December 9, 2004

Staring At Greatness

Dec. 9, 2004

by Steven A. Conn

When a football player steps out of line or makes a mistake, some team leaders choose to get in the offending player's face and fill their ears with motivational unpleasantries intended to help them retain the proper focus.

This is clearly not the style of Yale captain Rory Hennessey, whose cold and intimidating stare is much more productive than any boisterous oration. That stare is so clear when it's directed at someone, it automatically elicits guilty feelings.

"If you get that stare, you know you've got to step it up, no matter what you are doing," said senior starting linebacker Cole Harris. "He does not need to get in your face, that stare takes care of it all. I see it all the time. You want to step it up or you are going to have Rory looking at you."

Hennessey, an All-America tackle who was first-team All-Ivy in 2003, is more than just an imposing force among teammates. He runs a 4.9-second 40-yard dash, has not allowed a sack at Yale and has earned the team offensive line honors 10 times over the last two seasons.

"When we played at Lehigh a few years ago, Rory was about to go on the field when he said to a few of us, `watch this, I'm going to drive this guy to the sideline.' And on the first play, he drove that lineman all the way to our sideline and tossed him out of bounds at our feet," said senior defensive end and two-year starter Don Smith. "It told me I didn't want to line up against him in practice."

Just because he is an excellent leader and the most likely Eli to advance to Sunday games does not mean Hennessey is perfect. There is a rare occasion when something is slightly off.

"Rory does not take criticism from the coaches too well," said Harris. "Rory knows he is an awesome player. He will give that stare that means he's got it [the mistake] taken care of."

Hennessey was meant to assume the lead of the Bulldogs, and not just because he is 6-foot-5, 300 pounds and a National Football League prospect.

"Rory would come to the first lift of the day and workout, and then come to the next two lifts just to check attendance. He did this the entire year before he was named captain," said former Yale strength and conditioning coach Jason Novak, who is now with the Tennessee Titans. "He is one of those guys you look forward to coaching because he works so hard every day and brings that out in his teammates. He has that special something that people will follow."

It is only appropriate that the captain comes from a town in Ohio called Strongsville. The Yale left tackle also happens to hail from the same high school (St. Ignatius) as Kevin Czinger, the legendary Yale nose guard and 1980 Ivy League MVP who was also known to have a stare that could pierce a teammate like a sword.

"Kevin didn't need to yell, he just looked at a player and that said everything," said former Eli head coach Carm Cozza. "Rory has that too." The similarities don't end there; both guys had long hair at Yale (Hennessey says he would rather wait for his aunt to cut it than pay the going price in New Haven), physically dominated the players who lined up across from them and have numerous stories told about them and their fanaticism, tales that will live on for years to come. The most noticeable difference was that Czinger stood just 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds.

"I don't think I tried to use it [stare] as a tactic in football. If the eyes are a window into the soul, it probably was my fanatical desire to win - which Rory must also have -- that shone through. That level of desire and intensity can intimidate," said Czinger, a lawyer and business executive whose post-football career has been equally distinguished. Hennessey learned about desire from one of Czinger's St. Ignatius teammates, his father (also named Rory), who as a single parent implanted the needed values and work ethic to prosper in school and in athletics. His father, also a football coach, raised six children and is now the admissions director at that high school.

"My dad worked two jobs to support us (he and two sisters at the time) and give us a good life after my mom passed away. He taught us about hard work and values and instilled that in us," said the Yale captain who believes that his new bulldog puppy, Rambo, has helped teach both he and roommate Jeff Mroz `05 more about responsibility. Hennessey, the oldest of six children, has infused some of those qualities in his teammates.

"If he thinks you can do more in the weight room, he will walk over to you and watch you," said senior kicker Andrew Sullivan, who not so coincidentally added 20 pounds to his frame last summer. "You get this uncomfortable feeling in your stomach and you want to throw on a few more plates."

Production, focus and leaving a lasting impression is what this left tackle is all about.

"He is as good as everything that has been written about him. He moves so well for a big guy," said Lehigh head coach Pete Lembo. "Since he showed up in New Haven he has been the best player on this team. He will never be outworked by anyone," said Yale receiver Ralph Plumb.

Hennessey, who has continued the tradition of Yale offensive linemen handling the team complimentary tickets and working in the ticket office before home games, is clearly admired by his teammates, but for those who do not know him well, he might be mis-perceived as a selfish and arrogant Bulldog.

"He does his thing and does not let anyone influence him. He is very focused on what he wants. He doesn't care about perceptions of him. People around him know he is a great guy," said Plumb.

The only time he is concerned about perceptions is when he thinks he may be setting an example for his teammates, which happens to be all the time. This past summer, he was concerned about taking a day off from workouts (and caring for his dog) to take part in the time honored tradition of the Yale-Harvard captains' photo session and lunch. It was Yale's turn to head up to Cambridge, but Hennessey was hoping to avoid it because he did not want his teammates thinking he missed working with them to take photos and have lunch with the arch rivals. But the Eli leader got more out of the trip than a break from the routine and a free lunch.

"I was expecting to go up there and not like him [Crimson captain Ryan Fitzpatrick], but I was wrong. He is a great kid and I respect him as a football player and a person," said Hennessey, a political science major who lives off campus.

Many people have commented that the Yale football team needs only to have more Rory Hennesseys on the roster to reach the next level of success. There are so many examples.

"It was hotter than hell one day during double sessions and everyone was tired and went to bed after films. Rory said he had a bad practice and needed to work on some things. A bad practice for him meant missing one block," said Mroz. "So he asked me to go out to the fields with him to hold the dummy for him. We were out there for two hours with the car lights shining on the field until 1 a.m. and with morning practice just seven hours away. This is just one example of Rory's desire to be the best."

"Very seldom in your career will you be able to coach someone who has tremendous talent, an elite work ethic both on the practice field and in off-season preparation, a unique understanding of the game, and a desire to constantly learn more and improve. Rory is a guy who can make the game look easy," said Yale Associate Head Coach Keith Clark, who handles the offensive linemen. "He has helped me evolve as a coach because he will do something on the field through an innate reaction that will make me wonder why he decided to do that. Then I am thinking his way might be a better one. I will make a collection of his highlights and be able to say to future players that this is how the game was meant to be played."

Easily the largest Yale gridiron captain ever, his leadership example looms even grander. Whether he is working out, running over the opposition, reaching out to a local elementary school, walking his dog or playing with his 10-year-old pal from Woodbridge, Stephen Falcigno (who has seen that look when his father told the Bulldog player his son was not doing his homework), Hennessey exudes the model captain. And that does not require much talking at all.

"At halftime of last year's Penn game, he had a mind-blowing speech that caught everyone's attention. He picks his time to rant and rave... and it means more that way," said Plumb.

"Sometimes I don't have to give one [speech]. If I feel something needs to be said, I will say it. I get a feel for the team that day," said Hennessey, who feels his primary responsibility as captain is to make sure his teammates have the right attitude and focus during the week. With five younger siblings that he is very close to, the captain's role might translate well in his family life. His three brothers are all stars in their own sports, and he knows that they - as well as his sisters - can look to him for advice.

"I want them [siblings] to know about work ethic and that they can't just turn it on certain days. It has to be there every day," said Hennessey, referring to both football and the overall college experience. "College is a whole new level."

The Yale captain, who has started 31 straight games on the offensive line dating to the seventh week of his freshman season, has had to become a teacher as well as a leader this fall. New starters like tackles Brice Wilkinson and Jay Leybourn and guard Brett Crandall, who came over from the defense, increased his duties at the start of the year. He also had to contend with standout sophomore Ed McCarthy moving from guard to center because of an injury to another player. The coaches knew their captain would help the new players fit into the system almost as well as they could, and knowing Hennessey's style, he certainly could "enhance" the learning process.

The process worked well enough for tailback Robert Carr to break the Yale career rushing record while averaging well over 100 yards a game this fall. In addition, quarterback Alvin Cowan, last year's captain, broke the career TD passing mark and has a few others in sight as the end of the season nears.

Just by looking at his photo from freshman year you can see that the biggest Bulldog has come a long way in four years. He may have had similar talents, work ethic and potential, but he had short hair, fewer tattoos (he now has four, including a 9/11 and an American flag) and was about 50 pounds lighter.

Don't even ask Hennessey about a season that is not likely to end with a championship or the tough losses that Yale has seen in 2004. It's not just on the field either.

"Rory is passionate about everything he does, whether it's football, family or friends. At Yale, where remarkable people are everywhere, his passion is the stuff of legend," said former teammate and Eli offensive lineman Will Conroy '04. "Luckily, I've only gotten the stare once, and that was when I beat him in Tiger Woods Golf the summer before the 2003 season. In some ways, I was proud that I was getting the stare. Let's face it, Rory doesn't lose in anything that often."

As Czinger said, that level of desire to win makes it more than difficult to handle a defeat.

Every Bulldog should have that issue.

Steve Conn is an Assistant AD at Yale and the Director of Sports Publicity

View: Mobile | Desktop