in anyone else. None of us will ever be able to reach that level, but it carries over to the team. We appreciate him more than he can ever know."
Larry, his teammate through youth football and four seasons at Acton-Boxboro (Mass.) High as well as at Yale, knows Bobby's style better than anyone else. "We were in a tight state championship game our freshman year (at Acton-Boxboro) and we ran an option play," Larry said. "Bobby took the pitch and after breaking about four tackles, he ran 60 yards down the sideline for the score that made the difference.
That play typified the way Bobby plays the game. He didn't go around anyone or make many moves; he just went right through the would-be tacklers. That's his approach to almost anything he does. He doesn't cut corners (literally or figuratively), he just goes straight through."
And the way he tackles is evident at the end of a game. His forehead looks as if it has gone through a windshield or a prize fight.
"He leads with his head and has a lot of head-on collisions," said Larry, who occasionally has slammed into Bobby while trying to make a tackle. "He hits a lot of people out there."
"If the run is coming to my side, he makes the play in front of me," said senior linebacker Jay Pilkerton, who has started next to Bobby for two seasons. "He has the energy at practice like it's the day of the Harvard game," said Rick Flanders, Yale's Joel E. Smilow Associate Head Coach and defensive coordinator. "He does the drills with the same fire that he plays a game with. He has just one speed. He has had to learn that you can't last for a long college football season that way."
And yes, Bobby's all-out approach can lead to mistakes in front of a lot of people. Bobby was tapped this summer to throw out a ceremonial first pitch for the Boston-Baltimore game Sept. 2 at Fenway Park. He and Harvard captain Matt Curtis were there to help promote next week's 125th game in the Yale-Harvard football rivalry.
Brought up 20 miles from Boston, living and breathing Beantown pro sports and riding the emotional rollercoaster of Red Sox nation, Abare was on Cloud 9. Wearing his pristine white No. 44 Yale road jersey and a dark blue Red Sox cap, he strode to the mound before 37,000 fans, including his 84-year-old grandparents and a dozen other relatives and friends who had secured hard-to-find tickets. He gave a high kick and threw - clear over the catcher's head.
Abare came to Yale as something of a Massachusetts sports legend. At Acton-Boxboro he was captain in football, baseball and basketball and won 11 varsity letters. In the four years he and Larry played varsity football, Acton-Boxboro lost one game - their first, by one touchdown - then won the next 50, including four successive Eastern Massachusetts Super Bowl championships. Bobby, who rushed for 4,100 yards and made 250 tackles in his career, was chosen Dual County League MVP by the Boston Globe.
The honors have continued at Yale. Bobby has made first-team All-Ivy League and All-New England twice. He earned honorable mention in last year's Sports Network All-America selections. He's been part of an Ivy co-champion team in 2006 and a team that lost the title on the final day in 2007.
Even with a 4-6 record his freshman year and some tough setbacks this season, Yale is 26-12 in games he has played.
The Abare brothers shared Yale's special teams Player of the Year award as freshmen. Bobby got his first start in Yale's triple-overtime loss to Harvard. He led all freshmen with 14 solo stops and 31 overall while garnering team defensive awards in five of the 10 games.
He made his first big play for Yale at Princeton that year. With the Elis mounting a fourth-quarter comeback, he scooped up a Tiger fumble and raced 27 yards down the sideline, setting up the game-winning touchdown.
As a sophomore he wrapped up a Yale victory in the Bowl when he snared a Columbia pass and rambled 52 yards to score. Two weeks later at Brown, Bobby picked off three passes, including one he returned for a touchdown. He was named national defensive Player of the Week.
"Two out of the three interceptions were thrown right to me," he said. "I was very pleased to say that I played an important part in that game to help my team win. It was disappointing to lose to Brown the year before, so when we finally did beat them, it felt great."
He ended that 2006 season with a team-high 46 solo tackles and 30 assists. Last year he led the team with 86 total stops, 53 of them solo. He led Yale in tackles in eight of the 10 games with a season-high 11 solos against Harvard.
This fall he had a big day in the Bowl in the 31-28 victory over Holy Cross. He stopped a Crusader drive when he picked off a pass in his own end zone and returned it 18 yards. Later he stepped in front of another pass and returned it 32 yards for his third career touchdown.
"That was one of the greatest defensive performances I've ever seen," said junior defensive end Travis Henry. "He was all over the field. The sky is the limit for him. We always look to Bobby for a big play."
A week later at Hanover, Abare snuffed out Dartmouth's opening drive with another interception in the end zone. And in Yale's narrow 12-10 loss at Fordham, Abare scored Yale's only touchdown when he scooped up a Ram fumble and returned it 86 yards.
"He's not the best linebacker in terms of technique, but his football instincts are far beyond any player I have coached. That's what makes him the best linebacker in the league," said Jack Siedlecki, Yale's Joel E. Smilow Head Coach of Football. Yale's defense has bonded around Abare and has the numbers to prove its value. For most of the players, the bond has been built through repetition. Between Bobby and Larry, of course, it started at birth.
"We share a special bond," Larry said. "We both appreciate that and have so many good memories together. It's a tradition that began in our back yard." The brothers are no longer in the same class at Yale, through no fault of their own. An injury in the second game of 2007 ended Larry's season, so he'll be able to complete his eligibility in 2009. He had surgery the day of the Dartmouth game last fall and couldn't be on the sideline cheering his teammates on. Every time Bobby made a tackle that day he stood up, raised his hand and formed an "L" with his fingers in a salute to his brother.
"I certainly feel we have a great sense of chemistry," Bobby said. "Playing so many years together, we can almost know what the other is thinking. I think we share a lot of the same values on the football field, and just knowing that there is someone out there who's giving everything they've got makes you work that much harder."
That chemistry wasn't always evident. There was, for instance, the day years ago when they were playing on the same youth basketball team. "One of us was not playing well and the other told him about it. We got into a fight with someone throwing a punch. My dad (an assistant coach) had to break it up," Larry said.
Bobby is outspoken in his appreciation of the role their dad, Lou Abare, has played in their development. Lou, a former Acton-Boxboro and University of Connecticut player, started the youth football program in Acton, then became coach of Acton-Boxboro's freshman team.
"If I had just one sports hero growing up, it would probably be my dad," said Bobby. "I get my intensity and focus from him.
"Watching pickup basketball games and seeing how much he loved competing had a direct effect on the way I conduct myself on the playing field. He also coached me through high school and really tried to instill how much sports could teach me, on and off the field. I'd like to think his impact on me has made me a better competitor, teammate, friend and even a better person."
"As a coach, I think my dad is the best one out there. I am biased, but in talking to friends and teammates, I think my dad always understood how to motivate his players the right way. His pep talks still rank by far among the best I've heard. In fact, with no disrespect to Coach Siedlecki, I think we could use him for a pre-game speech or two. It's evident in his coaching style that he genuinely cares about the players and the game itself. And as a player I think you really have to respect a coach who loves the game as much as he does. It makes you want to compete at a higher level and play for someone other than yourself and your teammates." With that feeling, it's little wonder Bobby talks of going into coaching after he graduates from Yale.
Lou sees some unusual qualities in Bobby as a player. "Coaching Bobby was not very difficult," Lou said. "He had an uncanny ability to see the field better than any other football player I have ever coached. Unlike a lot of players, he would accelerate through a tackle. ... Most kids will get to the ball carrier, stop and make the tackle. Bobby would actually gain speed when making the tackle, which is very unusual in a young player."
Some qualities, too, might serve Bobby well in coaching. "Bobby was certainly one of the most motivational leaders, both on and off the field," Lou said. "He's the type of player who makes other players around him better."
If you were a college coach with an opening on your staff, what more would you want to hear?
Steve Conn is an Associate AD and Yale's Director of Sports Publicity