Nov. 25, 2003
By Ron Vaccaro '04
On a first down play during the final drive of Yale's thrilling fourth quarter comeback at Penn, Bulldog quarterback Alvin Cowan '04, with no passing options open, tucked the ball and dove headfirst into several defenders. After weathering a vicious hit to pick up an extra yard, the Eli captain returned to the huddle and Yale center Will Conroy '04 admonished Cowan to throw the ball out of bounds or do anything else less likely to cause an injury. Cowan - who brings a linebacker's mentality to the quarterback position - was quick to give Conroy a reminder that neither he nor anybody who had witnessed Cowan on a single down needed. "That's not the way I play," Cowan barked, and re-directed the attention to the task at hand. Several plays later, the 6-2, 210 pound signal-caller threw the game-tying touchdown to erase what was once a 28-point 4th-quarter deficit.
Cowan's grit and determination, combined with his accurate arm and tremendous athleticism often make the game look too easy. Ironically, the Austin, Texas native's football career has been anything but - he has had to fight for each of his many gridiron accomplishments.
Had everything gone according to plan, today would have marked Cowan's final game in an Eli uniform. But the Bulldog quarterback suffered a season ending injury in the second game of the 2002 campaign at Cornell after combining for six touchdowns in his first collegiate start against San Diego the week before. Because he only played in one game, Cowan has one year of eligibility left, and intends on returning to the Bulldog line-up next fall. Even though he has just completed his 10th game at the helm of the Yale offense, Cowan has obliterated many of the school offensive records, something even he could not have envisioned 14 months ago.
Relegated to the coaches' booth in the press box with a broken leg, Cowan was at first devastated by his injury. He had put in two years worth of hard work and tough practices in anticipation of his chance to lead the offense, and it was gone before he could complete the first series of his first league game. Yet if it were not for Cowan's maturity in dealing with adversity, he may not have been able to enjoy the amount of success he has this season. Through nine games this fall, Cowan already owns Yale's all-time best season marks for pass yards (2,556), total offense yards (2,979), touchdowns (20) and completions (193), and is the only Eli quarterback to throw for 300 or more yards four times in a season.
"Spending last season off the field was probably one of the most disappointing and at the same time rewarding experiences I have had," Cowan said. "Mentally, though, the experience of watching the game from the coaches' box was very valuable to me. I was able to see things as a coach would, and it gave me a sharper focus on what I needed to do."
Specifically, Cowan pointed to his decision-making ability as one of the areas which saw the most improvement as a result of being on the sidelines. What was once one of his lowest-rated areas by the Yale coaching staff has become a true strength of Cowan's game.
"He has developed into one of the best quarterbacks in Division I-AA football," said Yale head coach Jack Siedlecki. His decision making has improved faster than we really could have hoped for."
By the time spring practice rolled around, with Cowan's mental and physical wounds healed, he emerged stronger than ever in both respects. His off-season efforts and positive attitude were not unnoticed by his teammates, and he became the first quarterback elected captain since Kelly Ryan in 1987.
"Being named captain is a very big honor for anyone," Cowan said. "But it was extra special to me because of what I had gone through last fall. To not play for all but one game and be named captain showed me that my teammates really believed in me even more than I did in myself at the time. It was and is a huge honor in a class of guys where any one of a number of people could easily be the captain."
For Cowan's peers, though, his election as Yale's 126th captain was a no-brainer. "Alvin's ability to play hard all the time is unparalleled," Conroy said. "As a leader by example he is second to no one. What other quarterback will dive head first to get three yards? It is great to see for the offensive linemen, because we are out there in the trenches doing all the dirty work, and here is a quarterback who is willing to do the same thing. Alvin is certainly not a pretty boy - he'll run people over in a heartbeat."
Wideout Ralph Plumb '05 was a quarterback in high school and has a deeper appreciation for how rare a breed Cowan is at the quarterback spot.
"He plays every down as if it were his last," Plumb said. "I know how difficult it can be to stand in the face of a blitzing linebacker and throw with accuracy, but Alvin seems to do it time and time again. Where many quarterbacks would pull the ball down and avoid the hit, Alvin stands tall and gets the job done."
Cowan's toughness can be traced back to his childhood. While still too young to play organized football, he would often compete in backyard games with friends such as Hunter McWilliams, son of Texas coach David McWilliams. Always the youngest one competing, Cowan accumulated more than his share of bumps and bruises, but, although he recalls many a day when he went home discouraged, he would always be ready the next day. Even as a youngster, the word "quit" was not in Cowan's vocabulary.
His resolve was tested again at Westlake High School when, after patiently for his chance to play in a system that was a factory for big-time Division I talent, he was nagged by a separated shoulder. Knowing that he needed to play through the pain if he wanted to be recruited by colleges, Cowan sucked it up and led his squad to a 12-1 record.
Cowan was pursued by some Division I-A schools, but he wanted more than just an average football program, and became interested in the rich football tradition of the Ivy League. Dartmouth, Columbia and Harvard all showed interest in addition to Yale, but Cowan visited the Elm City first, and his experience in New Haven led him to cancel all of his other planned trips, a fortuitous decision for both Cowan and his teammates.
Cowan, a political science major, was recently named to the Academic All-District squad and is interested in pursuing politics after graduation, and can envision himself enjoying a career as a politician. And with the resiliency and tenacity he has displayed throughout his life to this point, who knows - there could be another Texan in the White House twenty or thirty years down the road.
For now, though, Cowan's focus is on winning an H-Y-P championship to celebrate one last victory with his friends in the class of 2004, a mission half accomplished thanks to the thrilling comeback he led last weekend at Princeton, driving Yale 92 yards in 1:08 to force overtime. The Bulldogs won, 27-24 in double overtime, to push Cowan's record as a starter to 8-3.
Cowan's mother, Penny, has taken photographs for the Sports Publicity Office at each of Yale's games this season. She has been on the sidelines for a close-up view of each hard hit Cowan has willingly taken, all in hopes of gaining that extra yard for his teammates. But were it not for Cowan's fierce competitive spirit, there may not have been nearly as many memorable moments to photograph.
With all of the toil that Cowan and his teammates have put into this season, all culminating in today's game versus Harvard, here's hoping that Penny Cowan brings an extra roll of film to The Game. With her son, one of the toughest, most athletic quarterbacks in college football today, at the helm of the Bulldogs, the possibilities for magical moments are endless.