Long's cancer fight inspires Pinstripe Bowl
For as many years as they play the Pinstripe Bowl, no coach is likely to give a better pep talk than the one Kansas State coach Bill Snyder delivered at Yankee Stadium on Monday night. It wasn't a win-one-for-the-Gipper classic in the locker room; it was a private talk at a dinner, to a player on the opposing team who won't even suit up Thursday.
Snyder sought out Syracuse punter Rob Long to tell the young man that he is and will continue to be a winner. He encouraged Long to give it all he has in his fight against brain cancer, a condition Long didn't even know he had a month ago.
"To hear that from somebody I had never met before yesterday, that was a real nice thing to hear," said Long, a 22-year-old who plans on being able to tell the story of this week in New York City for many years.
The inaugural Pinstripe Bowl is turning into quite an experience for everyone on both teams, who arrived amid a blizzard to play the game at Yankee Stadium Thursday afternoon. But it probably means more to Long than anyone else. He got to see his teammates for the first time since he learned Dec. 2 that he had a brain tumor and learned Dec. 20, following surgery, that there were malignant cells.
He was reunited with the guys who called to encourage him after he got the bewildering news that he must have aggressive radiation and chemotherapy. The senior and special teams captain was able to tell his buddies - the guys with whom he shared the struggle to put Syracuse football back on the map - that he will be on the sideline with them tomorrow. He even got to take a few punts Tuesday during practice at the Jets training facility.
Quarterback Ryan Nassib found it hard to describe the feeling of seeing Long get out of the elevator in the team hotel. "He's our leader," Nassib said.
Long put it this way: "Honestly, just being with my team is a little escape from everything around me. It's kind of like going out and playing on the playground. As far as kicking and punting, it's like therapy for me."
Who would have dreamed of therapy for a seemingly healthy college kid? Long did not think much of his occasional headaches at first. And he simply had not been punting very well and had been unable to figure out why. On top of that, he just was not feeling well. The team doctor prescribed an MRI, which showed something. He received that news the same day his aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer.
"I can't really describe it," he said. "It's like your world came crashing down."
He feels good physically, but he admits that it has been tough to get to sleep at night, when thoughts keep bouncing around in his mind.
Waking hours have made him that much more determined to stay positive. He smiled readily and spoke animatedly Tuesday afternoon during a meeting with the media at the Grand Hyatt. He vows that he is going to recover and that he will punt in the NFL.
It helps when people remind him that the odds can be beaten. Snyder told Long about his daughter who was so seriously injured in an auto accident that it appeared she never would walk again. The coach added, "She is walking today."
"I've spoken with many people who have beaten cancer and have gone on to live happy and successful lives. Those are the stories I love to hear," Long said. "I hope I'll be able to tell that same story."