Aug. 24, 2009
WASHINGTON, D.C. - When he found out that he had broken his jaw during the second game of the 2008 football season, Robert Lane wasn't thinking about how his season had unfortunately ended. He was thinking about how he quickly he could get back out on the field.
And in each of the previous three off-seasons, Lane didn't dwell on the games the Georgetown football team lost during the year. He focused on what he could do to help the Hoyas get better.
This year, as the Hoyas wrapped up their second week of preseason camp, Lane has carried that same type of focus, determination and intensity to the practice.
Sure, he's a senior and he knows this could be his last shot at helping to build the program into the winning one he knows it can be, but he's also carrying a different weight.
As he departs the team's locker room in McDonough Arena and enters the Multi-Sport Field each day, Lane has been donning a jersey that carries a very special significance to many people associated with the football program and with Georgetown University.
Lane wears the No. 35 jersey, the uniform given for the last seven years to a Georgetown football player who best embodies the spirit of Joe Eacobacci, a former Hoya standout who was killed on Sept. 11, 2001 in the World Trade Center terrorist attacks.
To honor Eacobacci, a former captain and all-conference selection when the team played in the now-defunct Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the football program decided the best way to honor him would be to present the jersey each year to the player who played with the same focus, determination and intensity.
"Absolutely, I feel responsibility," Lane said. "With the number 35 on my back I know, that at no point no matter what I can show weakness. I know exactly how it feels to be in the middle of the fourth quarter watching and realizing how hard Steve (Smith, (Nicholas) Umar, or Buz (Alex Buzbee) would be playing no matter what the circumstances.
"It showed not only me, but the rest of the guys that they are still going 120% and everyone needed to step it up even more. It is motivating to the team to see that #35 run around and make plays, but now the roles have switched and ill be the guy that's doing the motivating through my intensity on the field. I am ready to take on this role, and will be playing every play with Joe in my mind."
The list of players who have donned that jersey since it was first presented in 2003 includes some of the best players in recent years. Matt Fronczke was the first. Then it was handed to two-time All-American defensive end Michael Ononibaku for two-straight years. Next was Alex Buzbee, a defensive end who is now playing in the National Football League with the Washington Redskins. The last two years have seen linebackers Stephen Smith and Nicholas Umar, two of the team's leaders, carry on the tradition.
In looking at that list, one specific aspect of the players stands out - they were all defensive players. This year, Lane will be the first Georgetown player from the offensive side to wear the number.
"I'm very aware of that," Lane said. "I think it makes it even more special for me. At the same time, I think it adds to the importance of it for me this year. There has been a standard set and I just hope that I can live up to the guys before me."
Annually, the No. 35 jersey is presented at the team's season-ending banquet. Lane had missed most of the 2008 season after breaking his jaw and was in the process of going through rehabilitation to get ready for the coming season.
Sure, he had thought about what it would be like to the guy selected, but it was never really more than a passing thought.
Then, he heard his name called.
"Surprised is an understatement," Lane said. "Up until the award ceremony, I was under the impression that the jersey would be given to a defensive player, since it has always been given to a defensive player.
"I was actually talking with Zac (Barbiasz) and Joey (Tavarez) at our table, each of us throwing around names of who we thought was going to get the award, and then Coach (Rob) Sgarlata said my name. My heart skipped a beat and everyone turned to my table as I stood up and slowly walked to receive the award. From that point on, I thought to myself 'Wow. If you thought you were training and playing hard before, you better get real and step it up another notch wearing this jersey.'"
Lane also feels a sense of responsibility to the Eacobacci family.
"After the award presentation, I was lucky enough to be able to meet the whole Eacobacci family and meeting them made me realize once again how important this award was to them," Lane explained. "I met them with a hug instead of a handshake and that in itself meant a lot to me as I realize they expect me to play with the heart that Joe played with every game.
"Meeting the Eacobacci family inspired me to go out even in the spring game a couple hours later and leave it all on the field. Hearing Coach Sgarlata speak so highly of Joe and what kind of person he was, I realize I have some big shoes to fill, but am completely ready to wear the jersey."
Since he has been on the Hilltop and been around three of the previous recipients, Lane saw how they prepared themselves day-in and day-out for practice and games. And having it presented to him from the 2008 recipient, Umar, one of his close friends, made it hit home more.
"Nick and I have been great friends on and off the football field, since I got to Georgetown," Lane said. "The past two summers we were both in D.C. training with the team and even worked together loading and unloading kegs for a local bar every Wednesday morning so we know each other pretty well.
"When it comes to practice, he was the spark on the defense. He always played with an attitude, with a chip on his shoulder, and with a huge heart. I loved competing against him on the weekdays and competing with him on Saturdays, so to be handed the award from Nick, it meant a lot. It was as if he was passing a torch, and without saying anything I knew he expected me to play with the same attitude, intensity and heart he played with."
Lane has seen the news clippings from the New York Times and USA Today about the importance of the Eacobacci jersey to Georgetown and he has seen what the recipients have gone on to do, with some on Wall Street, another in the government and one in the NFL. He know there is a lot to live up to.
"I have never met nor seen Ono or Matt Fronczke play," Lane said, "but everything I have heard leads me to believe they were great all around guys and played with the same intensity that Nick, Steve, and Buz each played with. I was fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to play against everyday the latter three in practice.
"Playing offense, I frequently had to block these guys and, to be honest, they made my job hell. Blocking them was very difficult because I knew they were going to bring it 120% everyday, on every play. And I think that says something about Joe Eacobacci and how he used to play and lead by example. With all of these guys having had the honor of wearing the prestigious jersey, and knowing what kind of effort they gave day in and day out, I know Joe played with the same great intensity that Nick, Steve, Buzz and Ono played with."
It is that type of intensity that he hopes to carry over to his younger teammates. Lane had heard the stories when he first arrived at Georgetown in 2006, but it was never a conscious effort to work so hard to put himself in a position to wear the jersey. It was just the way Lane has always played.
"Once I got to Georgetown and heard how good of a ball player Buz was, I knew that wearing #35 was a huge deal," Lane said. "Once I heard that the jersey meant carrying on the spirit of Joe Eacobacci and the great person he was, I realized it was an even bigger deal. I didn't consciously make it a goal of mine to attain the award, but instead I realized that everyone on the field should be going as hard as #35.
"I made it a point to do just that, every play, be it at practice or a game on a Fall Saturday. I didn't make it a goal to get the award, I made it a goal to play as hard as the #35 on the field, whether that meant Matt, Ono, Buz, Steve, or Nick."
Lane and his teammates have goals set for the 2009 season. He knows the record of the last three years and he knows how hard he has worked, but he also knows the responsibility he carries in wearing that No. 35 will be even heavier this year.
"Without a doubt in my mind, this is the greatest honor I have ever received," Lane said. "It is an elite group of guys that I have so much respect for, playing to carry on the spirit of Joe Eacobacci.
"Being out last season with my injury, I have been itching to get back on the playing field and that in itself was motivating (missing the game of football). Now that I will be wearing #35, I am even more motivated to go out everyday and give it everything I have. I really can't wait for this season, as I know it will be a special one for us and am happy to be with the captains in leading this charge.
"I will always think about Joe when I put on this special jersey in honor of the special guy he was."
By Mike "Mex" Carey
Sports Information Director