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Setbacks Don't Hold Back Cavanaugh

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By Dartmouth
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By Bruce Wood
for Nov. 7, 2009 Football game program

            If there were any justice fifth-year senior Kyle Cavanaugh would be penning another chapter in one of the great comeback stories in Dartmouth football history today, perhaps separating the ball from a Cornell player with one of his trademark hits, scooping it up and sprinting down the sideline for the game-winning touchdown.

            In a cruel irony, the only running Cavanaugh will do will be up the Memorial Field steps to the press box, where he'll spend the afternoon as an assistant coach after having his medical redshirt season ended by a knee injury even before it began.

            The wonder is that he can even make it up those steps after everything he's been through.

            A lanky, 6-foot-2, 190-pound safety, Cavanaugh started at free safety for Dartmouth in his first game as a collegian in the fall of 2005, making six tackles and a shoestring interception that helped the Big Green to a stunning 26-21 win over Colgate and earning a place on the Ivy League honor roll. One week later he made nine tackles starting against New Hampshire.

            For anyone who saw him play and could almost hear the air come out of ballcarriers when Cavanaugh hit them, it was obvious that the kid from Wayne, N.J., was a star in the making.

            "I come in the first couple of games and I'm playing pretty well," a wistful Cavanaugh recalled last week. "I'm thinking, 'This is my freshman year. I'll start 40 games. I'll be on my way to the NFL. Everything is going to work out like in a storybook.'"

            But as the Yiddish proverb says, "Man plans, God laughs."

            After making a splash in the first two games of his college career, Cavanaugh missed the Ivy League opener against Penn the next week because of lingering pain in his left knee. When an MRI revealed a torn meniscus, his freshman year was finished almost before it had begun.

            Cavanaugh had his knee surgically repaired and was healthy enough by spring to make the Dartmouth baseball team as a walk-on and start 12 of the 23 games in which he played.

            He was ready to make up for lost time on the gridiron as a sophomore, only to see a second season in a row ended prematurely, again before he could play a single Ivy League game. This time the culprit was a broken fibula against UNH. Although the injury required five screws, a plate and a lengthy rehabilitation that ultimately ended his baseball career, the dignity and determination with which he handled the setback showed something to his teammates.

            "Even when he was clearly down and sick of being hurt, he had the discipline to show up to every rehab session and every team practice," said 2008 co-captain and classmate Andrew Dete. "And he never gave up hope of getting healthy and trying to help his team win."

            As a junior Cavanaugh played in the first four games, missed three and then returned for the final three despite tendonitis in his Achilles, groin and back issues, and more problems with the ankle that, unbelievably, would eventually require a third surgery in as many years.

            Although he was hampered by bulging disks during spring drills before his senior season, Cavanaugh was finally healthy and typically upbeat last fall. He appeared in the first five games before spraining his medial collateral ligament in his right knee and missing the last five.

            To the surprise of absolutely no one, at season's end the soft-spoken and even-tempered Cavanaugh was a runaway winner of Dartmouth's Manners Makyth Man Award.

            "When he got up to speak he was as emotional as I have seen him about the whole situation," said Dete. "I think it was a great moment of realization, for him and for all of us, of what he had done and been through."

            But he wasn't through yet. If ever someone was deserving of a medical redshirt season, it was Cavanaugh. And he still had that one last chance to write his storybook ending.

            Back on the field last spring he gave every indication the encore year would be one to remember, making the first crushing hit of spring drills even before the team was in full pads. That was par for the course according to Dete.

            "I believe it was early in preseason sophomore or junior year because we were just in helmets, but sure enough, as Brett Lowe was bending his seam route into the middle of the field Cavanaugh couldn't help but come across and level him when the ball got there," Dete remembered. "In another situation that would have meant a fight, but everyone knew that Cavanaugh meant no harm. He just loved to hit and couldn't stop himself, so we all just laughed and yelled 'Cavanaugh!' very much a salute to the way he played."

            Cavanaugh made the first tackle of the Green-White scrimmage last May. He was in the best shape of his college career and head coach Buddy Teevens already had penciled him in as a starter.

            "Man, was he hitting people," Teevens marveled. "That first tackle it was, 'WHACK! Yup, Cav's back.'"

            But then, just three plays into the final session of the spring, Cavanaugh landed awkwardly at the end of a seemingly innocuous play. His ACL was torn. Facing another lengthy rehab, his career was over.

            "If there's anybody who deserved things to go differently this year, it was him and he didn't have the opportunity," said Teevens with a shake of his head. "You ask yourself, 'Why? Why him?' But life goes on for him. He's always smiling. He's always happy. He's always upbeat."

            His playing days behind him, Cavanaugh has been spending this fall as part volunteer coach, part team manager, part mentor to the Big Green's young players.

            "Anything he can do to make the football program stronger," said Teevens. "I really appreciate personally his dedication to what he's doing. Not many people could do what he's doing. He'll pick up stuff, lock the gate, mentor the younger guys, pick somebody up when he's down.

            "His world is interesting because he's not in the playing sphere any longer, and he's not really in the coaching world. He just has a great way about him. He'll pull some of the younger guys aside and talk to them. In his own way he'll come over and say, so and so is homesick or so forth. He's just been so helpful."

            It was Reggie White who said, "God places the heaviest burden on those who can carry its weight," and given the way Cavanaugh has dealt with setback after setback, the late NFL Hall of Famer might as well have been talking about him.

            "You can always play the, 'What could have been,' scenario in your head," Cavanaugh said with equanimity. "But that only leads you down a path that is going to make you upset or depressed. As hard as this has been, it has brought about a lot of positives.

            "I placed a lot of my identity in football and I think it's natural to do that because it's such a big part of an athlete's life. Just going through these injuries I was forced to take a step back and ask, 'Who am I?' Football was going to end at some point sooner or later so I was going to have to ask that question, 'What is my life all about?'"

            Cavanaugh is a person of strong faith and that faith has only grown stronger with each hurdle put in front of him.

            "Everyone goes through trials in life. It's just the way it is," he said. "Sitting where I am now and looking back, it was a lot harder when I was going through it. I remember sleepless nights and conversations with my parents. I remember having to give up baseball and just how hard that was.

            "There were a lot of those sleepless nights and tears and pain, but ultimately it was one of the best things in my life. It was what God used to bring me to the point of understanding what this life is all about."

            Cavanaugh will graduate in December and isn't sure yet where that life will take him. Hardly a city boy despite his New Jersey roots, he'd like the immediate future to be in the Upper Valley for that and other reasons.

            "I'm not sure what I'll do if it's not coaching," he said. "I've thought about getting into some type of service or ministry stuff. I don't know what that would look like. I might eventually want to help people in the developing countries, or even locally. Or it might be the ministry.

            "I love working with kids so that's something I'd have to look into it more."

            That doesn't surprise the coach who recruited him to Hanover.

            "He will always be a guy who will mentor younger people," Teevens said. "In what profession, I don't know. But I would encourage him, whatever he does and wherever he ends up, to stay in football in some way because he's really good with it and good with people."

            In the meantime, he's still got two more Saturday afternoons climbing the Memorial Field stands on that reconstructed knee.

            "I'm doing pretty well," he said with a smile. "I've been able to jog a little. There's still a ways to go with the strength. It gets sore now and then, especially if I'm running around a little bit, so it's not quite there, but it feels a lot better than it did a couple of months ago. I've just got to keep going in the right direction."

            You can bet he will. And in more ways than one.

A veteran writer and observer of Dartmouth athletics, Bruce Wood launched a web site in 2005,, specializing in Big Green football news coverage.