Tiger Captains Gather to Celebrate The Gift of Their Lives–and The Gift of Life

  • November 8, 2017


Vic Ruterbusch went down 1000 feet into the sea as a Navy diver, and, as a psychiatrist, has gone even deeper into the souls of our most elite fighting men. Yet at the bottom of his heart, he cherishes no experience in life greater than the one he will share Saturday on Powers Field at Princeton Stadium with 54 former and forever Princeton football captains.

“Coaches may pick you to start,” said Ruterbusch ’83, “But captains are chosen by the players and they chose me.

“In the game and in warfare, the team is so much more important than each individual. And I am most proud of the fact that the guys trusted me.”

They cross multiple eras and varied occupations, plus share the extraordinary levels of success in life you would expect.  None of the three we are profiling here–Ruterbusch, Steve Reynolds ’80 and Jordan Culbreath ’11–played together, yet they partnered in the experience of leadership to such a degree that their answers were similar to what the honor meant and still does, perhaps more than ever.

From Royce Flippin ’56 to Dorian Williams ’17, they may have put down the football, but still carry the privilege of being a Princeton captain for the rest of their lives.

“I came in as a freshman walk-on, not knowing anybody,” said Culbreath. “Getting eventually voted captain shows I earned my teammates’ respect,”

Admiration and love is all we can take with us after we die. Any championship rings are left behind to heirs.  These three men never won an Ivy championship, although Reynolds, who quarterbacked the 1979 Tigers to the program’s first winning season in nine years, came close. The team Ruterbusch captained in 1982 went 3-7; in Culbreath’s senior season, his team plummeted to 1-9.

No one will be counting wins like pelts as the captains gather, however. And none will express any regrets about attending Princeton. Reynolds, who sent three kids to the University–including Matthew ‘09, who played football–remains one of the closest alums to the program, a speaker at Career Nights to Tigers who want to follow him into law.

“Without Princeton I wouldn’t have accomplished nearly as much in my life,” he said, “The place molded me athletically, academically and, I think, socially.

“It sets you up for the next 40 years.”

Every year, only the best and the brightest are admitted to Princeton. And then they, in turn, vote for the extraordinary few to lead them in whatever their campus activities. In 148 years of Tiger football, there have been only 186 captains, 84 surviving, and a remarkable 54 of them, coming from all over the country, will be in attendance Saturday to be honored by the Princeton Football Association at halftime.

“The members of this fraternity are as much a list of legendary players as a list of legendary people,” said PFA President Steve Simcox ’83.

“There is a common denominator. They were chosen for putting their teammates first, for their leadership, fortitude and energy.  And that is as true today as when they were selected.”

** * *

As Reynolds says, Princeton opens doors. But after graduation Ruterbusch had one almost immediately slammed on him. And he came from behind like it was only a three-point halftime deficit.

“I must be the only person with a Princeton degree who ever enlisted in the Armed Forces,” he said.

After being voted All Ivy as a linebacker his senior year, and taking a failed shot in Miami Dolphins camp, Ruterbusch’s 2.9 Princeton grade point average, a manifestation of all those hours spent on football and varsity wrestling, couldn’t get him into medical school.  So he went home to Bay City, Michigan, and then to Tempe, Arizona to teach high school English and coach football. He says he enjoyed it, especially the coaching, desiring to move up to the college level. Yet Ruterbusch couldn’t shake the dream of a career in medicine.

“A cousin, a Navy doctor, who was a three-sport guy at Central Michigan University, told me about the Health Professional Scholarship Program in the military,” he said. “It changed my life.”

While serving as a Navy diver, he enrolled in a master’s program in Exercise Physiology at the University of Maryland, raised his score in Organic Chemistry from his Princeton C to an A, retook the MCAT and scored a 30R, and began applying again to medical schools. In 1996, 12 years after Princeton, Ruterbusch was accepted at Wayne State University in Detroit.

Five years later, he was applying for a residency in physical rehabilitation medicine when the first Iraq war broke out. When he returned, there was no program available that Ruterbusch wanted.

“At Princeton, my pre-med major was what they called physiological psychology, so psychiatry was a second love,” he said.  So he became a shrink, eventually for guys in the Navy Special Warfare Group, whom our nation cannot afford to have shrink while performing the most dangerous and secretive duties we can only imagine.

Under such stress, Navy Seals prove human, sometimes even faster than the rest of us. Ruterbusch became their counselor.

“I was going overseas three or four times a year to take guys out of a place like Syria to bring them back to Heidelberg, Germany,” he recalls.  “I went through the entire Seals team doing interviews.

“Their missions are unbelievably trying, physically and emotionally. They had lost their buddies or, when they were away, lost their wives.  There is all kinds of stuff that goes on. If they are having serious psychological problems, I spend time with them.

“On patrols over and over again for six months, they return to the United States for a year and then go back again for another six months.  A lot of guys I worked with have been deployed to Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan multiple times. Each time they do, they lose what we call ‘bandwidth.’

“There are concussive (from weapon explosions) headaches and, of course, orthopedic stuff because these guys train like professional football players. Traumatic brain injuries produce hearing loss and vision loss. Sleep disorders are a big thing, as you can imagine.”

Ruterbusch has had deployments to the Mediterranean, to the Baltics, and spent two months of 1996 on the USS Grasp, diving to recover bodies after TWA Flight 800 mysteriously plunged into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Long Island. He also did time in combat areas in response to Marine medical casualties, treating the burned and the maimed.

Based in Coronado, California, where the Navy Special Forces headquarter, he also teaches underwater demolition while a large part of his psychiatric practice has been to deal with the effects of trauma upon a Seal’s family life.

“How do they keep a family or a marriage together when they go way so much?” said Ruterbusch. “It’s a struggle to have some balance in their lives.

“When they go home they don’t do much of anything, kind of socially withdraw.  Pretty soon the quality of life starts to deteriorate. Hopefully, I get to see them before they get to that point.

“The guys I see have depleted themselves, but don’t want to quit.  They need help but they don’t want to ask for it, because they don’t want to not be a Seal any longer. If we work out something that requires medication, they won’t be able to continue. So often these guys just limp through for several years before they come to see me.

“Because of my Special Warfare background, many who came to me weren’t going to the other psychiatrists.   Since I started there, there has been a 300 per cent increase in guys seeking help. They have trusted me. I don’t go to the Commodore and tell him they have issues until they are ready to drop out.”

While stationed in Hawaii, Ruterbusch did two years as a Child Fellow and became a board certified Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist in addition to treating the adults.

“People have told me, ‘Vic, it’s kind of weird going from a Navy Special Warfare guy to children.’ I say, ‘Do you know any Navy Seals? These are men who love shootouts.  It’s all adolescent medicine.”

The sons and daughters often need help, too.

“Dad is away a lot, might get killed,” said Ruterbusch.  “Or ‘Dad is a Navy Seal but I am not going to be one so I don’t feel good enough.’”

On Wednesdays he sees children, not just military children. One of his own two, 14-year-old August, has transgendered into a boy; his big, tough father from a military and football world having the training to understand his son and the compassion to embrace him.

“My son is amazing,” said Ruterbusch. “He has a beautiful voice and loves acting.  Everybody who meets him loves him.

“I am fine talking about it. I’m a child psychiatrist. Almost 47 per cent of transgender kids don’t get support from parents–or from schools when they are bullied–and kill themselves.”

Kids will become his sole focus when he retires from the military in 18 months, after 30 years.  “A child psychiatrist is what I want to be when I grow up,” Ruterbusch laughs.

Meanwhile, he extends his own adolescence as Princeton’s arm wrestling champion, not an official designation, but an evidential one. There is no record of anybody being able to take him.

“At reunions, Coach (Bob) Surace thinks of somebody to challenge me,” said Ruterbusch. “They brought me Caraun Reid.  I didn’t know Caraun at all and I’m getting old but I still work out 4-5 days a week, and at 6-2, 225, I am basically at the same size as when I graduated.  So I am not going to back down.”

Neither did Reid, until Surace interceded. “Vic about broke Caraun’s wrist,” said Surace. “I said, ‘no more, no more.’

Ruterbusch sent the coach an American flag flown in Afghanistan, where word had reached of Princeton finishing better than 3-7 these days.  The psychiatrist has never wound up on somebody’s couch, talking about how the Tigers slipped from a winning 1981 (5-4-1) in Ruterbusch’s junior season to 3-7 under his senior captaincy.   “We had a lot of attrition, and our defense had difficulty against the pass,” he said.

If they would trust him for safekeeping the coin he has been chosen by Simcox to toss before the kickoff Saturday, Ruterbusch would buff it to a military shine. He will be proudly in his Dress Blues, next best thing to being in orange and black.

“No one will ever take away those memories,” he said. “I have a satisfaction that I did the best that I could.”

“My son is not going to play football; that’s his choice. But if he came to me and wanted to play, even knowing what we do in this day and age about the hazards of the sport, I would absolutely give my blessing.

“My junior year we beat Yale (35-31), when they were ranked in the top 20 in the country. Broke my thumb in the first half and went back in for the second.  It was that important to me and it still is.

“You look at the statistics and the talent on the field, there was no way on earth we should have been able to beat Yale. But there was something transcendent that day in that every person on the field did his job.  Before 35,000 at Palmer Stadium, against Yale, we played at a level we never had before.”

* * * *

On Career Nights, Steve Reynolds tells prospective Tiger barristers that the greatest piece of advice he can give them is to trust themselves as they are.

Certainly words to live by, considering they were capable of getting into Princeton.

“As I was being sworn into the Bar, a federal judge told me,  ‘You have to be yourself,’” said Reynolds, the Executive Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary of Aramark, the food service giant based in Philadelphia. “Unless you are a total bleep; and then you would have to be somebody else.

“I tell them trial is like a game.  When you are in front of the judge, you get that rush.”

It’s a shame those 1979 Tigers can’t appeal that 31-12 loss to Brown that cost Princeton what would have been it’s only football title between 1969 and 1989.  But these players did themselves proud regardless.

Knowing the recent history, they came to Princeton to play football regardless, thanks to Coach Bob Casciola’s persuasiveness. Casciola was replaced by Frank Navarro after Reynolds’ freshman year. Despite the three and two-win seasons that followed, the Tigers came into 1979 believing their time had come.

They had a seasoned offensive line anchored by All Ivy center-to-be Ted Sotir, a dynamic tailback in Cris Crissey, a solid defense anchored by co-captain Mike McGrath, and the option talents of Reynolds.  There was enough in place to start a new era and indeed, eyes were opened in a 16-0 stunner of defending champion Dartmouth in the opener at Hanover.

Afterwards the Tigers sang Happy Birthday to themselves, celebrating the rebirth of the program, and then hung with Rutgers for a half before losing 35-14 at Palmer Stadium.

“We ran a veer with an I-set, the fullback right behind me and the tailback behind him,” recalls Reynolds.  “I would hold the ball until I would see if the end was coming to me and then either pitch it to Cris or cut up field myself. And, we did play action off that.

“They called me Rocket. Remember Bobby Douglas, the huge running quarterback of the Bears who would throw the ball 100 miles an hour but wasn’t always accurate? Actually, I was among the leaders in the nation in completion percentage as we threw it selectively.  But I was a runner, bigger (at 6-3, 210) than any other quarterback in the league.

“We lost to Brown (31-12); that was the really disappointing game for us. But after having finished in the basement the year before, we were 3-1 in the league and beating Harvard in the third quarter when I got hit and tore my MCL, so Bob Holly took over and we won (9-7), then he had a great game at Penn.

“When Yale came to Palmer Stadium, we were playing for a share of the championship.  I dressed but couldn’t play, the biggest heartache of my career.  We lost the game pretty handily (35-10); Bobby was a pro-style quarterback and our offense was suited for the running game.

“They braced me up for the final game and we beat Cornell (26-14) to go 5-2 in the league.  You have to forever wonder, “If I had been able to play, could we have beaten Yale?’

“We sang Happy Birthday again at the end.  Even falling short of a championship, we felt it was a transition for the program. I’m proud of it.”

The Tigers followed 1979 with consecutive winning seasons before slipping back for a few years.   Under Steve Tosches, with three Garretts starring and somebody named Bob Surace at center, in 1989 the program started a run of three titles in six seasons, Reynolds, a Short Hills, NJ guy, being one of their biggest cheerleaders as a member of the PFA Board of Directors.

“After going through life changing experiences, bonds becomes special,” he said. “In those days we had massive recruiting classes, like 70 showing up for freshman year with football interest.

“By graduation, it was down to about a dozen. So you can imagine the bonding and my pride at being chosen as their leader. It was the biggest honor of my life.”

He has a Princeton wife, three Princeton sons, another forgiven for choosing Amherst. The bragging rights every year with brothers who went to Yale and Harvard are precious, which tends to bring a guy so proud of Princeton even closer to today’s Tigers.

“Bob Surace walked where we walked,” says Reynolds. ”Now he’s running the program. You want to do everything you can to help him.”

* * * *

Jordan Culbreath played basketball and baseball, not football, as a junior at Marshall High School in Falls Church, Virginia, missing the key recruiting year. He was admitted into Princeton without the football program’s support and intended to be finished with varsity athletics until his mother Alma convinced him to send video to Coach Roger Hughes, asking for an invite as a walk-on.  When Hughes could get his eyes back in his head, he said, ‘Sure.’”

In his sophomore year, Culbreath made his first splash with a 145-yard game against Cornell. He finished a 1248-yard, 10 touchdown, season as a junior with 276 yards and two touchdowns against Dartmouth.

He reported for a senior season to a team with championships hopes. But during camp one of the best-conditioned players on the team grew winded just walking up stairs and had headaches, tingling in his fingers, and episodes of bleeding from his mouth and nose.

“I thought those were symptoms of football and training camp,” he said.   But in the opener at The Citadel, he had nothing, and then twisted his ankle in the second game at Lehigh and came off the field bleeding from his mouth again.  At halftime, Culbreath finally confessed to how awful he felt.

Dr. Margot Putukian ordered blood tests at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital that showed, in her words, “panic values counts” so low that the ankle injury may have saved him from bleeding out on the field that day,  “The doctors couldn’t believe I had walked into the hospital,” recalls Culbreath.

The diagnosis, Aplastic anemia, a cancer that reduces the body’s ability to replace blood cells, was delivered to Culbreath that Friday. Hughes tried to keep it from his players until after the Columbia game the following day, but social media made that futile and ignorance about the survival rate for this cancer they had never heard of did not help.  The devastated Tigers lost, 38-0.

In young persons, a bone marrow transplant from a sibling increase the odds for successful treatment of Aplastic anemia to an encouraging 82 per cent. But Culbreath’s sister wasn’t a match and, because he is of mixed race, other transplant options went from slim to none.  Perhaps his only hope was in one of two clinical trials of Immunosuppressant Therapy.

An infection put him back in the hospital in October, but he got through it. When Jordan showed up at the Cornell game to see teammates who had lost all four contests since he had disappeared into the National Institute for Health in Bethesda. Md. there wasn’t a dry eye in the lockerrom, including the brave and stoic Culbreath’s. The Tigers won, 17-14.

As it turned out, he participated in the trial with the drug that overall had the poorer results. It worked for him, though. At Christmas dinner Jordan told his mother he wanted to play football again. If the doctors thought that would be wise, it seemed like a great idea to new coach Bob Surace, who had made Culbreath one of the first calls after getting the job.

“I had following it from afar, just wanted to check in and see how he was doing,” recalls Surace. “I didn’t know what Aplastic anemia was and people I knew didn’t know what it was either.

“Jordan turned out to be one of the most positive people I’ve ever been around. Just having him on the team again, the leadership he brought, would be huge, even if he couldn’t come back all the way.

“But he did. I really thought he did.”

In week two, Culbreath scored the winning touchdown in double overtime against Lafayette.  “I don’t know if that means more today than the game against Dartmouth,” he says.  “But obviously it was more emotional.”

All of the holdover players of All Ivy potential that Surace thought gave him a chance for a respectable first season got hurt during his 1-9 debut, including Culbreath with  ACL and MCL tears in the Penn game. “It was like someone was trying to tell me something,”  Jordan recalls. “Maybe it’s time.

“It wasn’t the greatest season (402 yards). Mentally I don’t think I ever got back to 100 per cent. I think it’s probably the same for guys coming back from a broken leg or whatever. It’s not easy to explain, but you have more doubts, lose that sense of invincibility, something your mind needs when you are playing sports at that level.

“But just being out there made a huge difference in being able to move on.”

That kind of closure beat the worst kind of closure everyone around the program feared in the first weeks of his diagnosis. If the therapy hadn’t worked, they would have tried the other drug. But options clearly were dwindling.

When you contract a life-threatening condition that, in a given year hits only 600 to 900 Americans out of 323 million, are you incredibly unlucky? Or, to do so well without the benefit of a relative’s bone marrow, maybe you become the luckiest guy in the world.

Every two weeks Culbreath, now working as a trader for Merrill Lynch in New York, gets an infusion of the drug that has saved his life.  The once-yearly trips to Bethesda for treatment now take place only every two years.

“My blood counts have been normal, no real setbacks,” he said.  “No limitations on what I can do. The doctor labeled it a miracle drug.”

His Princeton friends whom Culbreath says got him through that terrifying autumn, insist he is the miracle.  “I don’t think about it much anymore, but when I do it is amazing,” he said.  “When I go to Aplastic Anemia events, I realize I have been incredibly fortunate.”

The 84 surviving members of that most prestigious and exclusive of associations-the Princeton football captains–are blessed to still have him.

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