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Courtesy of Gianmarco Rea

The Light Blue senior linebacker, the leading tackler in the Ivy League, reflects on his expectations heading into his college football career.

Dear 18-year-old Gianmarco, 

Congratulations! 

You’ve been steadily pursuing your solitary goal of matriculating into an Ivy League school for the past six years or so, and you’ve finally achieved it! You’re going to Columbia and playing football. 

You’ve arrived. Your life is set! You’ve been granted a golden ticket—redeemable in four years to choose whether you’ll be the next president, a billionaire investor, or a cutting-edge scientist. No matter what you do, you’re destined for professional success. Ivy League education, check. 

Don’t forget, you’re committing 40+ hours per week year-round to Columbia’s football team. Not to worry, though—you’ll be hailed as a distinguished member of the student body, respected for combining academic and athletic success, and you’ll be met with an abundance of admiration from all your peers. Perks of being a college football player, check. 

What about Columbia’s seemingly insatiable appetite for losing football games, you say? Not to worry, we have a head coach with a Super Bowl ring from the New England Patriots who will quickly put an end to that. You’ll have an over-sized, diamond-studded Ivy League Championship ring—or two—to accompany your degree, no problem. And heck, if all else goes wrong, you’re still living in the greatest city in the world. Athletic glory and top-notch geographic location, check. 

Right?

Well… not exactly. 

The reality is that you’ll be entering what would later become known as the “Dark Days.” This first phase at Columbia will be defined by dragging yourself out of bed at 4:45 a.m. to catch a bus thirty minutes later up to 218th Street and Broadway for practice, returning to 116th Street by 11:30 a.m., and walking straight from the bus stop to your 11:40 a.m. class. Don’t forget to read your nightly 50-75 pages of Homer, Plato, Ovid, or Euripides, find time to write your University Writing essays, study for calculus, and memorize your sonatas, symphonies, and operas for Music Hum. 

No, Gianmarco, that’s not your morning alarm, those are your fellow Carmanites blasting music on a Tuesday, Thursday, or Friday night. Quick, get back to sleep. You have to wake up in one hour.

You’ll value opportunities for 10-minute naps as if they were a gift from God. Make sure not to forget about maintaining some semblance of regularity in your eating and hydration habits as well. Your body weight will be expected to stay within a three-pound range, and weekly hydration tests will be conducted. You’ll be sentenced to four hours of cleaning the weight room as punishment for not having the required hue of urine.  

(Courtesy of Gianmarco Rea)

On the football field, you’ll look at the older players ahead of you on the depth chart and wonder if you’ll ever be big, fast, or strong enough to play linebacker. Oh, and I forgot to mention one key fact, and make sure you take a deep breath and fasten your seatbelt for this one: The Columbia football program won’t experience the type of turnaround that you were expecting—going 0-10 both of your first two years. 

Yes, you will go 0-20 in your first 20 collegiate football games at Columbia University. 

Your peers will author articles about the perpetual futility and the monumental failures of the football program. You’ll begin to question why you’re halfway across the country from home and whether you even want to continue playing a sport for which you’ve had unquestionable love ever since you could remember. Some of your friends will quit the team, transfer, or simply fold under the immense pressure and anxiety.

Your sleep deprivation may begin to get the best of you during Lit Hum, as you start to feel as if Dante left out the 10th circle of the Inferno—as in, Columbia.  

If that knocked you out of your seat, get back up and hear me out. Yes, you still have time to withdraw from Columbia and enroll as a student at Michigan, where  many of your friends and twin brother go. It’s only a 45-minute drive away from home. 

But what would that say about you? What would you be missing out on? 

Well, remember how your first choice was to play football at Penn? With a strike of irony, luck, or both, half of the Penn coaching staff will be taking over coaching responsibilities at Columbia after your sophomore season. Around this time, you’ll also begin to take advantage of the vast resources and opportunities offered at Columbia by accepting an internship to work in real estate investment in the city the summer after your sophomore year. 

During that time, you’ll live near Union Square (14th Street and Third Avenue), commute to Broad Street in the Financial District in the mornings, work for nine hours, and take an hour-long subway up to 218th Street every day after work for summer football workouts. 

You’ll discover why New York City is considered one of the greatest cities in the world. You’ll also discover that it is in fact possible to sweat through your suit and tie while riding a crowded subway in the dead heat of summer. Turns out, though, that despite the excessive suit-in-the-subway perspiration, that summer will end up being one of the greatest experiences of your life.

As junior year rolls in, you’ll be starting at the linebacker position for your second consecutive season—being a part of the eighth ranked defense in the FCS instead of one of the most porous ones. As momentum carries over from junior year into senior year, you’ll work another internship in the real estate industry, and the 14-hour summer work days will become second nature to you. By the grace of God, you’ll start your third consecutive season in a row without injury, and, with the addition of an outstanding recruiting class, the Columbia football program will build on the improvements it made during the previous year. 

You’ll help win the first Homecoming football game at Columbia in 16 years, and you’ll defeat Brown in Providence for the first time in a decade. Although an Ivy League championship will elude you, you’ll feel a deep sense of fulfillment for managing to emerge from the “Dark Days” to assist in building the foundation for a program that has the makings for many successful seasons to come. 

You may not truly realize it until you’re a retired and washed-up ex-college football player with a sore neck and a couple crooked fingers, but this experience has much more to offer than accolades, external validation, and recognition. Upon recounting the roller coaster of emotional and physical challenges that Columbia has presented you, you’ll begin to understand that rewards of more substance and long-lasting value are upon you.

You’ll find yourself realizing that through all the trials of suffering, doubt, anxiety, and uncertainty, you were left with some of the most humbling and powerful lessons that you may ever learn. To make your four years at Columbia a successful experience, you’ll have to meet your challenges with unwavering discipline, an unrelenting work ethic, perseverance, persistence, sacrifice, and resilience. You’ll form unbreakable bonds with a group of men from many different backgrounds, who you’ll be able to call not just teammates, but brothers. Without them, none of what you are about to encounter could possibly be conquered. 

You’ll also grow to truly appreciate and see the full manifestation of your parents’ selfless love for you, as they put you first and sacrifice everything they have to put you in the best possible position for success. Columbia will also provide you with several instrumental mentors, alumni, professors, coaches, and peers, who will all contribute to your growth throughout your journey. As you probably can guess, there will also be many people who will doubt you. Thank them for the motivation.

Your biggest fear should be staying in your comfort zone, which is the only time you aren’t progressing or growing. Be ready to fail—it’s inevitable (although you should be ready for the Wagner QB to throw one right at you during your junior year; it might be your only chance for an interception). Try not to pity yourself when you’re met with obstacles, because this thing is a marathon and you’re going to have to overcome a whole lot more than a dropped interception along the way.

Good luck,

Gianmarco

Senior Gianmarco Rea is a linebacker on the football team, leading the Ivy League in tackles this season. 
From the Lion’s Mouth is a content series that provides Columbia’s coaches and student-athletes with a platform from which to share their experiences and connect with the Columbia community.

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