Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 36
 
Wednesday, September 8, 2010
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INSPIRATIONAL PRESENCE: Princeton University football star Jordan Culbreath paces the sidelines last year as he cheered on the Tigers in Princeton’s come-from-behind 17-13 win over Cornell in late October. It was the first time Culbreath was on hand to support his teammates since being hospitalized and diagnosed with aplastic anemia earlier in the fall. Beating the odds, running back Culbreath has returned to the Tigers for the 2010 campaign and has gotten off to an encouraging start in preseason camp.

PU Football’s Culbreath Making Encouraging Start; Returning to Gridiron as He Battles Blood Disorder

Bill Alden

It was sweltering on the Princeton University football team’s field turf practice complex last Wednesday and the players were dripping with sweat and the fluids they gulped down to stay hydrated as they trudged wearily away from the morning session.

But senior tailback Jordan Culbreath had a bounce in his step and couldn’t stop smiling as he greeted the media in a corner of the field in the shadow of Princeton Stadium.

After missing nearly all of last season as he battled aplastic anemia, Culbreath figured he would never get the chance to go through the rigors of preseason camp.

“I am happy to be out here on the field; I never thought I would be able to put the pads on again,” said 5’11, 195-pound Culbreath, a native of Falls Church, Va. “I am getting that opportunity so I am going to take advantage of it. Everyday I get out here, the mood is pretty positive.”

Although Culbreath led the Ivy League in rushing in 2008 with 1,206 yards and was a first-team All-Ivy selection, he knows he is back to square one.

“Everyday I am getting better and better,” said Culbreath, who takes special medication every two weeks and has his blood drawn each week to ensure that he is coping with the disorder which causes the bone marrow to stop producing enough new blood cells.

“I didn’t come off of winter conditioning and spring ball like everybody else on the team so I am working back from a different place. I think I am getting there and feeling a little more comfortable.”

It wasn’t until this spring before Culbreath started feeling comfortable about giving football another try.

“I got cleared two months before camp started and I wasn’t really sure if I could get back in shape or how I was going to feel once I started working out hard,” said Culbreath. “I took it one step at a time. I didn’t want to throw myself out there before I knew what I would actually be able to do.”

A week into camp, Culbreath acknowledges that his body is a few steps behind his mind on the field.

“I am going to push myself as hard as I can; I want to be the best I can be,” said Culbreath. “My mind is where I used to be two years ago and my body is ‘wait a second’ but they’ll catch up together and they will work on the same page pretty soon. It will be good.”

For new Princeton head coach Bob Surace, it is better than good to have Culbreath back in action.

“Obviously we are excited that he is healthy,” said Surace, noting that the squad greeted Culbreath with a standing ovation in its first meeting of preseason camp.

“In late spring, the doctors told me his numbers look really good. He was responding so well to the treatments and he wanted to do it and he had his family’s support. We weren’t going to do it unless he had 100 percent medical clearance.”

One of the first things Surace did last December after taking the Princeton job was to reach out to Culbreath.

“I knew about his story and it hit me what an inspiration this young man is so I called him right after I got the job,” said Surace, a former assistant coach with the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals who was an All-Ivy League center for Princeton during his playing days in the late-1980s.

“He was the only player I called; I was not thinking that he would come back or anything. I just wanted to say hi to him and let him know how proud I was of him as an alum. I told him we are rooting for him and to come down and visit in the spring.”

The conversation took place on Christmas and as he spoke with Culbreath, Surace realized that the running back was gifted with an upbeat approach to his situation.

“On Christmas Day you are calling a kid who may not survive and he lifts you up,” recalled Surace. “He is really an inspiration to everybody. It might be his last Christmas and he is excited and happy. He takes the right attitude. It is a lesson for all of us, the coaches and the team, that you get obstacles but having the right attitude sure helps.”

While Surace isn’t sure whether Culbreath will regain his status as the team’s featured back, it appears like he could help the Tigers this fall.

“He is standing out on the field right now as a top player,” asserted Surace, noting that Culbreath has regained his post as a team captain.

“I think he is getting his wind back and he is shaking some of the rust off. But you watch him and you see he has balance, he has vision, he can block, and he can catch. He can do all the different things to make an every down back.”

Despite Culbreath’s encouraging start, the Tigers are not going to rush him and see his presence as a major plus no matter what he ends up producing on the field.

“We are being a little overly cautious with him; he doesn’t like that,” acknowledged Surace.

“As a coach, we are in uncharted territory so we want to make sure there is no chance of a setback. Whether he rushes for 1,500 yards or three yards, the important thing is that he is healthy and is part of the team. If he is happy and smiling, I am happy. If I see him coming out on the field in this weather and he is bouncing around, that’s good news. That means he is happy and he wants to be a part of us.”

Culbreath, for his part, acknowledges that his emotions will be running high when he takes the field for Princeton in its season opener at Lehigh on September 18.

“Right now, it is go, go, go at the beginning of camp,” said Culbreath. “I am sure it will hit me when the first game comes around and I put the jersey on again. I see myself on the field. Every football player sees himself succeeding and hopes that he can do that. I have high hopes and we’ll have to see how it goes.”

But considering where he was last fall, Culbreath is already a success story for the Tigers.

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