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Lehigh's Day of Busted "Pride" One To Forget in the Big Apple

(Photo Credit: Howard Smith/USA Today Sports)

So on the morning of October 5th, I got out of bed.

The Lehigh football team was undefeated, of course.

WR Ryan Spadola was a receiver on the NFL's New York Jets, and by many indications was in line for more playing time on the biggest of stages, Monday Night football.

And G C.J. McCollum, after ripping up the NBA summer league for the Portland Trailblazers, seemed poised to enter the NBA season with a flourish, maybe even competing for Rookie of the Year.

By the end of my trip to the Big Apple, all three dreams were shattered.

Athletically, most Lehigh people of all stripes had three things in which they take an immense amount of "pride" - the football team, successful on the field for so long, the battle of Ryan Spadola against the odds to make the 53 man roster of the New York Jets, and the first Lehigh player ever taken in the NBA draft, C.J. McCollum.  By the end of Saturday, Lehigh's "pride" had been run over by a truck on the upper level of the George Washington bridge.


The news that Spadola was cut from the Jets came as a complete and utter shock to me, and everyone in the press box at the game.

It came after a week where a popular NFL fan site had mentioned that Ryan was in line for more playing time.
With New York Jets‘ WR Santonio Holmes and WR Stephen Hill questionable for Monday nights showdown against the Atlanta Falcons, the receiving core is very thin. WR Clyde Gates and WR Jeremy Kerley are the only legitimate threats for rookie QB Geno Smith. This is why WR Ryan Spadola is going to have a great opportunity to prove himself yet again to the league and to the coaches.
If nothing else, Ryan had established himself as a true Jet fan favorite by making the 53 man roster of the Jets, getting a nickname from head coach Rex Ryan ("Spicoli", from the move Fast Times at Ridgemont High) and getting positive comparisons to legendary Jet WR Wayne Chrebet.

Though Spadola hadn't suited up for the game against the Bills, optimism that he would at least make the trip to Atlanta, and maybe even get his first regular season NFL catch, was not unwarranted at all.  Maybe the homer in me, the "pride" in me, thought he could be  major part of the Jet offense, but it wasn't unrealistic at all to think of Ryan at least being a part of the gameplan on Monday night.

Who knows - he could have been a spark in a Jet offense that desperately needs it.

But by halftime, word had trickled into the Fordham press box by Twitter and elsewhere that Ryan had been cut.
The fact that these two players were waived when they were, would lead us to think that the Jets want to get one or two of these players back in some capacity with the team soon.  Spadola is a player who lit up the preseason as a receiver, but with an open opportunity to get more playing time on the roster this week with the receiver injuries, the Jets must not have thought Spadola was ready to take that step.  
Not a lot has made much sense with the Jets in recent years, but cutting a wide receiver who knows the system two days before heading to Atlanta without your top receiver and your No. 2 target out with a concussion seemed to top the list of incredulous moves - especially considering that earlier in the week the other wideout competing for a roster spot with Spadola, WR Ben Obamanu, was cut just a couple days prior.

Or was that whole statement just my "pride" in Ryan, bruised by this news?  After all, players get cut all the time in the NFL - and for all I know, the Jets will sign him to the practice squad when he clears waivers, continuing to work to get back to the 53-man Jet roster, where he'll be activated when the time is right?

You have "pride", but with "pride" comes things that bust that "pride", disappointments, mistakes, roadblocks.  Those setbacks can consume you and you never recover, or you pick yourself up and work your way back to success.  There is no other option.

*****

Late on Saturday, word came down on Saturday from Twitter that C.J. McCollum had suffered some sort of injury in practice.

Before last night, pretty much every bit of news coming from Rip City about their first-round draftee was coming up flowers and candy.  Most of the hard-hitting coverage was of the "Rookie Hazing: Getting Your Teammates NBA 2K14 for the XBox" variety - just smiles from Lehigh fans, waiting for the inevitable press that they thought would eventually come with, say, a 30 point eruption against the Clippers.

After thinking it was merely a rolled ankle, the "pride" of Lehigh men's basketball got the news nobody in Lehigh Nation wanted to ever hear:
McCollum was injured when running the baseline during team drills on Saturday. He was hit by a teammate and went down in pain, leaving practice early. Head coach Terry Stotts told Mike Tokito of The Oregonian that the injury was initially diagnosed as a sprain, but an X-ray later on Saturday revealed the fracture.  
The injury is particularly concerning for Portland because it is a recurring condition. McCollum fractured the fifth metatarsal, which is a long bone residing on the top of the foot, during his senior season at Lehigh. Expected to miss just eight to 10 weeks, McCollum was unable to return and saw questions about his health affect his draft stock.
Though the report didn't get it all the way right - McCollum wasn't rushed back by head coach Brett Reed because he cared more about C.J.'s health and potential draft status rather than rushing him back to play in the Patriot League tournament - the news was crushing to those, like myself, who thought C.J. was a real threat to be an NBA Rookie of the Year candidate.

"Pride" swelled in Lehigh Nation this summer as C.J. rose on draft boards, quelling any fears about his foot injury and also becoming one of the best interviews of the draftees.  When the Sixers passed on C.J. and he was taken by Portland, many people scratched their heads and wondered if the Sixers had missed out on a rare talent in their backyard.

Many people whom C.J. had met in the Lehigh Valley were absolutely crushed by this latest setback, made worse because there still is not set date for his return to the Blazers.

"It’s very disappointing," he said in a press conference.  "Coming in your rookie, being selected in the lottery. You want to come in and play and kind of prove yourself, earn your stripes. I was having a good training camp. I was playing well. I had been here … and then you go down with an injury. It’s tough. But at the same time, I’ve been through obstacles before and I look forward to bouncing back."

You have "pride", but with "pride" comes things that bust that "pride", disappointments, mistakes, roadblocks.  Those setbacks can consume you and you never recover, or you pick yourself up and work your way back to success.  There is no other option.

*****

Leaving the field on Saturday, head coach Andy Coen was mad - madder than he had ever been in a game in the last three seasons.

Why was he mad?

Was it a tough loss to a nationally-ranked team?  Actually, no.  Coach Coen had lost games before, but he wasn't always mad after a loss like he was this afternoon.

Was it losing to Fordham?  Actually, no.  Though Lehigh generally has beaten Fordham over their history, everyone going into this game knew that this wasn't the same Fordham team.  These guys were undefeated, and had beaten Temple and Villanova, an FBS team and a Top 25 FCS team.  It's not like they were unknowns going into this weekend.

Was it losing a game - any game?  Actually, no.  I've seen coach Coen lose games before, and even though he, like every head coach anywhere, doesn't like losing, he's not always mad afterwards.

"I'm mad," coach Coen said after the game. "I brought the kids right in and told them how I felt. I didn't see the things that allowed us to win last week or the group of guys that we've been. I got on them about not competing on every snap. It's not all right what happened here today."

Coach Coen was talking about "being beat in all three phases of the game," and "not competing on every snap", a phrase that really stood out to me.

"Our pride got hurt today," he said.

Coen was mad at his team because he feels like a team playing with more "pride" wouldn't have lost by nearly 20 points.

"We kind of have to refocus everything," Coen said.  "A lot of kids here don't remember what this feeling's like.  We weren't as tough or as focused or tough or as together as a team as we have been over the last four weeks, and that showed on the field. We got beat pretty bad. How we respond to that is going to be critical."

It's clear that this is a teaching moment for this young team, a squad that hasn't had a lot of setbacks or wounding of "pride".

Interestingly, senior FS Tyler Ward was very clear that he was upset by Fordham's offensive explosion on Saturday.
“I don’t even want to know how many yards Fordham had today,” the Lehigh University senior free safety said. 
“Six hundred and 30,” Mountain Hawks coach Andy Coen reluctantly responded, citing the statistics following the Rams 52-34 victory over visiting Lehigh this afternoon at Jack Coffey Field. 
“For a defense that’s embarrassing,” Ward continued. “We really need to refocus, come back next week and show we’re not a team who is going to give up 600 yards and 50 points in a game. … I’m hoping it kind of pisses some people off and makes them realize you can’t walk out on the field and just get a win. Hopefully this doesn’t happen again. Everyone was pretty upset and it shows we love winning and hate losing with a passion. If you can find one positive from this, it will show we’re just as vulnerable as everyone else and have to be 100 percent ready to go every snap.”
Senior RB Keith Sherman agreed.
“The team is going to come out hungry,” senior running back Keith Sherman said. “We’ve been living by fourth quarter comebacks. … We’ve been winning so much lately this is going to humble some guys. I think we’re going to respond very positively from this.”
The silver lining after this humbling from a very, very good Fordham team is that it's not the end of the world when it comes to the postseason.  Since Fordham is not eligible for the Patriot League title, if Lehigh keeps winning through the end of the season they will have to ask nobody for the autobid to the FCS playoffs - they'll have earned it.

This allows it to be a "teaching moment" instead of a debilitating loss in conference play.

It also allows it to be a gut check - a reminder of what it takes to beat elite teams - playoff teams.

A loss like the one this Saturday hurts the "pride" an awful lot.  But fortunately for Lehigh, it's not the end of the story.  How they respond to this will determine the course of the season.

You have "pride", but with "pride" comes things that bust that "pride", disappointments, mistakes, roadblocks.  Those setbacks can consume you and you never recover, or you pick yourself up and work your way back to success.  There is no other option.

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