September 17, 2011

Playing Until The Final Whistle

By Claire Murphy
Special to GoHolyCross.com

Senior linebackers C.J. Martin, Ricky Otis and Jimmy Thomas have been through quite a bit during their first three years at Holy Cross. As freshmen, they were part of a team that came up one win shy of a Patriot League title, after falling at Colgate in the final game of the season. They all saw bigger roles during the 2009 campaign, when the Crusaders captured their first Patriot League championship in 18 years. Last year, the trio helped Holy Cross to a second place finish in the conference.

Now, Martin, Otis and Thomas know their final year on the hill must be a great one. The three returning starters have been friends since freshman year, and understand how their close relationship helps their performance on the football field. "They feed off each other, help each other and are able to communicate effectively and efficiently," said head coach Tom Gilmore. "These three have unbeatable experience, and they really get it."

"We share pretty much everything, and can read each other's minds," joked Thomas about the dynamic among his friends on the field. Although Thomas joked he was born playing football, he played soccer until sixth grade, then made the switch to the gridiron. The Maryland native found great success in high school as he earned All-State, All-Metro and All-Conference honors. He also led Archbishop Spalding High School to an 11-0 record and Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association championship in 2006 and has been working hard to bring that same success to the Crusaders. "This year, we plan to go out on top," said Thomas who spent his summer working out on the hill. Thomas came in his freshman year and made an impact right away, seeing action in six games in 2008. He then played a bigger role in 2009, earning Patriot League Defensive Player of the Week honors following the victory over Fordham, and recording a key fourth quarter sack in the victory over Lafayette that clinched the Patriot League title. After he totaled 35 tackles and five tackles for loss a year ago, coach Gilmore knows Thomas has the experience necessary to help the Crusaders succeed this fall. "He has a football savvy not a lot of people are blessed with," said Gilmore. With Thomas' talents as second nature, he looks to do whatever it takes to win.

Martin also echoes Thomas' desire to take home another Patriot League title this season. "We hate losing as much as we like winning," said Martin. "I just hate losing." The studio art major played baseball in his Texas hometown until fifth grade when he then decided to pick up the football and has loved his teams ever since. At Plano Senior High School, Martin was a standout as a first team All-District and All-County player in 2007, in addition to being named honorable mention All-State. Martin then found quick success as a Crusader, taking part in three games his freshman season. He then played in 11 games the next year, leading the team with 13 tackles against Villanova in the NCAA playoffs, before ranking second on the team with 95 total tackles as a junior in 2010. "He is a confident and comfortable player," said Gilmore. "He is like the quarterback in that the team relies on him to make game-time adjustments on defense." Martin understands the value in his experience, and knows the impact he has as a leader on and off the field. "The other players look up to us," said Martin. "The linebackers have been a family since we got here, and we have a responsibility to teach the younger guys what the previous upperclassmen had taught us."

Otis also sees the value in knowledge he received from older players and now as captain, he knows his teammates are looking up to him. "The team looks to him as a leader by example," said Gilmore. "He is real intense, focused and hard-working. He does more and goes above and beyond what is asked." Gilmore sees Otis as a talented and well-prepared player and leader. Otis started playing full pads and tackle as a six-year-old kindergartner. "In Ohio, we go hard," joked Otis. In high school, Otis was Most Valuable Player of the Cincinnati Crosstown Showdown, picked up second team All-Greater Catholic League and honorable mention All-City honors, while making a team high 78 tackles in both his junior and senior years. As a Crusader, Otis also saw action early on, playing in seven games his freshman season. From there he played in all 12 games during the 2009 season, making a season high eight tackles against Villanova and being selected to the Patriot League Academic Honor Roll. A year ago, though fighting a minor setback from injury, Otis was named first team All-Patriot League after leading the team and the Patriot League with 108 tackles, a total which ranked fifth in the nation. Otis was named Patriot League Defensive Player of the Week twice and reached double figures in tackles seven times during the 2010 season, so he is looking to continue to make things happen this year.

Martin, Otis and Thomas have all gone hard in their time at Holy Cross and entering their final year they hope to graduate with two championship rings. They are hungry for another title and feel they have everything it takes to get there. "Our teammates are the best part about football," said Otis. As they will have to hang up their cleats and walk away from the game after the final whistle blows, they want to be remembered for what they left on the field. "We will not be able to play football forever," said Martin. "It is about having fun. Before, during and after the game we are with family." Despite being each other's biggest competition they are also each other's best supporters. Martin has spent holidays with both Thomas and Otis and feels they are like a "Swiss Army knife, we have all those different crazy tools, but when you put it back together it fits, and it works." They love being able to talk to each other before, during and after plays. They work in unison with a perfect understanding that comes from their years of friendship, and continued success on the football field.

This story originally appeared in the September 17 edition of the Holy Cross Game Day Program, for the contest between the Crusaders and Harvard. To order a copy of the program, click here.