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Cory Booker’s college football struggles echo in his presidential campaign

OtherCory Booker's college football struggles echo in his presidential campaign

That day at his parents’ house near Hackensack, it wasn’t Booker’s physical traits that impressed those gathered. It was his maturity and the way he handled himself around Holtz. After the interview, Booker’s high school coach Jim Miceli remembers his wife leaning over and saying, “‘You know what? That kid could be president some day.'”

Booker ended up committing to Stanford out of high school. But when he got to Palo Alto, California, the expectations he carried with him from New Jersey failed to translate. He didn’t play a down until his junior year. And even when he did see the field, he was hardly the star he’d been back home. In four years of college football, Booker never started a game, caught just 20 passes and scored one touchdown.

Interviews with Booker himself, along with former coaches and teammates, offer a point of comparison to another time in Booker’s life when he struggled to meet high expectations. His failures on the football field may also inform how Booker deals with the frustrations of a listing White House bid.

BERKELEY, CA - NOVEMBER 17: Cory Booker #81, John Lynch #17 and Jason Palumbis #12 of the Stanford Cardinal jog onto the field prior to the game against Cal on November 17, 1990 at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, California.

As a presidential candidate, Booker is running as a happy warrior. On paper, he looks like the ideal Democratic nominee: US senator, longtime progressive mayor of a big city, African American and a bridge between wings of his party. His reputation leans more toward pragmatic problem-solving than ideological rigidity. He’s even got bipartisan credibility as the chief proponent in the Senate for the criminal-justice reform bill favored by the Trump White House.

And yet things haven’t clicked. His fundraising has been lackluster. His message hasn’t punched through. In a crowded field, Booker has tried to stake his claim on criminal and racial justice, but has yet to break through on those issues in a Democratic primary currently more focused on health care and taking on President Donald Trump.

In short, a promising career has so far failed to translate on the biggest stage, although he will have the opportunity to make a splash at CNN’s Democratic debate in Detroit on July 30 and 31.

The parallel is not lost on Booker, either. In an interview in his home in Newark, Booker admits that his failures as a college football player remain fresh in his mind and are newly applicable to his current situation.

“This definitely has echoes of many past experiences of my life where, again, here I find myself a David walking onto a field and having to fight Goliath,” Booker told CNN. “This feels very familiar to me.”

A broader view of life

There was little doubt that wherever Booker ended up playing in college, he was well positioned to move on to the next level. Holtz was one of a handful of top-flight coaches calling on Booker. Duke, UCLA and Stanford were all recruiting him. Former President Gerald Ford personally lobbied Booker to play at the University of Michigan; Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young did the same for Georgia Tech.

That year Booker was named to USA Today’s All-USA team, a list that included more than a dozen future NFL players. Big and fast, Booker was a triple-threat who played wide receiver, tight end and safety. To college recruiters, he was the total package.

His choice of Stanford — a major conference school but with an elite academic reputation — also reflected the likelihood Booker would pursue something other than professional football. He had been his high-school student council president and a good student.

“I knew back then that football was going to be an extraordinary ticket but not a destination,” Booker said.

But Booker didn’t play during his first two years on the Stanford team. On full scholarship, he still practiced and trained with the team, but he became a fixture on campus in other ways.

“You don’t miss Cory in a room,” Samantha Davidson Green, a classmate and close friend of Booker’s from Stanford, told CNN’s Mackenzie Happe. “He kind of lights it up. He was always like that. He was friendly, and warm, and gregarious. I think some of the football players kept to themselves and were on their own schedule. Cory was always reaching out to people of all different backgrounds.”

Booker got deeply involved with a 24-hour crisis hotline for students on campus, and was an All Pac-10 honors student, majoring in political science. He also began volunteering in East Palo Alto, Silicon Valley’s poorer “inner city” populated largely by Latinos and blacks.

Cory Booker (#81) plays against USC at Stanford on Oct. 13, 1990. (Photo/Stanford Athletics)

“I always knew he was going to be some type of leader in some way. He was entrepreneurial, very engaging,” said Paul Nickel, who also played tight end for Stanford and was his roommate during one summer.

“When you’re at Stanford, you run across a lot of guys like that,” said Brian Billick, the former Stanford tight ends coach who went on to win a Super Bowl as head coach of the Baltimore Ravens. “They’ve got a broader view of life.”

That broader view helped fill in the gaps created by the disappointment from his lack of playing time, Booker now says.

“Those early years at Stanford were the greatest gift to my life,” Booker said. “Having two years for that, becoming an A student at Stanford and still have football and then really fall in love with what became my life’s goal, which was service.”

Once it became clear football wasn’t his path in life, say teammates and coaches, Booker charted a different course. “For a lot of guys that’s very tough, very dramatic,” said Andy Papathanassiou, another Stanford teammates. “When football didn’t work out, he wasn’t one of these guys who put on a sad face. He became known and active in another area.”

It was no surprise the outgoing football player was elected senior class president at Stanford. Coaches, Booker recalled, started barking “Mr. President” at him in practices. Billick says his nickname for Booker at the time was “the Governor.”

Finally, a chance to play

Still, expectations remained high for Booker on the football field. “Like many guys that come into college, Cory came in with a great reputation and great skills,” Papathanassiou said. “Cory, like all of us, dreamt of getting out there.”

Booker did get his chance to play starting in his third year at Stanford, with the Cardinal squad now led by head coach Denny Green. Two years younger, Nickel recalls seeing Booker for the first time on the practice field that season. “We were running routes, and I see this big athletic guy in a split-out [formation],” Nickel said. “I remember he made this incredible one-handed catch.”

Booker’s role as a versatile tight end would have fit in with Stanford’s pass-heavy offense. Billick recalls Booker as “very coachable” and a good “all-around player” and particularly praised his blocking skills. But he struggled to get much playing time over two seasons, getting on the field for just 7 plays in 1989 and 13 plays in 1990.

That latter season, Booker’s last in a Stanford uniform, Nickel started at tight end. Nickel remembers Booker taking his second-string position in stride and even being something of a mentor in the film room and on the practice field. But it was a big letdown for Booker, who was watching his dreams of football glory wither.

“He was aware and humbled, but he wasn’t insulted by it or blaming anybody for it,” Nickel said of Booker being passed over for the starting position.

‘Nice catch by Cory Booker!’

The pinnacle of Booker’s college football career came on October 6, 1990, in South Bend, Indiana. Stanford, in the midst of a lackluster season, was going up against the undefeated, number-one ranked Notre Dame, led by none other than Lou Holtz. Booker wasn’t supposed to play, but midway through the first half, the starting tight end, Nickel, had to come out of the game with an injury.

Booker went in and, in his teammate’s words, “played his ass off.”

Booker’s performance in South Bend that day is preserved in a grainy video on YouTube that captures two key pass plays. In the first, he appears to tower over the Notre Dame defenders trying to bring him down. He gracefully dodges one tackle before lumbering toward the sideline, where it takes two Irish players to bring him to the ground.

“The first big play offensively in the game for Stanford,” says the play-by-play announcer as the Cardinal squad continued a touchdown drive.

In the second play, Booker makes a leaping fingertip catch over a defender.

“Nice catch by Cory Booker!” the announcer cries.

“He had two incredible catches, he kind of gave us some life, and the next thing you know, we’re upsetting the number-one team in the country,” Nickel said. Stanford won the game, 36-31.

The Notre Dame game remains a peak and pivotal moment for a young man who would find himself at a crossroads in a few weeks.

“It was one of those nights where you get home at night and feel the good kind of tired,” Booker said. “I took a deep breath, and I remember saying, ‘Okay, I’ve done it.'”

The next week, Booker scored his first and only touchdown in a Stanford uniform, against the University of Southern California. But after the season ended, he had a meeting in early 1991 in Denny Green’s office that Booker says would “change my life.”

Green had already suggested that despite his fifth year of eligibility, Booker was probably not going to be asked to play again. So Booker was excited to hear that Stanford had decided to keep his scholarship. But as he told his coach he was ready to play another season, Green interrupted. “You don’t understand,” he had said. “We’re letting you keep a scholarship here at Stanford, but we’re not letting you play football.”

PALO ALTO, CA -  1989:  Cory Booker #81 and his Stanford Cardinal teammates jog on the field during warmups prior to a football game during the 1989 season at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, California.  Other visible players include Scott Eschelman #34, Alan Grant #2, Kevin T. Scott #3,  and Gary Taylor #15

“Talk about a crushing moment,” said Booker, who recalled being in a daze for hours or even days. With no plans for grad school or much of a clear idea about what was next, one of his main identities — a football player — was taken away. That’s when Stanford professor Jody Maxmin called to encourage him to apply for a Rhodes scholarship. He would spend the next year at Oxford, then on to Yale Law.

“Life gives you these incredible gifts at times disguised as failures or setbacks or knockdowns, these humbling moments that ultimately end up being turning points for you to greater opportunity beyond that which you imagined,” Booker said. “And this was yet another football gift to me, to be able to play at high level, Division I competitive football, to sit with a guy who would go on to be…a playoff coach, and have a moment that you think is a devastating end, and it turns out to be an extraordinary, unimaginable beginning.”

Waiting for a ‘Rudy’ moment

Booker is an eternal optimist who speaks in the phrases of a motivational speaker. Every challenge in his life is transformed into a lesson, an opportunity — in his telling, a “gift.”

But there’s an undercurrent of impatience and even defiance in the way Booker talks about expectations for him professionally and politically. “This gift that football gave me was just preparing me to face the darkness, to face the doubters, to face the naysayers, to face the critics, and to realize that in life you can’t let what’s outside of you ever chart your course,” he told CNN.

But right now, Booker’s course to the White House looks off while many of his opponents are thriving.

Elizabeth Warren has defined herself clearly as a left-populist hero who never fails to “have a plan for that.” Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of a city (South Bend) with a little more than a third the population of Newark, has carved out a niche as the Democratic primary’s surprise hit. And Kamala Harris confronted frontrunner Joe Biden in the first debate and emerged as a potential consensus candidate who could also effectively taking on Donald Trump in the general election.

All of them occupy lanes that Booker might have conceivably laid claim to. “I suspect candidate differentiation is an issue for him. With so many impressive candidates, it’s hard for him to stand out,” said Paul Begala, Bill Clinton’s campaign manager in 1992 and a CNN contributor.

For his part, the New Jersey senator seems to be waiting on a miraculous conclusion — his own “Rudy” moment. ‘This is where a lot of my religious upbringing, which was definitely mixed with football, [comes in],” Booker said. “I just have this extraordinary faith that this is all as it should be. And this could be one of those great comeback stories like we’ve seen before in politics, like we’ve seen before in football.”

This story has been updated to reflect that the Booker campaign’s priority issues are criminal and racial justice.

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