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Catching up: Culbreath fights a tough fight

You didn’t hear much about Jordan Culbreath during his varsity career at Marshall earlier this decade. As a senior in 2005, he rushed for 526 yards and 10 touchdowns for a 5-5 team. That winter, he was a role player on the Statesmen’s basketball team that advanced to the Virginia AAA semifinals.

Now, everyone should be hearing plenty about Culbreath’s courage and determination.

After graduating from Marshall, the 5-foor-11 Culbreath walked on to Princeton’s football team. By his junior year, he was leading the Ivy League in rushing with 1,206 yards. His senior season was supposed to be his crowning athletic achievement.

Yet after sustaining an ankle injury in the Tigers’ second game this season, Culbreath finally admitted to team doctors about the fatigue he’d been feeling from the slightest exercise. Blood was drawn, and Culbreath was admitted to the hospital immediately, where he was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, a condition where the body does not produce enough blood cells – red, white, or platelets – and leaves victims susceptible both to infection and uncontrolled bleeding. It is potentially fatal.

Culbreath’s football career ended instantly.

“He’s very disappointed,” said J.T. Biddison, who coached Culbreath at Marshall, and is now in his first season at West Springfield. “He’d worked so hard toward this season, but he realizes there a much bigger things out there.”

Now, Culbreath is subject to blood transfusions and on the hunt for a bone-narrow donor. Yet, he has set up a blog to inform people of his condition, chronicle his fight, and reach out to those who have supported him.

It was Culbreath who was the one supporting so many of his Princeton teammates this season, that he put on his No. 21 jersey last weekend for the first time in nearly two months, stood on the sideline for the Tigers’ final home game, and happily accepted the game ball from Princeton Coach Roger Hughes following the Tigers’ 17-14 victory over Yale.

To hear the impact Culbreath has had on his college teammates is not surprising to Biddison. When he took over Marshall in 2003, the Statesmen hadn’t had a winning season in more than a decade and went 0-10 that season. By Culbreath’s senior year, they were 5-5. A 7-3 season followed, and an 8-4 campaign in 2007 included Marshall’s first postseason victory in nearly two decades.

“He really laid the foundation for what we did there,” Biddison said. “He was full-speed, full-time. A lot of young guys really looked up to him and you could see that the year after he left.”

He seems to be doing the same thing at Princeton, and is worthy of plenty well wishes.

In the middle of September, DeMatha Coach Bill McGregor got a call from Carol McLean, the mother of Chester Stewart, who was the Stags’ quarterback in 2006. After starting three games as a redshirt freshman last year at Temple, Stewart was on the bench this fall, and Mom was worried about her boy.

Stewart “was going through some tough times up there,” McGregor said, “so she asked me to call him and talk him through some of it.”

“So I called him and I told him, ‘As a quarterback, you’ve got to be watching film all the time with that coach or the offensive coordinator. You’ve got to show them they can believe in you.”

So, after Owls starter Vaughn Charlton had a shaky performance against Navy in a 27-24 victory on Oct. 31, Temple Coach Al Golden went to Stewart the following week against Miami (Ohio). Stewart responded by completing 6 of 11 passes for 143 yards to lead the Owls to a an 18-point fourth quarter lead, and they kicked a last-second field goal for a 34-32 victory. He put up nearly identical passing numbers last week, going 6-for-11 for 145 yards. Stewart also threw for two touchdowns and ran for two others, as Temple scored 49 unanswered points and beat Akron, 56-17.

It was the Owls’ eighth straight victory, their longest streak since winning their final eight games of 1973 and first six of 1974. It’s a stunning turnaround for a program that has not been to a bowl game since 1979 and had losing seasons in 27 of the next 29 years.

Stewart was an interesting story in his one season as DeMatha’s starter. Prior to that season, he had never started a varsity game and he had only thrown two passes as a backup. Yet, after a one-day camp at Temple in the summer of 2006, he was offered a scholarship, and asked McGregor what he should do with it.

“Well, you’ve got a bird in hand,” McGregor told him, “and you can take it and go with it.”

Stewart accepted the offer. After he led DeMatha to an undefeated 2006 season and enhanced his recruiting cache, Stewart still signed with Temple, even though the program was coming off consecutive 11-loss seasons. It seems like a perfect case of both player and team refusing to give up on one another.

Chris Mayes wasn’t very heavily recruited coming out Westlake in 2007. At 6-feet-2, 205 pounds, he was way too small to play defensive line, and even stood on the short side of most linebackers at small colleges. That’s primarily how Division III power Wesley (Del.) College was able to scoop him up, and now Mayes is leading the third-ranked Wolverines (10-0) into the Division III playoffs as the top seed in their region. They will host North Carolina Wesleyan on Saturday at noon.

As a sophomore, Mayes has now bulked up to a 6-3, 235-pound defensive end and is filling up the stat sheets. He has a whopping 24 ½ tackles for loss, which not only leads all Division III teams, but all of college football. His 51 tackles are second on Wesley, and he has a team-high nine sacks.

Mayes, however, didn’t come from out of nowhere. As a senior at Westlake in 2006, he set a school record with 18 sacks and made more than half of his tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

By Alan Goldenbach  |  November 19, 2009; 10:25 PM ET
Categories:  Catching Up , DeMatha , Marshall , Westlake  
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