By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - For much of Alex Tounkara's life, he didn't dream of playing football. For much of Jordan Culbreath's life, he didn't dream that football would be taken away from him.
Both Ivy League seniors are making the most of opportunities this season, and their inspiring stories have seeped into the fabric of Tounkara's team at Brown and Culbreath's at Princeton.
After Brown's 17-13 rally past Princeton on Saturday, Tounkara can bask in the spotlight of his Bears being tied for first place. But Culbreath is coming from a different perspective, so Princeton's cruel run of injuries that worsened in the loss didn't diminish from his thrill of being on the field again.
Before this season, Tounkara didn't have any receptions in his varsity career. As a senior, he's become one of the more productive wide receivers all of the Football Championship Subdivision - just when the Bears needed him the most.
Culbreath, meanwhile, was once the most productive running back in the Ivy League - its rushing champion in 2008. His playing career was then taken away last fall while he battled aplastic anemia and bone marrow failure, a disease which put his life in danger. That he would ever play again - as he has this season - didn't seem remotely possible.
Culbreath's touchdown run in the second overtime against Lafayette last month lifted Princeton (1-4, 0-2) to its only win, but on Saturday he wasn't there in the end when the Tigers could have used his heroics. A neck and shoulder stinger knocked him out of the game in the first half after he carried the ball six times for 40 yards, with one reception for five yards. The injuries to the Tigers' offense started to catch up to the ones inflicted on top defensive players all season, and starting quarterback Tommy Wornham's likely season-ending shoulder injury was the most damaging. The Tigers built a 13-0 halftime lead, but they were not the same behind Andrew Dixon's lead in the second half while Brown (3-2, 2-0) sidestepped a potential damaging defeat.
Culbreath could still take solace in just being at Princeton Stadium instead of where he was this time last year - fighting for his life in a hospital.
"It's definitely great to be out here. Every game that we get is a blessing for me," said Culbreath, whose playing time has been monitored while he has given Princeton 243 yards on 48 carries. "It's an opportunity that I didn't think I'd have.
"The whole experience has definitely changed my perspective on football and on life in general. I definitely look at the game a lot different knowing that it can be taken away at any time."
In essence, Culbreath was continually fatigued last fall and was at a high risk of infection as his immune system attacked his bone marrow. A blood donor was not immediately found, so medication was used to suppress the white blood cells that doctors felt were killing his bone marrow.
His teammates didn't recover emotionally after the team lost Culbreath early in the 2009 season, but after a 1-5 start in what was coach Roger Hughes' 10th and final season, Culbreath's return to campus for the Cornell game last Halloween proved to be mental therapy for the Tigers. Emotionally lifted by just the prospect of seeing him, hugging him and being able to talk to him, they went on to beat the Big Red, 17-13. The momentum carried into a 4-6 final record.
Health-wise, the native of Falls Church, Va., isn't completely out of the woods, so almost everyone was surprised when he returned to the playing field this preseason. Few teammates knew beforehand "because I didn't want to make any promises that I couldn't keep and I wanted to make sure that I could handle the responsibility," said Culbreath, who is a team captain.
"Mentally I was where I had left off, but physically I was a couple steps behind where I thought I should have been," said Culbreath, whose aerospace engineering major is as daunting as it sounds. "I have gotten my wind back and I've gotten my stride back. My strength is a little bit lower than where it was when I first left, but I'm having to make up for it with other things.
"I get my blood checked weekly to make sure that my platelet count is above the threshold that I set with the doctors. Other than that, I feel good. I get a medication once every two weeks and I haven't had any issues so far.
"The medication as it is now will always be a part of my life. I won't always have to get it checked weekly after football is over."
At Brown, the way Tounkara has inspired his teammates doesn't involve any life-threatening situation. What he has done is shown others what hard work and determination can do for an individual, and, ultimately, the team.
Playing football was not part of Tounkara's plans as he grew up. He was born in Guinea and moved to Belgium when he was young. He and his older brother James dreamed of going to an American college and came to the United States when Alex was 14. When they first settled in Lansdowne, Pa., Tounkara wasn't fluent in English, let alone in how to play football.
His brand of football was soccer. But after he moved to Staten Island, N.Y., at 16, Tounkara, ever the natural athlete, took up football at New Dorp High School and started to flash potential, which eventually drew the attention of Brown coaches.
"He was very raw as an athlete. We took a chance on him just because we saw he could run," Brown coach Phil Estes said.
After Tounkara arrived at the Providence, R.I., campus, "We basically had to start from square one in trying to teach him football," Estes said, "how to run a route, how to catch. But he's a guy that really takes to the coaching and listens and works hard and watches film. He's an incredible kid."
So nobody envisioned how much the lanky, 6-foot-4 Tounkara would start to dominate opposing cornerbacks this season. He was scintillating in his first career start against Stony Brook last month, grabbing 12 passes for 160 yards. He entered Saturday's game against Princeton ranked fourth in the FCS in receptions per game and fifth in receiving yards per game. Another six receptions for 69 yards - both team highs - moved him to 38 receptions for 501 yards and a touchdown this season.
"When I got my chance to shine, I just felt like I wouldn't be doing not only the team justice but those guys who left a legacy behind if I didn't work as hard as I can," the international relations and economics double major said.
"It was not easy. Just some concepts are so different in football. It's such a team sport, you can't do anything by yourself. You have to block, you have to catch, you have to know all the plays, you have to pick each other up. It wasn't too easy, but after awhile I got the hang of it."
His teammates "understand that football is fairly new to me and that sometimes some coverages or plays don't come natural to me. But, at the same time, they expect me to do my job just like I expect them to do their jobs."
The Bears did their jobs in the second half, erasing the 13-0 deficit. They have moved forward without Kyle Newhall-Cabellero, the All-Ivy League first- team quarterback last season, who has a broken wrist, and senior Joe Springer helped assert himself into the No. 1 job against Princeton.
Springer was 21-for-31 for 185 yards. He helped lead Brown on a third-quarter drive that Mark Kachmer capped with a 2-yard run. Then Springer's pass to Jonah Fay on an 8-yard slant tied the score at 13-13 with 7:39 left in the fourth quarter, with Alexan Norocea's subsequent PAT putting the Bears ahead.
Norocea's 38-yard field goal with 2:21 to go capped the scoring and the Brown defense did the rest. Princeton managed only 43 yards in the second half, and 34 came in the final minute on the Tigers' lateral-and-hope straight out of the Cal versus Stanford playbook.
"It's nice to have control of your own destiny, you can really take it one game at a time," Springer said after Brown moved into a first-place tie with Penn and Yale. "We're not scoreboard watching. If we can take care of business, we'll be in good shape. It's a pretty good luxury to have."