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Keeping His Head High

Norwich’s Cutler Tackles Obstacles At Syracuse

Syracuse tight end Carl Cutler, of Norwich, paces the sidelines during pre-season practice in Syracuse, N.Y., in August. (The Post-Standard - Frank Ordoñez)

Syracuse tight end Carl Cutler, of Norwich, paces the sidelines during pre-season practice in Syracuse, N.Y., in August. (The Post-Standard - Frank Ordoñez)

Hanover — The Heisman Trophy will be presented next weekend to the young man chosen as the country’s best NCAA Division I football player. If there were a similar award given for perseverance, Syracuse tight end Carl Cutler would surely be in the running.

A 2008 Hanover High graduate who grew up in Norwich, Cutler is a hulking 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds. Yet the senior’s college career has been drastically reduced by a pair of tears in the anterior cruciate ligament of his left knee.

The first such injury came during a 2010 spring practice, requiring Cutler to sit out the subsequent season. A year later, he suffered the same injury again, causing him to miss a second consecutive campaign. After battling his way back into significant action for the start of Syracuse’s current season, the health and exercise science major has seen his playing time dramatically reduced while a younger teammate has flourished at their shared position.

“I’ve played a conservative role,’’ said Cutler, who caught a combined five passes for 32 yards in season-opening losses to Northwestern and Southern California, but hasn’t had a reception since. “I’ve kind of accepted I’m more of a mentor to the younger tight ends. I play when I play, and it’s more about how the team does.’’

The Orange has been doing well of late, becoming bowl eligible with a defeat of Missouri two weeks ago and ending its regular season with three consecutive victories and triumphs in five of its last six contests. Syracuse (7-5) also won its final Big East Conference game and a share of the conference title. The program, which was picked to finish next-to-last in the Big East this fall, will compete in the Atlantic Coast Conference next year.

Syracuse is in the running for bowl games in Orlando, Charlotte and New York, so Cutler, who has played in every contest this season on special teams, should get one more chance to buckle up his chin strap and smack around an opponent. Competing at the Division I level was something he targeted from the time he first played organized football in eighth grade and transitioned into a standout for the Hanover Marauders.

“I had faith in myself to get to the next level and that’s all I needed,’’ said Cutler, who could presumably petition the NCAA for a rare, sixth year of eligibility, but said he hasn’t decided on whether he will apply for it. “I didn’t know how I was going to get there, but I always realized I was going to get there.’’

Hanover had sent other football players to Division I programs before Cutler, but none made much of an impact. Kicker Justin Musiek played the 2003 season at Rutgers before transferring to Lehigh, fullback Jacob Miraldi was Army’s 2003 scout team player of the year and lineman David Fairbrothers was a Virginia reserve. Cutler had planned to transfer to a Connecticut prep school after his junior year at Hanover, but health problems suffered by his father scrapped those aspirations, so the pair worked to get Carl exposure by calling and sending highlight DVDs to college coaches. They also travelled to various camps and combines.

Cutler had caught fewer than 20 high school passes when Syracuse bit. The Orange invited him to a one-day camp during the summer of 2007 and phoned him with a scholarship offer while he and his father drove home to the Upper Valley. Cutler played part of his last Hanover season with a broken foot, but still managed 25 catches for 250 yards and five touchdowns while also rushing for 155 yards. The Marauders, who won a 2005 state title with Cutler as a starter, finished 10-2 and reached the Division IV state championship game in 2007.

After redshirting during his freshman year at Syracuse, during which head coach Greg Robinson and his coaching staff were fired, Cutler played in all 12 games as a sophomore and started twice. He caught four passes, including one for a touchdown against Rutgers, and was listed as a starter when he caught a pass and twisted his knee as he was hit during a practice the following spring.

“I knew immediately that it was serious,’’ Cutler said. “Your leg goes numb and you hear a noise you’ll never forget. It’s like a snap and immediately followed by a sensation mix between numbing and stabbing pain.’’

As difficult as the situation was for Cutler in the nine months he rehabilitated his knee and watched from the sidelines, fate dealt him an even crueler twist a year later when he caught a foot during a blocking drill and tore the same ligament again. Coach Doug Marrone called the injury devastating, and this time Cutler waited a few months before surgery in an attempt to let his body recover from one trauma before enduring another.

“It was a low moment, but football’s a physical game and things happen,’’ he said. “If you love being around the players and coaches and the game enough, you want to be part of it, regardless of whether you’ve torn your knee up twice.’’

Cutler missed this year’s spring practice and despite his contributions during the year, has learned to live with discomfort in his twice-injured joint as well as the frustration of being a spectator in uniform.

“You think your knee is fine because there’s no pain to a certain point, but when it eventually comes, you have to learn to live with it,’’ he said. “Regardless of whether I’d like to be playing or not, you have to realize it’s never about yourself. For some people, it’s hard to admit that and take that, but I’ve learned to deal with it.’’

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.

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