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Back for His

Friday, September 28, 2007

By Cathy Jan, Yale Sports Publicity

"When all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail."

While the origin of this quip is debatable, it is generally credited to Bernard Baruch, an advisor to both Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Almost one hundred years later, Baruch's quote seems to fit Lee Driftmier, Yale football's 2005 Hammer of the Year award recipient.

As a linebacker for all but three games of his football career, a good day for Driftmier involves running down the field and hammering into people with all of his 230 pounds. Even his own teammates, whom he practices with every day, admit to feeling a ripple of insecurity as they see Driftmier's No. 50 jersey approaching. It's no wonder that when he's rushing at opponents, they're generally concerned. Driftmier's ability to read plays early on sets him apart.

"I've always been able to quickly look for keys as to what the play will be," he explains.

Driftmier is able to visualize each player and make a good guess as to where that player is going.

"I'm also always looking for the running back and figuring out what holes he might go through," he describes.

While Driftmier modestly denies having any natural talent, Yale Associate Head Coach Rick Flanders disagrees. Flanders is the defensive coordinator and works closely with the linebackers.

"He does use his smarts to gain the edge, but he has good ability also," he says.

The combination of his intuition and talent are powerful, but Driftmier has added hard work and fierce competitiveness to the formula. This has not gone unnoticed by the coaches of other teams, as he received honorable mention All-Ivy in 2005.

"Lee came with all the talents, but has really worked to become a great leader and student of the game," Flanders adds.

His teammates know that Driftmier hates to lose, and does whatever it takes to win. This made it even more difficult for him to sit on the sidelines, injured, while his team was crowned co-Ivy League Champions last year. Driftmier had been known to take drastic measures to stay on the field for his team.

"He played in the state championship game our senior year with a cast on each arm and didn't miss a play," Matt Coombs, his high school captain and current teammate, reminisces. "He basically just sucked it up because he knew it would help us win."

Driftmier has continued to be a great team player, providing leadership and a laid-back attitude off the field that often pokes out beneath his competitive exterior. He regularly spends time with the younger players, helping them feel more comfortable with the game and recognize plays.

Junior Matt Plummer, a fellow linebacker, attests, "Lee has really helped me learn the position and I'm really grateful to be able to learn from him."

Having played football since the fourth grade, this will be Driftmier's 13th season in a helmet and pads.

"I was going to play soccer, but my friend's dad who was a football coach wouldn't let me," Driftmier laughs.

Yale owes a lot to this man. Driftmier's last season was peppered with big plays, including five interceptions, three fumble recoveries and numerous stops on short yardage runs by the other team.

"He made them all and when the game was tight, he played even better," says Flanders.

Driftmier played alongside fellow Bulldog seniors Matt and John Coombs at Bellevue Senior High School. A perennial powerhouse, the team has been state champions five out of the past six years, including Driftmier's junior and senior years. In his high school career, Driftmier only lost four games. He made the all-state team for both of his positions, linebacker and offensive guard, in 2002, along with playing varsity basketball.

During his junior year, given his stellar grades, Driftmier made the decision to play at an Ivy League school. Although Penn and Princeton were frontrunners, Driftmier made a recruiting trip to Yale during the weekend after a tragedy in January of 2003. In the early morning, a sport utility vehicle filled with Yale students returning back to campus from New York crashed into a jackknifed tractor-trailer on I-95. Four were killed, including members of the football and baseball teams. The Yale administration did all it could to soften the shock, including arranging a gathering in the John J. Lee Amphitheater that Driftmier attended.

"I saw a different side of Yale that very few graduating classes experience," he says somberly. "It was an impressive showing by the community."

The experience convinced Driftmier that Yale was the place to spend the next stage of his life.

In his freshman year at Yale, Driftmier played on the JV team and in four varsity games, mostly on special teams. He earned his first letter in 2004 as a sophomore, playing in all 10 varsity games and making three tackles.

Then in 2005, the game-breaking plays started appearing, one after another. Starting all 10 games, he recovered a league-high three fumbles and tied for the team lead in interceptions with five. He also led the team with 54 solo tackles and a total of 89.

The accolades also started piling up. In a dominant win over Columbia, he stepped in for two interceptions in the second quarter on his way to a Division I-AA Player of the Week distinction. He repeated the performance against Princeton and added a fumble recovery that led to the same award. Driftmier also earned recognition from other sources, including ECAC Player of the Week and Walter Camp Player of the Game against Columbia. He was also honored by the team in six games, receiving the Defensive Line and Defensive Back Awards, as well as the Hammer Award, twice each.

Then Driftmier was forced to take last season off. He needed surgery on both of his shoulders, which had been breaking down slowly since high school. While it was extremely difficult not playing alongside his teammates, Driftmier spent the semester doing rehab and working in the athletic department.

Now in his last season of eligibility, Driftmier still has some pain in his shoulders but is ready to see the long hours with the physical therapy pay off. Flanders agrees.

"I have a lot of respect for the way Lee has worked to come back and only hope he gets a chance to reap the benefits."

Driftmier will graduate this fall with a degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

"[Returning as a fifth-year senior] actually worked out for me because I can now get a B.S. instead of a B.A., since I got that extra summer to do research," he explains. Driftmier spent this past summer working in Assistant Professor Antonia Monteiro's lab, researching the role of sexually dimorphic black spots on the Pieris rapae butterfly.

After graduation, Driftmier would like to return to his beloved West Coast and find a job. His relaxed attitude shows as he puts his football season first and says he'll worry about everything else later. While Driftmier enjoys his studies in biology, he is unsure if he wants to continue in the field.

"I'd like to be in Seattle," he says, "but I really have no idea. I'm open to anything."

Although football has played such a large part in his life, Driftmier has no plans to continue playing in the near future.

"My parents have been coming to my games all my life," he says. "Just one more season."

He acknowledges the constant support his parents, Rick and Karen, have provided, from driving him to practice in elementary school to nudging him through the rebellious teenage years.

"They love football, but I wouldn't be at Yale without them pushing me to go study," he says with a smile.

As the Yale football season kicks off, Driftmier's smile and skills will be welcomed back for one more season. Hammer on, Lee.