Family ties: A college football player dedicated his play, life to late mother’s memory

This feature appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on Oct. 5, 2005

In memory of Mom

By Ed Odeven

Receiver Geoff Ducksworth plays every game for his late mother, Andrea

Like other college football players, NAU senior receiver Geoff Ducksworth thinks about the keys to victory before every game. He remembers what his team learned about its next foe from watching film. And he knows what’ll be expected of him in the next four quarters.

Ducksworth’s pregame routine also differs from many players’.

“Before I play a football game, I point to the sky and know she’s watching before I come out the tunnel,” Ducksworth said Wednesday, revealing how he remembers his late mother on game day.

“I’m not trying to celebrate it or (want) people to think it’s a a cocky thing or some kind of showboating. I try to keep myself private in that respect. But I tell it like this: Every day I live is a representation of her and how she raised me.”

Ducksworth was born in New Orleans. His father, James, died when he was 4. His mother, Andrea, a nurse, raised him and his sisters Sara and Yvonne and brother James Jr.

They lived in Ontario, Canada, for a dozen years and later relocated to Germany before settling in the Valley of the Sun. It was there where Ducksworth came into his own as an athlete.

A 2000 graduate of Paradise Valley High School, he rushed for a school-record 1,819 yards and had a pair of 97-yard kickoff returns for touchdowns as a senior.

Fast forward to December 2002. Ducksworth was a standout receiver at Glendale Community College. His team had earned a No. 4 national ranking and went on to play in the Valley of the Sun Bowl.

As his team prepared for the bowl game, Ducksworth’s life changed drastically.

“My mom had been sick,” he recalled. “She’d been battling blood clots and things like that, so she went to the hospital and stayed the night. It was pretty much a regular occurrence for about six months, so I didn’t think too much of it.”

Then he received a shocking phone call.

“The doctor told me she had lung cancer,” he said. “My father passed away from lung cancer when I was 4 and she had quit (smoking) for about 20 years. So it took me by surprise. It just happened so quickly.

“They gave her maybe six months (to live), but they didn’t even want to guarantee that because she could’ve been gone at any time.”

TRYING TIMES

In 2003, Ducksworth planned to transfer to a university, continue his studies and play football. He had received interest from Northern Illinois and Idaho State, Southern Utah and NAU, among other schools. But when it was time to finalize his plans, Ducksworth chose NAU.

The decision was a no-brainer.

“I wanted to make sure that I could redshirt because I wanted to be with my mother every weekend as much as I could,” said Ducksworth, who was a walk-on and didn’t play in 2003.

Ducksworth’s mom stayed at a Phoenix-area hospice during her battle with cancer. He managed her account there because his older brother lives in Canada.

Besides juggling his academic workload and the physical demands of being a college football player, Ducksworth struggled with the emotional hardships of seeing his mother in pain.

“But the coaching staff was (very accommodating),” he said, “Anytime I needed, they let me go (visit her).

“My family and I, we’ve gotten a lot closer dealing with this, but it was a very, very stressful time. I had anxiety attacks and things like that.”

Through it all, Andrea Ducksworth tried to remain positive.

“She did tell me she was going to beat it,” her son said.

This outlook, he said, helped her.

“My mom, she had goals, she set goals,” he said. “She wanted to see my sister graduate and that would’ve been about eight months. She had another goal to make sure that we were all OK — that we were all going to do well for ourselves. I think when she finally realized we were all going to do all right, I think that’s when she passed away.”

“I remember she told me she was ready to go.”

She died April 8, 2004.

ON HIS OWN

Andrea Ducksworth’s death gave her younger son a chance to reflect on his upbringing, a chance to apply in his daily life what she had taught him.

“I’m not a quitter and she never raised me to be a quitter,” he said. “I stuck with it.”

For Ducksworth, this meant taking out student loans to help support him and his younger sister, Sara. It meant waking up early to study for classes. It meant working at Fry’s Food & Drug Store on Route 66 after a long day of school and practice — he unloaded the produce trucks between 6 p.m. and midnight.

“Geoff Ducksworth has had a very difficult life in my opinion,” Lumberjacks coach Jerome Souers said. “Maybe nobody’s life is real easy, but his is a lot tougher than most I’ve seen, yet his attitude is unmoved.”

Last spring, the Lumberjack coaching staff gave Ducksworth a scholarship for his senior season. It’s a reminder of his importance to the team, on and off the field.

“Being independent and self-sufficient is something that he’s learned to do,” Souers said. “He has great balance of learning football’s important, but so is school and so is being a role model. It’s important to him to be a good friend, to be a good teammate. I think you’ll find the closer you look at Geoff Ducksworth you’ll find great qualities that you’d like to see in any young man.”

Gary Guthmiller, NAU’s receivers coach, said Ducksworth has been the consummate teammate and the Jacks’ most well-prepared receiver.

“I can put him anywhere on the field and expect that he knows everything that’s going to go on at every position,” Guthmiller added.

“He’s my rock. He’s the guy I can count on. He’s the guy I can trust.”

FAMILY INFLUENCES

In NAU’s 38-24 loss at Sacramento State last Saturday, Ducksworth, who also plays gunner on the punt-return unit, had a season-high three catches for 59 yards. He said it’s tough to find satisfaction from personal accomplishments because the team lost.

That said, he realizes his sticking with football was the right thing to do.

“My mom was proud of me,” he said candidly. “She let me know that for sure.”

Ducksworth’s athleticism comes from his father’s side of the family (several family members played on Southern University teams and one uncle was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals).

His mother’s interests and talents were artistic. She performed in off-Broadway musicals and took an acting class taught by famous instructor Lee Strasberg.

“She was in the same class as Marilyn Monroe,” he said, smiling.

And though she supported her son’s athletic endeavors, she also tried to give him a well-rounded childhood.

“She made sure that for every sports camp I went to I had to take pottery class or an acting class or stuff like that,” Ducksworth said.

But more than anything, Andrea Ducksworth taught her son how to endure tough times.

“I feel like I’m a strong person because of her,” he said.

Ducksworth turns 23 in November. His future is up in the air, he admits. He’s expressed interest in selling homes in the Valley or playing in the Canadian Football League.

Yet through it all, one thing remains certain:

“I’ve dedicated my life to my mom,” he said.

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‘We did not have any casualties in our company and completed more than 1 million miles.’

This column on then-Northern Arizona University cheerleader Kristyna Robinson, who served in Iraq, appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on Nov. 19, 2004.

From the front lines to the spirit line

By Ed Odeven

Today marks the end of a special time in Kristyna Robinson’s life, the last football game she’ll participate in as a Northern Arizona cheerleader.

If all had gone as originally planned, this day would’ve taken place last fall. But her life took a different path the day she joined the Army National Guard in 2002.

Robinson, a 1999 graduate of Paradise Valley High School, joined the Army as a college underclassman. She had planned to attend officer candidate school upon completion of her psychology degree, become a military intelligence officer and then join the FBI.

But those plans changed when Robinson and four of her NAU cheerleading mates — National Guard members Joe Wren, a Purple Heart recipient; Brett Jacobson; Glenn Whitting; and Matt Mahaffey — got “the call” in January 2003.

It was then, when the team was training for a national competition, that the five cheerleaders were informed they’d be going to Iraq.

“We were actually at cheer practice when we got called,” Robinson says. “Joe got a voice mail on his phone and (it) said we needed to leave.”

As members of the 1404th Transportation Company, based in Bellemont, the five NAU students were sent to Fort Bliss in Texas for three months before they were ordered to go overseas.

The 1404th served in northern Iraq and in Bilad, which is about one hour north of Baghdad, delivering equipment for helicopters and vehicles, food, supplies — whatever was needed.

Robinson, who went to basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, served as an 88M, a truck driver/heavy motor vehicle transport operator, and also helped out with communications and administrative support.

During a recent interview, she spoke gratefully about how fortunate her unit was.

“We did not have any casualties in our company and completed more than 1 million miles,” Robinson says.

Like in any war, there were, of course, several life-or-death incidents for Robinson and members of the 1404th.

“We had just pulled out of our compound and we were fired at,” she says, recalling one of those incidents.

“It was probably the scariest because we were in a convoy with fuel trucks. They were aiming for the fuel trucks and it went right in between them. We were three trucks behind them. If it had hit the fuel truck, it would’ve been really bad.”

Mahaffey, who worked as a recoveries specialist, has similar memories.

“The scariest moments for me was when I knew either Kristyna or Joe or somebody that I was very close to was on a convoy there and something happened there,” Mahaffey recalls. “And I didn’t have any information except for ‘the convey got hit’ or … ‘something happened’ … ’til I got back and I was able to see that everybody was OK.”

It was during times like these that Robinson and Mahaffey weren’t nearly as chummy as they’d be on the sideline during a football game or as carefree as they might be during a laid-back afternoon practice at the Skydome.

“While we were over there … you do get in a military mindset,” says Mahaffey, a five-year member of the team who’s now an assistant coach.

What was Robinson’s personality like in Iraq? Mahaffey was asked.

“I hesitate to say less personal, but I think we were all focused on what were doing,” he says. “But it certainly was nice to hang out with each other, having somebody (around) that you’ve known for a while.”

It was, however, difficult to stay in tip-top physical shape in the military.

“It was a struggle,” Robinson says, reminding me she worked 16-18 hours a day. “Being in Iraq, we didn’t really have time to exercise too much. Everyone has the misconception that we went over there and ran five miles a day and were in really good shape. I was probably in the worst shape I’ve been in college while I was over there.”

And, to say the least, it was challenging for Robinson to keep up with what was happening at NAU and the world around her while she was stationed in Iraq. (She did manage to find time to practice her cheers and routines “two or three times while we were in Iraq.”)

“We didn’t really get (steady) Internet access until six months in,” she says. “It would be really sporadic and the Internet would be down a lot. Towards the end, they started to have, like, cafes just full of computers.”

The 1404th returned to the U.S. in April, first to Fort Bliss and then to Show Low.

Robinson is a full-time student again and will graduate in May. She then plans to go to graduate school to study forensics psychology, possibly to John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

In the meantime, she’s still serving one weekend a month in the National Guard and enjoying her time as a cheerleader, doing the drills with an almost completely new squad than the one she was a part of at NAU two years ago.

Robinson’s story wasn’t common knowledge to many of them.

“Some people didn’t know,” she says, referring to her time in Iraq. “When I would tell them, they would be like, ‘You were really over there?’ They were kind of surprised at first that a cheerleader would go to Iraq.”

Robinson did, serving her country courageously.

Now she’s back. And the former dancer/gymnast/prep track athlete is doing what she loves on Saturdays — for one more week. And she’ll never forget that.

“I appreciate the little stuff a lot more,” she says. “I don’t take as much for granted.”

‘The perfect life’ (Claire Robertson, volleyball player)

This feature story on volleyball player Claire Robertson appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun in June 2004.

‘THE PERFECT LIFE’
By ED ODEVEN

She lives a block from a southern California beach with her grandma. She bicycles two blocks to work at her uncle’s coffee shop in the mornings. She travels 10 minutes by bike to Hermosa Beach, where she plays volleyball in the afternoons.

Sounds like a dream routine, doesn’t it?

It is. And it’s Claire Robertson’s reality.

“It’s the perfect life for me,” said Robertson, the former Northern Arizona volleyball standout. “It’s what I’ve always dreamed of. And now I’m getting it.”

Robertson is a volleyball player on the AVP Pro Beach Tour. She’ll next compete in the Hermosa Beach Open, to be held July 22-25.

Growing up in Torrance, Calif., Robertson was a beach bum by day, beach bum by night. Thus, it’s only natural for her to continue this lifestyle.

“I’m so used to it,” she said. “I’m there every single day in the summertime. That’s why it was very hard for me to make the decision to go to NAU. But I know now I could never live in the snow. I have to live by the beach.”

MAKING ADJUSTMENTS

During her four years at NAU, Robertson made a name for herself as one of the top all-around players in the program’s history. She became the first Lumberjack to finish her career with more than 500 kills, 2,000 assists and 2,000 digs, and was the first setter in team history to record a triple-double.

The 22-year-old, who finished her collegiate career last fall, is now trying to establish herself as one of the top young players on the AVP Tour.

It’s a big adjustment, as beach volleyball is a stark contrast from the indoor game. For starters, there are only two players on the sand, as opposed to the six that play together indoors on the hardcourt.

“Beach volleyball is completely different than indoor because you have to have all of the skills — pass, serve, set, spike, all of it,” said Robertson, who split time at outside hitter, right-side hitter and setter at NAU. “You have to know how to see the whole court while you’re jumping to swing.

“There’s so much you have to change, from your approach, to your arm swing, to your quickness on the sand,” she added, “because you don’t really move well in the sand. You have to get your sand legs developed first before you even play in the tournament. I sort of learned that when I played in Tempe (in late April).”

In the Tempe Open, Robertson and then-partner Patti Scofield finished 37th overall. They won a first-round match in three games over Michelle Moore and Suzanne Stonebarger, but dropped their next one to Kimberly Coleman and Julie Sprague.

Robertson teamed up with Alyssa Rylander for the Manhattan Beach (Calif.) Open the first weekend of June. They placed 41st, winning their first-round match and dropping the next, which eliminated them from the tourney.

A NEW PARTNER

Since the Manhattan Beach Open, Robertson has been playing with Keao (KAY-ow) Burdine, a senior-to-be at the University of Southern California and a two-time NCAA championship MVP.

In case you’re wondering, there were no 11th-hour negotiations at a secret location, no heated discussions between agents before the change. The partnership, in fact, is quite informal.

“I get to pick who I want to play with,” was how Robertson described the agreement.

Burdine watched Robertson play in the Manhattan Beach tournament and called to inquire about forming a team.

The two said OK and that was the end of the discussion.

They trained three days together before competing in the San Diego Open, which was held June 11-13, placing 25th, the highest finish of Robertson’s young career (she made her pro debut at the 2003 San Diego Open).

“We just play well together,” Robertson said of she and Burdine. “…But one thing we have to work on is communication. She tends to be the more quiet player on the court and I tend to be the more loud one. But she’s definitely the more powerful hitter. She can pound the ball. It’s good. It fires me up.”

Burdine said that Robertson’s “been the best partner I’ve had so far playing on the beach. It’s been fun. She’s very feisty and really wants to win. She’s really competitive. She has really good ball-control skills.”

The 5-foot-9 Robertson and the 6-1 Burdine complement each other with their varied skills. While Burdine is wreaking havoc at the net, Robertson is the steady defensive force in the background.

Robertson and Burdine will next play in the aforementioned Hermosa Beach Open. “That’s the big one,” Robertson said.

In the meantime, they’ll continue to work on getting better by playing in AVP Next events, the association’s semi-pro circuit, like they did last weekend in Santa Barbara, Calif.

ON THE BEACH

As a teen-ager, Robertson began competing on the amateur beach volleyball circuit, working her way up the ladder from the unrated classification to B, AA, AAA, and, finally, the semi-pro level.

In 2001, Robertson and Tawny Schulte, who starred for Wake Forest, competed in the Junior Olympics in Australia. They earned one of the two coveted women’s berths to the international tournament — two U.S. men’s teams also went.

Robertson and Schulte placed fifth overall behind a pair of Mexican teams, the other U.S. team and the Chinese champions. They had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend the week in an Australian monastery in Manley Beach.

All in all, Robertson said the trip was an eye-opener for her, a reminder that she was indeed a talented player.

“It was an amazing experience. After that, I knew I could do it,” she said.

Now that she’s doing it, Robertson is eager to become one of the best, but the financial constraints of not yet earning prize money on the tour limit how many tournaments she can compete in.

In the future, Robertson said she’ll need to get a sponsor to help pay for “my plane tickets, all my bathing suits and stuff like that.”

Advancing out of the qualifying round will be key to attracting sponsors. Currently, Robertson cannot afford a personal coach, but she said it’ll be beneficial in the future.

For now, she soaks up all the knowledge offered by her many friends who play on the tour, including Sean Rosenthal and Larry Litt, who are currently ranked No. 3 on the AVP men’s tour.

And she’s on the beach as much as possible. Besides serious training “three hours a day, four days a week,” there are plenty of impromptu games at Hermosa Beach. All it takes is a simple phone call.

“We’ll call up a team and say, ‘We’re meeting down at the pier at four o’clock, can you come play? ‘Yes, we’ll bring our balls, our lines and our antennas,'” Robertson said, recounting countless conversations. “And we’ll just play a couple games. It’s pretty cool, because everyone on the tour is really young and everyone knows each other, so if they want to train you can just call them up and play.”

Robertson will fulfill her educational obligations to NAU — she’s a health promotion/secondary education major — by student-teaching at a Flagstaff school, starting Aug. 30. After that, she said the goal is to become one of the top 32 players on the ultra-competitive tour.

“I haven’t played anyone really good yet,” she said, sounding clearly motivated to erase that fact from her resume. “Playing top 25 teams will be really exciting.”

That said, Robertson enjoys the competitive nature of the tour.

“These girls are so competitive because they are playing for money. … It’s like hard-core money. It’s so serious,” she said, referring to tandems like Misty May and Kerri Walsh, who split $14,500 for winning the Tempe Open.

She was asked if she can make a good living playing on the beach.

“That’s been my goal since I was young,” she said. “You can make a decent amount of money. You’ve just got to win.”

Then you take a break and relax. After all, you’re already at the beach.

If you’re Claire Robertson, there’s nowhere else you’d rather be.

“Pele used to come to my dad’s restaurant”

This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun.

(Update: Andre Luciano completed his 13th season as the Northern Arizona University women’s soccer head coach in 2013.)

Headline: Luciano’s passion a plus for NAU soccer

Oct. 31, 2003

By Ed Odeven

You walk into his comfortable Skydome office and immediately realize he’s a soccer fanatic. You see the team portrait of Brazil’s 2002 World Cup-winning team. You notice the framed photo of a 1975 Sports Illustrated cover, the one featuring the legendary Pele.

He is Andre Luciano, NAU’s third-year head soccer coach.

“I’m an absolute soccer junkie,” Luciano told me the other day. “You are going through the house and Fox Sports World is on all the time and it drives (NAU assistant coach) Tracy (Grose) nuts. It drives my wife nuts, but soccer to me is a lifestyle. It’s not a game you can just turn off. It’s a game of highs and lows. I think soccer is an analogy of life, the way I look at it. So it’s ingrained in me.”

Luciano deserves a lot of the credit for rebuilding the Lumberjacks soccer program. This team has never had a winning season — its best season was 1998, when it finished with an 8-11 record under the program’s original coach, Tracy Custer.

Today’s NAU match is one of the biggest in the history of the program. With a win or a tie at Weber State, the Lumberjacks will clinch the Big Sky Conference title and earn the right to host the conference tournament next week. The Lumberjacks have never placed higher than third (which they’ve done three times) in the league.

NAU, which has a 7-7-3 overall record, 4-1 in league play (it lost Thursday’s match 4-1 to Idaho State in snowy conditions), began the season at 1-4-1. Luciano did not push the panic button. He simply reminded the players of their potential.

“I think the turning point was the road trip (in late September) to Boise State,” Luciano said. “We had a tough tie against Boise State and a tough loss against Utah State and I remember sitting on the bus and I actually challenged them to be better than their record indicates. From that point forward, leaders have popped up all over the place. It’s not just one or two players — it’s 22, 23 players — each having a hand in how the program is turning around.”

It’s turning around because the players have bought into Luciano’s crede that strong defense needs to be a central characteristic of this team, because the Lumberjacks have more balanced scoring this season and because the players are more experienced. Sierra Cristiano, one of five senior captains, leads the team with 12 assists, Jesyca Rosholt is numero uno with seven goals and Brandy Johnson has chipped in six more. Sophomore goalkeeper Andrea Berra has had a stellar season, playing in all 17 matches and posting a 1.33 goals against average.

Luciano, who was born in Rome and moved to Sao Paulo, Brazil, as a baby, admits he’s an extremely competitive person and he expects a lot from himself as a coach. But he said he’s come to understand what coaching is really all about.

“It’s not about the wins or losses,” he said. “It’s the relationships I build with the players and how much I educate them about what life is really about and what the world is really about.”

It’s no surprise that Luciano developed a life-long love of soccer. Remember, he was living in Sao Paulo, and his father’s restaurant was just a few blocks away from the soccer stadium.

“We were always around celebrity soccer players,” said Luciano, who speaks English, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Czech, Slovak and Russian. “Half the players were always around when I grew up. Pele used to come to my dad’s restaurant and Zico, who’s my favorite all-time player for Brazil, used to swing by. So when you’re a kid and you see these guys it’s just ingrained in your life and you can’t get rid of it.”

Now, Luciano, who starred as a goalie at Yavapai College (one of the school’s first-ever soccer recruits who helped guide the Roughriders to the 1990 NJCAA title) and Indiana (the Hoosiers made the Final Four and Elite Eight with him starting), can’t get rid of his passion for turning NAU into a perennial Big Sky power.

“I have a tremendous amount of pride, and for us to come out and (start) 4-0 (in conference) reaffirms what we are trying to do here, and what we’ve been trying to do for 2 1/2 years,” he said Tuesday. “I think the biggest reward is seeing the smiles and the looks on the kids’ faces.”

 

 

 

Feature flashback – NAU safety (and future NFL DB) Jeremy Thornburg

This feature appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun.

Headline: A humble leader

Nov. 10, 2004

By Ed Odeven

Many football players would brag about making a game-high 17 tackles. That’s just not Jeremy Thornburg’s style.

A soft-spoken, hard-hitting strong safety, Thornburg is driven to play what he calls “the perfect football game.” His 17-tackle outing against the Montana Grizzlies last Saturday wasn’t perfect.

Here’s the Northern Arizona senior’s explanation:

“I had 22 chances to make tackles, and I missed five.”

The personal assessment continues.

“After the Montana game, people came up to me like, ‘Great job, 17 tackles.’ But I was disappointed because I missed five tackles, you know,” he added. “That was my season high in tackles and missed tackles.”

In a season of ups and downs, Thornburg has been the steady anchor for the Lumberjack secondary. He leads the team with 76 tackles (37 solo stops), has broken up six passes, forced three fumbles and made three sacks.

All-conference-type numbers are nice, but victories are much more important to a consummate competitor like Thornburg.

“I think we’re not playing up to our standards at all,” he said after Tuesday’s practice at the Skydome. “We should be giving up 17 points or less a game. That’s our team goal. We’re not doing that at all.”

Opponents are scoring 27.2 points per game against the 4-5 Jacks, who travel to Idaho State for their final Big Sky Conference game of the season Saturday.

In recent weeks, the Lumberjack defense has felt the sting of losing three starters — linebackers Bruce Branch and Ian Gunderman and cornerback Shannon Butler — for the season. In their absence, Thornburg has picked up the slack — on the field and in the leadership department.

He’s had to do a lot more, right? a reporter asked linebacker Sean Sovacool.

“He can handle that, though. He’s a great player,” Sovacool said. “He’s one of the best I’ve ever played with. He’s real active, real energetic, real enthusiastic. I love to watch ‘Burg play and play with him.”

“He’s kind of the guy that brings our secondary together,” added sophomore free safety Jeffrey Wheeler. “He’s also the leader, showing by example, the way he plays on the field and the way he acts off the field. He’s just an all-around great guy.”

Play after play, you’ll see Thornburg’s versatility and instincts on display. He’ll blitz the quarterback on one play, make a diving pass deflection on the next, and follow that up with a drive-the-ballcarrier-back-to-the-line tackle.

In other words, Thornburg possesses the ideal physical qualities to be a strong safety.

“(At that position) you just have to have the speed of a corner and the tenacity of a linebacker and that’s hard to find,” Lumberjacks coach Jerome Souers said.

NAU found their man in Cathedral City, Calif., where Thornburg lettered three years in football, two in basketball and four in track before graduating in 2000. He also received attention from San Diego State, Colorado State and Utah.

Each year, Thornburg’s numbers — and productivity — have improved. He played in 10 games as a freshman in 2000 and made 10 tackles. He became the starter the next year and collected 52 tackles. After sitting out the 2002 season with a shoulder injury, he returned to the starting lineup last year and made 92 stops, picked off four passes and earned honorable mention all-Big Sky accolades.

In his spare time, the liberal studies major has become one of the Big Sky’s best hurdlers, sprinters and jumpers (he qualified for the 2003 and ’04 NCAA West Regional Championships in the long jump, and was a member of the ’03 Big Sky-winning 4×400-meter outdoor relay unit).

“I think Jeremy has gone through a lot in his experience here,” Souers said. “I think he’s matured a bunch. He’s always been a talented athlete. As talented as he is, you never sense an ego problem. … He’s been a team guy from Day One.

“He’s definitely one of those ‘quiet killers.’ … And I don’t mean to make light of murder or anything like that at all, but he’s a guy you won’t hear coming and when he blitzes and when he covers with support on the run and on special teams (look out).”

When the season concludes, the 6-foot, 190-pound Thornburg will hit the weight room and begin training with the Lumberjack track and field squad, preparing for an opportunity to play football professionally.

“I think track will help me make it to the next level,” he said. “I’ve heard some things from coaches that the scouts are interested in me.

“It doesn’t matter where I play,” was how Thornburg described his post-NAU aspirations. “I just want to play football.”

Thornburg said being a part of NAU’s upset of No. 1 McNeese State in the playoffs last year and an exciting comeback triumph over Portland State in October were two of his favorite games. Another personal favorite: he showed his pure athleticism against Portland State, making a 42-yard reception in the first half, thanks to a well-placed ball by Philo Sanchez, a running back.

Since being an all-conference linebacker/receiver at Cathedral City High, Thornburg has not played many snaps on offense. He’s lined up for a few plays there this season, which, naturally, got him thinking about what might’ve been.

“I feel that if I ever did play offense in the Big Sky I could’ve been an all-Big Sky receiver,” he said.

“My freshman year, I was happy playing defense, and as time goes on you miss the other side of the ball. If I was playing offense, I’d probably be saying the opposite.”

Next year, the Lumberjacks will miss having Thornburg in the lineup. But they are preparing for the future, with freshman Greg Laybourn waiting in the wings.

“I think having Jeremy around, he’s just been the perfect leader by example to show me how things are done,” Laybourn said. “He was in a similar situation to what I’m in now. He came in and played a little bit his freshman year and then started his sophomore year, and that’s what I’m hoping to do.

“Hopefully I can duplicate the aggressive style that he plays.”

And after his playing days are over, Thornburg hopes he’s left a legacy for NAU fans and players.

“I think they’ll say they like the way I played because I like playing hard every play, sprinting to the ball and using my speed,” he said. “I like getting big hits occasionally.”

What do those characteristics add up to?

“He’s just a great football player,” Souers concluded.

You just won’t hear those words coming out of Thornburg’s mouth.

Brandon Leslie’s cautionary tale

This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun.

Headline: Ex-Lumberjack runner shows you can’t give up on a dream

April 1, 2006
 
By Ed Odeven
 

Alcohol destroys dreams and ruins lives, and many cannot escape its cruel strangle-hold on their lives.

Brandon Leslie ran away from alcohol before it was too late. But not before his life took a major detour.

Leslie arrived on the NAU campus in 1995 with impressive credentials as a distance runner, including a third-place finish at a prestigious national meet his senior year of high school. He was another prized recruit for longtime coach Ron Mann.

But Leslie, who struggled making the adjustment to college, was back in his hometown of Gallup, N.M., within a year. No longer a student. No longer a Lumberjack harrier.

In a 2004 article in the Washington Post, Leslie, who grew up on the Navajo Nation, explained how he took a wrong turn after leaving Flagstaff.

“I drank a lot when I came home,” he told the Post. “I didn’t crave it but I just like to socialize. I guess I just saw a lot of windows opening and I chose the wrong ones to go through.”

Mike Daney helped steer Leslie, whose family had endured many hardships because of alcoholism, in the right direction. A junior college coach from New Mexico, Daney pushed Leslie to get back into shape. Then he earned a scholarship to Adams State (Colo.).

Leslie received eight All-American accolades at Adams State, a Division II school. Since 2001, he’s been a noticeable figure on the national running scene. And he placed 21st at the 2004 U.S. Olympic Trials in the 10,000-meter race.

But that’s not the end of the story. It’s just the beginning.

Today, Leslie competes at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Fukuoka, Japan, in the men’s 12-kilometer race.

“Oh, man, it means a great deal to me,” Leslie said by phone from his Albuquerque, N.M., home before flying overseas.

Leslie acknowledged he’s worked hard but wasn’t always in the best of shape, wasn’t always completely prepared to excel.

He now is.

Leslie moved to Flagstaff last August and stayed here until October, working with Joe Vigil, NAU Center for High Altitude Training’s senior coaching consultant. It was part of 71/2 months of what he calls the hardest training he’s ever done.

Now he knows it was worth it. Leslie completed the USA Men’s Half-Marathon Championship in January in 1 hour, 3 minutes, 10 seconds, placing fourth and setting a personal record by 21/2 minutes. At the USA Cross Country Championships in New York City in February, Leslie placed seventh in the open 10K race in 35:42 to earn a spot on the U.S. team for the world championships.

It was an exhilarating accomplishment.

“At the finish line, it was like, ‘Wow, man,'” Leslie said, laughing. “Just being on the podium with these guys and looking around, I was like, ‘Wow, look at where I’m at.'”

Along the way, Leslie, who turns 30 on April 20, has made sacrifices, scraping by on what he admits is meager prize money and coming to Flagstaff for training without his wife, Nelvina, his 11-year-old stepson, Cody, his 10-year-old son, Brandon Jr., and his 2-year-old daughter, Haley. They remained in New Mexico.

But don’t think for a second that Leslie feels it wasn’t worth it.

“I want (my kids) to know that you have to go places if you want to better yourself,” he said. “You have to make sacrifices if you’re willing to be good and competitive. That’s what I want them to realize when they’re older.”

As our conversation came to a close, I asked Leslie to reflect on what his being in Japan means to him.

“It represents a lot,” he said, pausing to collect his thoughts. “I get the chills now that you’ve said that because a lot of people say, ‘Oh, man, you’re going up there to represents the country. How does it feel to represent the U.S. at the world championships?’

“I do feel greatly that I’m going to do it, but it means a lot more to me to represent all Native American people. … To be able to carry my tribal flag (in Japan) and display it shows people that I’m Native American and I’m proud of where I’m at now.

“Running has gotten me these opportunities to come here. My tribe has supported me. They’ve seen something now that they don’t want to let go. They’ve jumped behind me and they want me to continue this until 2008 (the Beijing Olympics) and beyond that.”

Willard Reaves’ humble beginnings

Before St. Louis Blues winger Ryan Reaves’ career as a pro hockey player was launched, his father, Willard, made his mark in the CFL and played in the NFL, too. He then became a sergeant in the Manitoba Sheriff Services.

Here’s a look at the elder Reaves’ life a decade ago, 15 years after he played in his final NFL game.

This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on Oct. 1, 2004.

Headline: Reaves doesn’t shy away from limelight

By Ed Odeven

As a pro running back, Willard Reaves was never shy about praising the valuable but oft-neglected efforts of his team’s offensive linemen. As a public figure, the Flagstaff native and former NAU back, is quick to mention the impact Jesse Rodriguez has had on his life.

More than 30 years ago, Reaves, was a ninth-grade student at East Flagstaff Junior High School and took a public speaking class taught by Rodriguez.

“I was a homeroom rep in student council and one of the things that he wanted to get us familiar with was not to be afraid to speak in public,” Reaves said Friday from his Winnipeg, Manitoba, home. “I learned my speaking through him and some of the techniques the class was being taught.”

Fast forward to 2004 and Reaves is a sergeant with the Manitoba Sheriff Services and a well-known figure in his adopted hometown.

“I didn’t want to play professional football,” Reaves admitted, chuckling. “I wanted to be a police officer in Flagstaff. That was my lifelong dream. I never, ever changed my dream.”

It did, however, take the advice of Scott Ross, his best buddy at Coconino High School, to convince him to first pursue a career in football.

“He looked at me and said, ‘You’re going to make it in professional football. I don’t care about anybody else. They don’t have what you have. You are going to make it in professional football and you’ll see that.'” Reaves said, recounting Ross’ words. “I just looked at him and said, ‘Oh, really.’ I guess what Scott was saying was true.”

The prediction was precise. Reaves earned all-state honors and Phoenix Metro’s player of the year award while he played at Coconino. He starred for the Lumberjacks from 1977-80, earning All-American honors in 1979 after rushing for 1,084 yards. Reaves played two season for the Green Bay Packers, five with the CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers — highlighted by his 1984 season in which he rushed for 1,733 yards and 18 TDs earned the league’s player of the year award and “smashed a couple of records,” he says, pausing to laugh, “more than a couple.” — and then two years with the Washington Redskins. He retired in 1990 after a final season with the Miami Dolphins.

Public speaking has been a big part of Reaves’ live ever since. Instead of shunning his fame, he has embraced it.

“It’s been great because now I speak before thousands of people,” Reaves said.

The biggest thrill he’s ever gotten standing in front of the podium occurred in January 1985, when he was the keynote speaker in Toronto at the Conn Smythe celebrity sports dinner, an annual event in Canada attended by thousands of celebrities, including Canada’s deputy prime minister. Dan Marino was the other featured speaker that night.

Oftentimes, Reaves speaks at charity fundraisers and school functions, such as career day. A motivational speech he gave at a Winnipeg high school plagued by gang influences stands out as a memorable event in Reaves’ live. After positively inspiring one young male student in the audience to clean up his act, he began attending classes regularly, dropped out of his gang, went on to have perfect attendance and later earned a college degree in engineering.

The biggest surprise? Years later, Reaves bumped into the former student at a mall and met his wife and young son, whose middle name was Willard, in honor of Reaves.

“I think I’ve done a really good job with a lot of people here,” he admitted proudly, “and people are still coming up to me to say thank you for it.”

Even though he’s achieved fame and fortune, Reaves has never forgotten his humble roots or the value of common courtesy.

“Because you choose a profession (where) you are in the public eye, by golly, you have to give yourself to the public. … Allow the people who have enjoyed watching you play football the opportunity to just come up and talk to you,” said Reaves, whose parents, Jim and Vera Peeler, still reside in Flagstaff. “I retired in 1990 and there are still people coming up and talking to me about this, about that.

“I am recognized on every corner of Canada, and that’s something I’ll cherish and try to protect as much as I can.”

Reaves and his wife, Brenda, have three children: daughter Regina, 21, who lives in Phoenix, 21; and sons Ryan, 17, and Jordan, 14. Ryan, a 6-foot-1, 194-pound right wing, plays for the Brandon (Manitoba) Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League and is a bona-fide NHL prospect.

“When he gets on the ice, you can feel a complete change in the other team’s approach,” the elder Reaves said, describing what scouts say about Ryan, “It’s more stand-offish. They don’t want to ruffle his feathers too much. … He changes the game completely around. When he’s off the ice, they go back to their regular plan.”

Like father, like son. Willard Reaves was a physical, imposing force on the football field. Off the field, he lets his actions do the talking.