By TOMMY HINE
He was a Yale captain and an All-Ivy pick in football and a three-time All-American and Hall of Famer in lacrosse.
But the strength of character that separated Jon Reese from other great Yale athletes was his effort and attitude. Win or lose, he left nothing on the field.
"Folks can say Jon Reese had a special athletic career, and I can say, 'OK, let's say that's a given,"' Reese said at his induction into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame last Saturday in Hunt Valley, MD. "But the ironic part is that I've lost nearly every big game I've ever played in football and lacrosse. I don't know if it's every big game, because you won a lot of big games, but I certainly lost the biggest."
In Reese's sophomore year, Yale played Harvard in football before a capacity crowd at Yale Bowl, and the Bulldogs lost.
"It was one of those days when the wind chill was probably minus 20 degrees, a very unique day, and we lost to Harvard before a jam-packed Bowl," Reese said.
As a senior, Yale had already clinched the Bulldogs' first Ivy League football championship in 10 years under head coach Carm Cozza, and then it played Harvard in the season finale.
"We had beaten Cornell, and then we came back and beat a very good Princeton team the next week," said Reese, credited with 122 tackles in 1990, his senior year. "Harvard wasn't a great team that year but, lo and behold, everything they did worked that day, and we lost again before a near-capacity crowd."
Reese and Yale had a similar disappointment in big games on a lacrosse field his senior year when he set the current NCAA scoring record with 82 goals.
"If you don't win the national championship, you always ended your season with a loss," said Reese, the '87 Ivy League rookie of the year in lacrosse and the '90 Ivy League and New England player of the year. "We got to the Final Four. We were a team that overachieved all year long. We played in the rain, and we were a team that only played 11 or 12 guys. That caught up to us at the end of the game, and we lost.
"So, when I talk to young people, it gives me a chance to deliver the message: 'OK, I am supposedly the big hot-shot athlete, but I've lost every big game I've played.' The message is that I was always the last person to leave the field after all of those contests, because I was proud. I felt a lot of pain, but what that told me then and now is that I had worked my butt off. I gave everything I had."
The pain Reese felt after a big-game loss was comforting, satisfying and very rewarding, all at the same time.
"After a loss, there are two types of pain, and it works on the field as well as in life," said Reese, who won four Ivy League championships in the two sports he played at Yale. "There's regret, and there's heartbreak. I wish that none of us have to feel that pain of regret again if we go out and live life to its fullest. If we go out and make it count, we won't feel that pain of regret.
"But for those of us who feel the pain of heartbreak, I congratulate you. That means you've invested everything you've got. The pain of heartbreak is actually a very good feeling ultimately. You're feeling a loss, because you've given it everything you've got, and it hurts because you lost it, whether it's a game before a packed house at Yale Bowl or the death of a best friend. That's the message I try to carry on."
Never in his career did Reese exhibit his strength of character more than during the week of the Cornell game in his senior year. Four days before that game, Reese was severely injured in a car accident en route to practice.
"I went into the hospital on a Tuesday, and I was unconscious for at least a day, " said Reese, Yale's all-time leading scorer in lacrosse with 200 points and 162 goals,. "I didn't eat until Saturday. My brother, Jason, who was three years ahead of me and a lacrosse goalie at Yale, came and got me out of the hospital on Saturday morning.
"The game plan was for me to go out and lead the team in jumping jacks."
When Reese's backup at linebacker was injured early in the game, the injured Reese ran right past Cozza and put himself in the game. "It was one of the most powerful moments in my life, and I was very fortunate," Reese said. "It didn't seem special to me at the time. It seemed like that's what you're supposed to do. You go out there for your team and you go play for your coaches. My legs were fine. People ask how do you get out of a hospital bed with a broken jaw, torn ligaments in your elbow, a cast on your elbow, a broken nose, countless stitches and no teeth. For me, that's what you do. I was the captain.
"The training staff put together a big rubber pad to go over my elbow on my left arm and a helmet to protect my broken jaw and broken nose. That helmet is ugly, but that helmet is infamous. It still sits on the mantle in my living room."
After the game, Reese was re-admitted to the hospital, and he stayed there a few more days. Ironically, that performance while injured eventually earned Reese his first job interview at Lehman Brothers in New York.
"The guy interviewing me turned his back to me, put his feet up on the window and fired a couple of questions at me," Reese said. "I certainly wasn't happy with the way it was going or with his apparent disinterest. He was sort of attacking me and at one point, he spun his chair around and said, 'You're a hot shot who has done some interesting things. What makes you so special? What makes you better than the other 500 people out there?'
"That got my feathers up a little bit, and I leaned in and said, 'I'll tell you what, sir. You want me to tell you something about me?' And I told him about the story of the Cornell game. Then I stood up and said, 'You're right. I don't know what those people do there outside your window, but I'll tell you what. If you teach me, I'll do the job better than anyone has ever done it.'"
Reese was still working on Wall Street when the Twin Towers were destroyed on Sept. 11, 2001, but he was one of the fortunate employees at Lehman Brothers that day. He wasn't in the office when the planes hit.
"I had just left Lehman Brothers and went up to the HSPC office in Midtown that day," Reese said. "I was actually on the phone with my best buddy a bunch of times that morning."
Reese's best buddy was one of more than 20 close friends whose lives were lost that day while working in offices in the top of the towers.
"I tried to keep going back to the office after 9/11, but I was getting more and more angry," Reese said. "I didn't want life to keep going on the way it was. I didn't know what I wanted. Everything was up for grabs."
"It started me on a journey that wasn't a perfect path. It was very difficult journey, but it's gotten me to a really, really neat spot. I'm enjoying my family. I'm helping people, and every day is a pretty good day."
That journey took Reese to two spots, culminating with his Hall of Fame induction last Saturday. His father, Walter, a former Syracuse lacrosse player and Long Island coach, his mother Marian, his brother Jason, his wife Barbara and their three children, Jonathan Jr, Christopher and Katelyn, were in the audience to share his special day. They all had a lot to be proud of.
"After Sept. 11, I really tried to go out and share the message that life is short," said Reese, who lives now in West Islip on Long Island. "I was fortunate in the fact that because of my athletic career and my Wall Street career, I could get the attention of young people. I'd show them my championship rings or talk about the NCAA scoring record in lacrosse. Then, I'd talk about the amount of money being made and spent on Wall Street. I really got the kids' attention, and then I was able to point to a picture down at the end of the dais, a photo of my best friend and his family who I lost on 9/11. I was fortunate that I had these experiences, and that I could get people's attention and then deliver the message about making it count."
In December 2009, Reese founded his organization using those same words - - - the Make It Count Foundation, an organization whose mission is to help inspire people everywhere to make the most of their lives. Having been greatly impacted by the events of 9/11, Reese devoted the rest of that decade to charitable and philanthropic causes that would impact not only the quality of people's lives but also the direction. As a real estate developer, he lent his expertise to Habitat for Humanity, dedicated his time and talents to bettering the education and health of children and helping members of the military re-establish their lives after fulfilling their service duty. Reese's organization has just completed two home renovations for members of the military, and he would like to do 10 renovations for service members every year.
"At first, I lent a hand to anybody who needed help," Reese said. "Anything I could do. I'd build a back deck for someone. I'd put in a bathroom. I'd convert a basement into a bedroom for a family that was having their fifth child. I coached virtually every sport, at every age, to try get the message out there. I was doing a lot unofficially, and I wasn't quite sure where I was going to go with it.
"I found some consultants who could help me navigate the paper work, and the Make It Count Foundation is everything I believe in. We concentrate on three principals: health, housing and education. My feeling is that the stronger you are in those three areas, the more prepared you are to go out and make the most of your life . . . to make it count."
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