Nov. 19, 2007
HOLLANDER HAS A FIGHTING CHANCE
Yale Captain Responds to Challenges
By Steve Conn
It's challenging enough to be a freshman trying to win a starting job on a varsity team at a prestigious university with a storied program. When the team is the Yale football squad, where newcomers earn starting roles about as often as the United States elects a president, the degree of difficulty grows exponentially.
Like the 30 or so freshmen who join the Yale team every year, Brandt Hollander faced that challenge in 2004. Worse, he did something that stacked the odds against him even higher. Practicing with the defensive line, he got into a fight with offensive tackle Rory Hennessey, who was an NFL prospect and happened also to be Yale's captain.
"We were in a pass drill," recalls Hollander, "and I was going too hard. Rory was pushing me in the back. I didn't know who it was at the time. It was pissing me off, so I turned around and swung.
"We started fighting, and then I realized who it was. We both ended up on the ground. All the offensive linemen took shots at me like I had insulted their mother. They really defended Rory. I didn't catch my breath until after practice.
I ended up starting a week or two later."
For Hollander, the brash young newcomer from Indianapolis, the incident was memorable. Hennessey says he never thought much about it.
"It wasn't a live scrimmage," says Hennessey, "and in those situations there is a kind of unspoken rule that linemen adhere to, coming hard for the first couple of steps and then easing up. ... The season was new and Brandt was a freshman trying to make his mark. I had just come out of shoulder surgery about two months earlier and was doing everything I could to stay away from unnecessary contact. (Injuries later would doom Hennessey's pro career.)
"As the review period progressed, I kept finding myself blocking Brandt not only after the first couple of steps, but after the whistle. He didn't slow down or ease up at all. I enjoyed that because that's how I liked to play as well."
Hollander was to become like Hennessey in other respects. Hennessey, who weighed 300 pounds, was the strongest man on the team. Once he graduated, Hollander took over that title. A chiseled 280-pounder, 6 feet 3, Hollander can bench press 500 pounds and squat 500.
This year Hollander has assumed another Hennessey role. Hollander is Yale's 2007 captain, the unanimous choice of his teammates.
For that, he gives Hennessey credit. "Rory was a phenomenal captain, and I really responded to him," says Hollander. "He gave me something to aspire to."
There are differences, of course. Hennessey wore his hair long and wild. Hollander likes the shaved-head look. Hennessey's background is Irish Catholic. Hollander is Jewish.
Yale normally doesn't publicize the religions of its athletes. I don't ask players about it, and it rarely comes up. At practice last fall, however, I heard Hollander calling my name. He had a question I'd never heard in 20 years around Yale: "How do I become a Jewish All-American?"
It happens that a number of Jewish publications ask for lists of Jewish athletes. Here was a name to give them.
There were some numbers to go with the name. As a nose guard, Hollander is supposed to draw double-team blocks and tangle up offensive linemen so his more fleet-footed teammates can fly through to make plays. His own statistics may suffer as a result. By the end of last season, however, Hollander already had racked up 96 tackles and nine sacks in his Yale career. That made it easy for The Jewish Review to name Hollander a first-team All-American. I was thrilled to be able to nominate someone for that honor and more elated to tell him he'd made it.
The honors he's won are not all so narrow in scope. As a freshman he won the Charley Loftus Award as Yale's rookie of the year. He followed that up with All-Ivy League honorable mention in 2005 and first-team All-Ivy and All-New England status last season, when Yale shared the Ivy title with Princeton.
Further honors are likely if Yale beats Harvard today to complete an unbeaten season.
Hollander has accomplished everything so far through focus, determination and a top-notch football intelligence, not to mention arms and legs that could squeeze a ball carrier hard enough to leave a pigskin impression on his chest. Hollander has become an advertisement for the Ivy League even though he says he doesn't like school and had to be goaded into coming to Yale.
"I was a pretty arrogant kid with a chip on my shoulder," he says. "I didn't want to come to an Ivy school. I wanted to play Big Ten football and get a scholarship and play on the highest level."
Coming out of North Central High in Indianapolis, he seemed to have the credentials. He was first-team all-state in football, wrestled his way to the state semifinals and battled for individual state titles in two track and field events. He earned a total of 11 varsity letters and was named a National Football Foundation scholar-athlete.
None of the Big Ten schools, however, offered a scholarship. The best offer he had was for a "preferred walk-on" spot. That's when he heard from Joel Lamb, then a Yale coaching assistant. That's when his parents began to love the idea of having a son in New Haven.
It took a challenge, however, to make Hollander focus on getting here. The challenge came from a fellow student, a kid Hollander calls a bookworm. "I was in the international baccalaureate program at North Central, taking AP (advanced placement) classes," he says. "I didn't want to do it, but someone told me I couldn't do it. Then I spent the next two years doing it anyway.
"It was a pain in the ass, but that may be what got me here." And what of the bookworm? "He applied to Yale but didn't get in," Hollander says.
Hollander's parents also helped nudge him here.
"When I was in high school," he says, "I was too young to understand the impact of an Ivy League education. Fortunately my parents were able to convince me to give it a shot. Having been here for four years, I recognize that having the opportunity to attend Yale has been the greatest thing to happen to me, and it has changed my life in ways I could not have imagined.
"However, in my youthful ignorance I chose Yale because I liked the jerseys better than Harvard's. Yale had a Nike contract, and the coaching staff had been in contact with me before other Ivy schools." A political science major affiliated with Silliman College, Hollander lives in a loft apartment with teammate Louis Gresham. Gresham is an offensive tackle. Hollander has won friends and respect on both sides of the ball.
"It's a challenge every day, going against Brandt," says Ty Davis, Yale's junior center. "He is arguably the toughest guy on our team and, in my opinion, the best defensive lineman in the league. He has only made me better.
"Brandt is a testament to the identity of our team. We are a group of selfless individuals working together and not settling for anything less than perfection."
Hollander plays down his role in the defense. "I just run into the guy in front of me and see where it goes from there," he says. "We have a loose scheme. I just line up between Kirk [Porter] and Jared [Hamilton] and go up the middle. We are out there drawing up plays in the sand. Kirk tells me where to go and I just roll with it."
Yale head coach Jack Siedlecki puts it this way: "Brandt disrupts things. You have to put two guys on him in pass protection. When he gets in that dominant role, he frees other players to do more."
With the captaincy, it's hard to share responsibility. Hollander's role changed dramatically when he went down with a leg injury during this year's preseason scrimmage with Princeton. Yale players, coaches and fans collectively held their breath when he was hurt. He missed the rest of preseason practice and sat out the opening game at Georgetown. Unable to lead by example, he had to rethink his leadership role. He knew his coaches and teammates had questions about his ability to bounce back.
"Being captain put a lot of stress on him," says his position coach, Duane Brooks, now in his 11th year on the Yale staff. "He wanted so badly to get out there and lead the team. He needs to lead by example, and he couldn't do that. Brandt is sensitive. He is kind of my son."
Hollander appreciates Brooks's concern. "Coach Brooks has been like a father figure to me," Hollander says. "He is an unbelievable coach and has shaped my Yale career. I have grown up so much at Yale, and he has been a huge part of that. He is what an Ivy player needs, someone to keep you focused and to keep your head on straight."
If Hollander is close to Brooks, he's even closer to his own father, Gene Hollander, who coached him in secondary school. Brandt being their only child, Gene and his wife, Kathy, have come east for every Yale game since 2004.
And Gene hasn't yet stopped coaching.
"In sports, Brandt has always had an open mind, even with his parents," Gene says. "This year, during halftime of the Lehigh game, I was able to speak with Brandt as he stood outside, waiting to take the field for the second half. I told him I thought he could get through the opposing center by extending his arms and bull-rushing him. On the first defensive play, Brandt sacked the quarterback. He jumped up, turned toward me in the stands, and thanked me. It doesn't get any better than that."
Brandt acknowledges his dad's influence in many respects. "My parents have had the greatest impact on my career," he says. "I've spent most of my life following in my dad's footsteps. He played football and wrestled at my high school. He played the trombone, like me, and he wore the same (high school) number (74). He's always been there to talk to. I talk to him before and after each game."
They'll talk again this weekend, for certain. And if Yale wins today, Gene and Kathy Hollander will have something to tell the folks in Indianapolis: Their son the football player led his team to a perfect season at a prestigious university with a storied program.
Steve Conn is Yale's Director of Sports Publicity.