Friday, March 20, 2009

Interview with Greg Abbruzzese!

The Abbruzzese clan today

Greg Abbruzzese '92 burst into the mindset of most Columbia fans one October day in 1988, when his standout running darn near brought the Lions a victory at Penn in an nationally televised game on ESPN.

But he and fellow tailback Solomon Johnson '92, had already made a huge impact as freshman on the 1987 frosh team that went 6-0 and brought so much hope at the same time the varsity was still mired in its record losing streak.

Sadly, injuries and some different offensive philosophies kept Abbruzzese and Johnson from shattering the Columbia record books. But for one shining varsity year, 1988, they made some real history.

A week after that close loss to Penn, the tandem made the most history of all as they led Columbia to a stunning 16-13 win over Princeton on Homecoming to end the 44-game losing skid.

Abbruzzese had 182 yards on 37 carries and Johnson scored the winning touchdown in the game that sent the student body into a frenzy.

The following season, both Abbruzzese and Johnson, (known as "Abba" and "Solo"), went down with injuries and things were never quite the same. But both stayed with the program, taking medical red shirt years, and continued to contribute through the 1991 season.

Greg is still a very strong supporter of Columbia athletics and a frequent correspondent of mine over the last few years. He graciously agreed to do the following interview for Roar Lions Roar!

Jake: Describe your high school football career and how you decided to come to Columbia.

Greg: I matriculated to Columbia from Phillips Exeter Academy. I was being recruited by West Point, Boston College and several other Ivies to play football and baseball. After meeting with Coach McElreavy, who was up at Exeter recruiting a few teammates, I played a few VHS tapes, (dating myself), for the coach and then he offered me a slot - providing that I commit on the spot. Naturally, I did ...

J: Obviously, the big story when you decided to come to Columbia was the fact that the Lions were in the midst of that long losing streak. Were you 100% aware of that when you signed on, or was it a secondary thought?

G: Yes, I was aware of the streak, however, that was completely a secondary thought. My education was a priority and football was a distant second.

J: Your freshman team went 6-0, describe what it was like playing for that squad while the varsity was 0-10.

G: I came from a very successful high school program, so our success with the freshman team was seamless. We were looking to bring the momentum from our freshman class to the varsity level during our sophomore year (at the time Freshman could not play on the varsity). Unfortunately, there were a few roadblocks, most notably, Harvard, Penn, Leigh and Lafayette. The "streak" never really affected me, or several other players. The streak was more media hype than something that was actually discussed among my teammates on a daily basis.

J: What was the feeling going into the 1988 season with the streak standing at 41 straight losses at that point?

G: Every year we were looking to improve, yet we had this albatross around our necks. During every interview, it was more of a story than the game at hand.

J: When did you know that you and Solomon Johnson were going to be the featured offensive weapons despite the fact you were both sophomores? Did you have a good healthy competition relationship with "Solo?"

G: Solo and I were (and still are) really good friends. We roomed together on the road and we roomed on campus together as well. We both brought different skill sets to the backfield. At camp (Blair Academy), we were fortunate enough to put together a few good scrimmages and things took off from there. Solomon and I were never jealous of the other's success.

J: The first two games of the '88 season were blowout losses, but then the team, and you in particular, had a breakout near win at Penn on national TV. What are your memories of that game?

G: Well, it was a nationally televised game, so everyone was really excited that their family and hometown could watch them play on TV. I was fortunate enough to have some successes in that game and we kept it close for most of the game. We were starting to be more cohesive as a unit, which built up a lot of momentum toward Princeton.

J: Obviously, the following week was the big streak-ending loss against Princeton. Describe your memories not only from that game but the week of practice leading up to it.

G: It was a Homecoming weekend, so naturally everyone on campus, and the team, was excited. The BIG event leading up to the game was the campus Lip Sync contest at "The Plex" (campus night spot), the Friday night before the game.

(*Editor's note: "The Plex" is no longer, as it was located in the basement of Ferris Booth Hall. While I made many, many mistakes at the also now-defunct West End bar, the only dumb thing I ever did at "The Plex" was enter a 70's dancing contest)

Solomon, Hector Carter, Floyd Ewing, and I performed "Candy Girl" by New Edition and won (my future wife, Laurel, with her Alpha Cho Omega team were runners-up, I must note). The majority of the team was at the event,(breaking curfew), awaiting the results. It was a great way to start the weekend. Princeton, on the other hand, had the Garrett brothers and they were picked to win the Ivies that year. We all wanted to perform well in front of the home crowd and we knew that being so close at Penn, we might have a chance.

J: After the game, you appeared on ABC-TV with Coach Mac, what was that like and what do you remember about the partying on campus the night of the win?

G: After winning the game, we were one of the big (sports) news feeds of the day/week. I was really happy for my teammates and all of the hard work we put in to achieve this goal. There were guys in the locker room crying tears of joy because they almost went all three years without a win. That evening was something that I will never forget... goal posts on Broadway, shutting down a few streets, people were happy for the players, the coaches and the University.

J: The team seemed to sleepwalk through a lot of the remainder of the '88 season, but there were some close games, especially the game at Dartmouth in week 8. Why do you think the team seemed to let down a bit after the Princeton win?

G: The Yale game, (away), was the next game after Princeton. We knew there would potentially be a letdown, but they came at us pretty hard. We just made too many mistakes that they capitalized on immediately after kickoff. The balance of the season was simply losing some key players to injuries, quarterback issues and some bad luck. Fortunately, we beat Brown, with Chris Della Pietra at the helm for the last game of the year and the seniors went out with a win!

J: You finished up the year on a big high note with a great blowout win over Brown where you ran all over the Bears. What do you remember from that game?

G: Yes, the line did a fantastic job and we really came together as a unit. I was fortunate to gain few yards, but was penalized for an end zone dance. I wasn’t sure if the penalty was for excessive celebration, or lack of rhythm? That, by far, was our best executed game as a team.

J: What was the team's psyche and what do you remember best about the events that led to Coach Mac's ouster at the end of the year?

G: You see, there were players that were loyal to Coach Mac, who were recruited by him; and then there were players who were recruited by Coach Garrett, who did not share the same fondness toward him. There were a lot of rumors and behind the scenes things going on that I was not privy to. The transition was difficult for everyone involved.

J: How optimistic were you about the 1989 season during the preceding spring and summer and how devastating was the injury that kept you out of the lineup that season?

G: I worked really hard in the off season to prepare for the new coach. The team had a new direction and we were all excited about the prospects going into that season. Unfortunately, I tore my ACL in pre-season and I decided to take a red shirt year. The injury put a great deal of things in perspective and I was really looking forward to the following year.

J: When you returned to the field in 1990, what was the biggest difference you noticed in the team and what was the biggest difference in the coaching styles of Coach Tellier and Coach Mac?

G: I was still around the program a great deal, so there was not much of a difference with regard to team chemistry or anything like that. The coaching philosophies of Coach Mac and Coach Tellier were, however, vastly different. Coach Mac ran the ball more, whereas Coach Tellier wanted to throw more. Consequently, we didn't necessarily see eye to eye on a few things. I'll leave it at that.

J: The 1991 season seemed to be marked by close loss after close loss, did you guys feel like there were an inordinate amount of bad breaks coming your way?

G: Yes, there was a great deal of bad luck, however, we were making progress by keeping the games close. To me, we were heading in the right direction and that was what was most important.

J: Like Bob Kent, you ended up marrying a CU cheerleader who, like Bob's wife Clare, became an accomplished career woman in her own right. Can you tell us about how you met Laurel?

G: I met Laurel Freshman year of school. She was a cheerleader and I was on the Freshman team. Laurel and I had a lot in common, she went to St. Paul's School and I attended Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. Laurel loved Columbia so much that she earned her Doctorate there and is teaching in the PT program at the Med School campus on 168th street.

J: What did you do right after graduation and how has your career path gone?

G: Upon graduation, I moved to Atlanta with some friends from home. I knew that I always wanted to stay close to athletics and I eventually landed a job at Reebok, in their field marketing department. After a few years in Atlanta, I began working for New Balance in a similar capacity the New York metropolitan area, while going to grad school at NYU. Upon completion of my Masters Degree in Management I became a National Account Manager for New Balance. I left New Balance shortly after earning my degree and then I joined Converse as a Senior Director of National Account Sales, where I am now.

J: Tell us about your family today.

G: Laurel and I have three lovely children and live in Teaneck, NJ. My eldest daughter, Ms. Lydia, is 10 years old. She has a rare genetic condition called “cri du chat”. Basically, her condition is similar to that of a severe Downs Syndrome child. She goes to a Special Needs School, The Felician School for Exceptional Children in Lodi, NJ, and is thriving there. Ms. Emily is 7 years old and is taking up dance like her mother,(they performed in a local production of the Nutcracker a few months ago). Ms. Chloe is 4 years old and enjoys soccer and dance as well, (she was a mouse in the same production of the Nutcracker).

J: Do you get to a fair amount of football games at Columbia nowadays? And what's your impression of the program overall?

G: I manage to get to 1-2 Columbia games a year. It becomes difficult to manage with all of the kid’s different schedules. Nevertheless, no matter where I am, I try and hear the games on the radio or on the net with you and Jerry Recco.

A lot of other fooball alums and I would like to see more progress. If you look at Harvard’s second team, for example, they would probably be ranked 3rd or 4th in the Ivies. It all comes down to getting even more athletes. We have some pieces of the puzzle, but depth is an issue at some key positions. I'd also like to see us get more transfers in the skill positions. NYC is a GREAT recruiting tool, combined with the best education in the country, we should be in contention for the Ivy title.


At Sat Mar 21, 04:58:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My son overlapped with Greg at Exeter and told me that Greg would be a player. What I remember about Greg was that he was a true cut-back runner, one of the best I had ever seen as a sophomore. I strongly recommend the old video on the famous Princeton game. If you hadn't seen it, do so. You'll see Greg pile up the yards by cutting back against the grainover and over again. The amusing part is the live sound feed; the Princeton D couldn't stop him and at one point started screaming at each other "those guys stink!" out of sheer frustration. Too bad that Greg tore up his knee. He would have been another Ed Marinaro had he stayed healthy.

At Mon Mar 23, 05:17:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Greg was a great running back with a good head on his shoulders.

Glad to hear he's doing well.

At Mon Mar 23, 10:25:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How do we get to see that video of the '88 Princeton game?

At Mon Mar 23, 08:06:00 PM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The video was sold by the Athletics department. It is in VHS format. I'm not sure if it is still available. It is absolutely thrilling and as fresh today as it was 20 plus years ago. I'd be willing to donate my copy to Jake if he doesn't have one, or I can send Jake the original if I can figure out how to copy it without vilating any copyright laws.

At Tue Mar 24, 02:36:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great! Would love to see it!!


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