I think it’s kind of funny that they’re called “upsets.”
I think that term almost makes it seem like somebody won by accident or something.
If you happened to turn on our game against Clemson last Friday — or if you watched any of the coverage after it was over —you probably heard the word upset tossed around quite a bit.
I mean, I get it. I’ve been part of a lot of losses during my time at Syracuse. Close losses, embarrassing losses and everything in between. So I forgive the casual college football fan who was surprised by Syracuse winning a big game.
But our team wasn’t surprised. Well, maybe a little, but definitely not shocked.
This was a game that had been on our minds for a long time. Coach Babers had impressed on us a long time ago that we weren’t going to beat a team like Clemson just by practicing really hard the week before the game. To beat a great team, you have to begin preparing much earlier than that. For us, honestly, it probably started after we ended last season with a brutal loss to Pittsburgh. After that game we sat in the locker room in silence, just so disappointed. It was in that moment that Coach promised us that things were going to be different moving forward. He promised us that when we came back for spring practice, this would be a new program.
And he was right. I’m now in my third season as a team captain, and I can tell you for certain that things are different around here. Even in the games we’ve lost this year, we’ve taken things away that have made us better. Rather than getting discouraged, we’ve looked at our mistakes honestly and learned from them — really learned.
All that work, all that emotion and perseverance, that’s what doesn’t really ever show up in the final score of a game. You might see that we got beat 54–0 by Clemson last season, and then defeated them 27–24 this year. And of course you’re going to call our win last week an upset. But there’s a lot more to it than just the score.
Our program had been preparing for that moment for years. I had been preparing for it for a lifetime.
The result of the game is what captured people’s attention. But the process that led up to that — the way this program stayed together and how its fans never stopped believing in the players — well, that’s the story.
I was raised in North Philly by three amazing, strong women.
I want to start by mentioning that because it was those women who defined the person I am today. They taught me to be empathetic and understanding. They raised me to lead, even before I even knew what that word really meant.
My mom, Shelice, became pregnant with me when she was a junior in college. She dropped out of school in order to focus on supporting me — a sacrifice I’ve never forgotten. When I was really young she moved us in with my grandmother and great-grandmother, and that was my living situation for most of my childhood.
I always knew that I wanted to play football. Being raised in Philly in the heart of the McNabb era, I was obsessed with the Eagles. Yeah, Donovan and Westbrook were nice, but I always had my eyes on that defense. All those guys — Brian Dawkins, Jeremiah Trotter, Jevon Kearse — inspired me. That was who I wanted to be.
My mom resisted at first. She actually put me in karate instead. But after getting in trouble at school a few times for practicing my moves on my friends, she finally agreed to let me play Pop Warner, and I took to it right away.
Now my mom, all she cared about was making sure I was happy. She would always be the team mom — you know, the person who arranged the team party at the end of the year.
But Grandma? She wanted me to be a hard-nosed football player.
She was a real presence on the sidelines, even during my Pop Warner years. If there was ever a big play during one of my games, everyone within a mile radius knew about it because she’d start blowing her air horn over and over. Wherever she was sitting always instantly became the cheering section. Whenever we played in the cold, she’d bring a bunch of hot apple cider to the game for the players to sip. Without fail I’d always have my teammates hitting me up between series asking where Grandma’s apple cider was at. And she always delivered. That’s love.
As a player, my grandmother was pretty tough on me. It wasn’t enough for me to just be out there in pads. She saw that I had talent and made sure I never to a play off. So if I missed a tackle that she thought I could have made? Oh, I’d hear about it. Now I’m sure that to some people watching she seemed harsh… but how can you argue with the results?
Remember how I was describing all the work that goes on behind the scenes when you are preparing for something big? My grandmother and mom were very different in terms of demeanor and approach, but through football they had a plan for me.
The way they laid out my options for the future was as follows:
Option A: Go to college and earn a degree.
And that was it. There was no option B. What they wanted for me more than anything else was to become the first person in my family to graduate from college. My grades could get me in, but football was going to support that dream.
For a long time, it seemed like the plan was going perfectly. But then in February 2013, while I was a junior in high school, my mom passed away due to complications from a brain tumor.
This was around when I received scholarship offers from schools as far away as Arizona, but also from in-state powers like Penn State and Pitt. It was a time in my life that should have been really exciting. But it wasn’t.
At first the recruiting process was pretty overwhelming, but losing my mom actually made things a little clearer after a while. I got a better sense of what was real and what wasn’t. That was when I started to distinguish which coaching staffs were actually looking out for me as a kid going through a tough time, and which ones were just looking for a linebacker.
One of my first youth coaches, Eric Taylor, was the first person to turn me on to Syracuse. He was a person I’d always trusted, so I gave the program a shot.
I was supposed to visit for the spring game, but that week, my grandmother was in a hospital with kidney issues. Because of that, I didn’t know if I’d actually be able to make it up there. A couple of days before the game however, her health began to improve and it looked like she might get out of the hospital soon. So I felt comfortable leaving town for the visit.
Attending that spring game turned out to be life-changing for me. Immediately, Syracuse felt like home. I wasn’t just looking for a place to play football, I was looking for a family, and I found that in the time I spent with the players and the coaching staff there. When I returned to Philly, my grandmother’s health took a turn and she ended up passing away only three days later. She knew I wouldn’t have visited if she was in bad health, so it was almost like she waited for me to get a close look at my future before she left. In her own way, I think she was making sure I was ready to take my first steps into adulthood.
Of course I was sad. I’ll always feel sad about them no longer being with me. But I was also thankful for what they had done for me. They had given my life a clear goal and direction — now I was on my way.
And I was prepared.
The spring after my freshman season, our head coach at the time, Scott Shafer, asked me to come to his office to discuss leadership. He highlighted a lot of leaders he had coached during his career, then told me that he thought I was ready to step up and be a team captain the following season.
I honestly kind of looked at him like he was crazy. Being a team captain is something reserved for upperclassmen pretty much … everywhere. But he told me he thought I was ready. When my teammates backed up his judgement by electing me as a team captain, it was kind of a shock at first. There were a lot of seniors on that team who had passed down that honor to me. I dove into it as best I could, trying to become more vocal and lead by example.
Coach Shafer and his staff ended up being let go at the end of that season. It was a really difficult time because I’d developed a close relationships with the staff. They were a big reason I had decided to attend Syracuse, and them being gone just felt like another loss in my life. There was a lot of uncertainty around the program. Plenty of players were considering leaving, and I won’t lie, I thought about it too.
I was lucky to have a mentor like Coach Taylor in my life to help advise me. He made it clear that this change presented an opportunity for me as a leader. I could either try to start over somewhere else, or I could send a message to the guys who were on the fence about leaving by stepping up as their captain and letting them know that I wasn’t going anywhere. After some reflection, I decided I wanted to be part of turning this program around. I wanted to be part of a positive change.
So while rumors were swirling about who was going to be our next coach, I told my teammates who were having doubts that we had come to Syracuse together and we were going to finish at Syracuse together — no matter who our coach was.
And luckily for us, our next coach was Dino Babers.
Cal Sport Media/AP Images
The coaching carousel in college football is something else, man. Before I found out who our new coach was, just about everybody on Twitter had a different idea. Honestly, when I first heard that the school had offered the job to Coach Babers, I wasn’t sure what to think.
He had done well at Bowling Green, but I had no idea what that meant for our team. I had a lot of questions about whether he could get our guys to buy in. Was he a good fit at this program? Was he up for this job?
He answered all of those questions in about 10 seconds.
I’m serious, that first meeting he held with us, I knew pretty much immediately that this was the right coach. Coach Babers is one of those guys who has a certain aura about him — almost an “it” factor, you know. You can’t really describe it unless you’re around it. When he walked into that room to meet with the players for the first time, you could sense every guy on our team was leaning forward to hear what he had to say. Without having to make a display of it, it was clear that he was someone in control.
You really only learn about your coaches and teammates when you go through hard times. That’s what reveals true character. The process of winning is very difficult. The work that goes into winning takes everything. But the real test of character comes when you put all your energy and effort and trust into a game — and you don’t win.
That’s all to say that it was the way that Coach Babers handled himself during our losses last year that really prepared us to win this season. He always treated every game as a stepping stone, like we were working toward something bigger. Even when the victories didn’t come, it was clear that there were pieces, building blocks, that he was putting in place to help us eventually reach success.
By the time this season rolled around, there was a noticeable improvement on both sides of the ball. We were playing with more physicality and confidence. And all of us began to believe. We began to believe that, Hell yeah, we can play with teams like Clemson. We can play with anybody.
Even if no one else expected much of us, we all knew we had something to show the world. We just needed an opportunity to prove ourselves.
Coach doesn’t sugarcoat things. He’s honest about good effort and bad effort. That honesty led to improvement. That improvement led to trust. And that trust is what you saw on display last Friday night at the Dome.
I wouldn’t let myself celebrate until the last knee had been taken.
For some reason, even after we got a first down and Clemson was out of timeouts and couldn’t stop the clock, I wouldn’t let myself relax. I was locked in thinking that I might have to go back onto the field again.
Then I saw our offense taking a knee and I almost had to do a double take. It was like that Twitter meme:
Finally, the clock hit zeroes and everyone started rushing the field. I just grabbed every teammate I could and everything else was a blur.
I remember after the game we were in the locker room, everything was crazy, and I spotted this older guy who was wearing an orange polo — but not exactly the right shade of orange. It took me a second to realize that it was Dabo Swinney.
He had come to congratulate our team and let Steve Ishmael know he’s a hell of a player. I thought that spoke volumes about Coach Swinney’s character. A lot of coaches preach values related to respect and classiness, but Dabo in that moment showed us exactly what being a champion looks like. On that night, we were the better team, and he was tipping his hat. I think the way he handled himself could serve as a lesson to us all.
Hours after the game, I just remember feeling this sense of happiness for so many people. I was happy for my teammates. I was happy for our fans. And I was really happy for Coach Babers.
He deserved that moment. He’s not a coach accustomed to losing. Before last season, he had only experienced winning records with every team he’d ever coached. And after playing under him, there’s little mystery as to why that was the case.
I allowed myself a couple of days to celebrate the win. I treated myself to a cheesesteak at Varsity Pizza, which is pretty much the best you can do cheesesteak-wise this side of Philly. Then, I got refocused — because our work isn’t over. Not even close.
I still love playing here for the same reason I first decided to attend: This program — this university — it’s a family. We haven’t won every game that we should this season, but we’ve never gone into a single contest not fully believing that we could win. Of course every team will say they go into games thinking they can win, but there’s such a difference between that just being talk and a team truly buying into that mentality. That mindset wasn’t around my first three years here. It definitely exists now.
I’m really looking forward to these next couple of months. My mom was two classes short of her education degree when she passed. But this December, I’m going to get to walk across a stage and accept my college degree on behalf of her and every other member of my family who dreamed of this future for me.
It’s something I’m really proud of. But there’s still a lot more I’d like to accomplish in the time I have remaining at Syracuse.
For instance, winning a bowl game.
That’s something I’d love to do for my family.