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ITHACA, NY -- It’s no secret that my four decade history with Cornell Athletics — 10 years as an employee, 30 years covering them as a sports writer — has given me an abiding fondness for Big Red athletes, and I love watching them do big things in venues great and small. 

In the first quarter of the Cleveland versus Kansas City playoff game, I cheered out loud when Browns center (and former Big Red player) J.C. Tretter snapped the ball, knocked a defensive lineman out of the way, and threw a block 20 yards downfield. 

A little later, I was on the phone with Cornell hockey goalie Austin McGrath, and I congratulated him on what was a lower profile, but just as impressive screen appearance. As a member of the Big Red Pen Pals program, McGrath would go online — as he has done regularly for several months — and (virtually) hang out with his 9 year-old buddy, Henry Tompkins.  Henry’s dad, J.T. Tompkins, sits in on the calls too, and while he gets just as excited, he tries his best to let Henry do most of the interacting. 

McGrath is a senior in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology, and he was a First-Team All-Ivy League goalie in 2019, with a 1.94 goals against average and a .925 save percentage.  Like all athletes that have spent their lives preparing to play at the Division I (and perhaps beyond) level, Austin was looking forward to cherishing every moment of his time on the ice and with his teammates, but that’s not how things unfolded. 

I called McGrath at his family’s home in Alberta, and he told me, “When we learned that we wouldn’t be playing hockey this season, I came home, but I’ll be back on campus soon to finish up some in-person classes.  It is definitely not how I thought things would turn out.”  When asked about his history with the Big Red Pen Pals, Austin offered, “During my first year at Cornell, we would usually just go out and spend time with the kids, but with COVID, we’re doing everything virtually.” 

I asked J.T. Tompkins for his take on Henry’s Zoom friendship, and he said, “Like it has for many kids, it has been a tough year for him.  They are trying to balance the in-class learning with the online stuff, and it has been difficult.”  

As for the match, J.T. (who manages the Ithaca Staples store) said, “The email came out of nowhere, and Henry needed a buddy so I was really happy.”  J.T. was very forthcoming in sharing that one of the challenges Henry has been facing is the fact that his mom has been dealing with some serious ongoing medical challenges for the past several years.  Some very perceptive matchmaking (orchestrated by school social worker Jamie McCaffrey) took place when Henry was paired with Austin, given the 22-year-old goaltender lost his dad to cancer around the time he entered college.  J.T. told me, “When the email came, I thought ‘Nothing’s going to come of this,’ but I was wrong.  It has been awesome.”  J.T. added with a laugh and with somewhat of a confessional tone, “I sometimes find myself talking to Austin as much as Henry does.”    

J.T. went on to say, “When Henry and I did some hiking in the Adirondacks, we shared some of our photos with Austin.  Henry is turning our photos and stories into a book, and he loves sharing it with Austin.  It has been good for both of us, and I really appreciate it because, as we know, kids only want to hear so much from their dad.  It’s really cool of Austin to keep reaching out. It has been really helpful.” 

Austin agrees that it has been a mutually beneficial connection. “I can relate to some of what Henry is facing,” McGrath stated.  “It was tough enough dealing with something like that at 18, I can’t imagine going through it as a 9-year-old.”  

After he leaves Cornell, Austin (who is a biology major) has his sights set on continuing his education.  “I am waiting to hear from medical schools in the U.S. and in Canada,” McGrath said, “and while I have a lot of time before I make any decisions, I am interested in surgery and orthopedics.”  

Hmm… NHL teams need orthopedic surgeons… Maybe hockey is not in the rear-view mirror after all…

 

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