It took many years, but I finally had the pleasure of hearing my name spoken from the podium at an athletic hall of fame induction ceremony. More on that later…
The ceremony was at Spencer-Van Etten High School, and I was there to write about Jeff Foote’s induction into the S-VE Athletic Hall of Fame. The story would be only marginally relevant to the Ithaca Times had Jeff just been a good high school player in a rural upstate New York conference, but the fact that he climbed the ladder and became a dominant Division 1 player at Cornell, who then played professionally in Europe and even in a few NBA games makes it exceedingly relevant.
Cornell fans remember Foote’s arrival at Cornell as a transfer sophomore in 2008. After a solid career as an S-VE Panther, Jeff started his collegiate career at St. Bonaventure, but then found that it was a poor match and left the school. The story of his transfer to Cornell is legendary, as his mother, Wanda, was an intensive care nurse, caring for a Cornell player who had sustained a serious neck injury. Wanda Foote saw the Big Red Band of Brothers filing in and out of Khaliq Gant’s hospital room, and she told her son what an incredible bond the team shared. The coach, Steve Donahue, was moved to hear that Wanda had a son who played basketball and was looking for a place to play, and it really got his attention when he heard that the kid was seven feet tall.
Jeff entered Cornell in the fall semester of 2007, and when he took the court for the first time in January of 2008, the huge contingent of local fans erupted. The seven-footer blocked a couple of shots, threw down a rim-rattling dunk, and served notice that he belonged. Jeff got bigger, faster, stronger and smarter with every game he played, and after three Ivy League titles, three All-Ivy nods, two Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year awards and an appearance in the NCAA Sweet 16 (a feat not accomplished by an Ivy League team in 30 years), his legacy was hard-earned and richly deserved. He and his teammates were already local heroes, but when a group of non-scholarship players put the hammer down on Temple in the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 64, they drew national attention. Then, after pounding mighty Wisconsin in the Round of 32, they were the darlings of the Big Dance. Jeff Foote had gone from the small-town kid who got to play D1 hoops to a player described by Kansas coach Bill Self as “a big man who can play with anyone in the country.”
After his pro career, Jeff enrolled in law school at the University of Miami, passed the bar two years ago, and now works for a real estate development company. He made the trip to Spencer for the induction ceremony, and S-VE’s Ron Miller said, “Jeff was a pretty average high school player, but he never stopped growing, physically and emotionally.” Miller added, “They don’t just hand out Ivy League degrees, you have to earn them.”
Jeff was very gracious in his speech. He thanked his parents, Wanda and Don, for their tireless support, and his brother, Jesse (who was a very good big man at RIT), saying “Jesse always set a great example, always made me want to be as good as him.” He thanked his coaches from youth basketball up through college, and he closed his speech by saying, “Finally, I want to thank Steve Lawrence for making it all possible by paying his school taxes.” Imagine that: my name called out at a hall of fame ceremony. Thanks, Jeff, and congratulations.
Congratulations also go out to inductees Ashlinn Barber (a stellar Panther basketball player who had a great career at William Smith College), Danielle Rickner (a five-year starter in field hockey and softball), to Harold Shoemaker (a four-sport athlete who won S-VE’s first-ever outstanding athlete award), and to the undefeated 1967 football team. Head coach Dick Pakkala, now in his 80s, gave a wonderful speech acknowledging the dozen players in attendance. The team members’ love for Pakkala, and their gratitude for his role in their lives, was very inspiring to see 50 years after their collective moment in the sun.
A heads-up for the readers among us: Several local authors will be at the Cornell Bookstore for Reunion Weekend on Saturday from 12 to 2 p.m. Arthur Mintz will be signing copies of “Forever Faithful,” his book on Cornell Hockey, and retired Cornell lacrosse coach Richie Moran will be signing copies of his life story, “It’s Great To Be Here.” (Full disclosure: Richie’s book was co-authored by yours truly.) Please stop up and say hello!