By Jonathan Lemire '01
remarkable afternoon last fall, Johnathan Reese '02 rewrote the
Columbia football record book — at least the entries dealing
with running backs.
Until that sunny Saturday, Columbia's record for most rushing
yards in a single game was held by Jim O'Connor '69 — 225
yards against Brown in 1966. The school record for most rushing
yards in a season, 914, was set by Doug Jackson '76 in 1975. And
the mark for most rushing yards in a career, 1,992, was compiled by
Lou Kusserow '49 in 1945-48.
Before a homecoming crowd of 9,289 at Baker Field's Wien
Stadium on October 21, 2000, Reese broke two of those records and
came within three yards of shattering the third, as the Lions
pounded Dartmouth 49-21 in the most one-sided effort by Columbia in
the history of the series, which dates back to 1899.
impressively, the 236-yard, four-touchdown performance — the
single greatest day of any Lion running back in school history
— took place in just the sixth game of Reese's junior season.
It had taken him four fewer games than Jackson to establish the
season rushing record — he would finish the 2000 campaign
with 1,330 yards on 263 carries, a 5.1 average — and he was
just three yards shy of setting the career mark in a
season-and-a-half less than it took Kusserow. Reese enters his
senior year having gained 2,354 yards for the Light
Johnathan Reese already holds all major Columbia rushing
case easily can be made that while Columbia football has had more
than its share of star quarterbacks including Sid Luckman '39, Gene
Rossides '49, Archie Roberts '65, Marty Domres '69 and John
Witkowski '84, it has never had a running back like Johnathan
Reese, nor like former Ivy standouts Ed Marinaro of Cornell or
Calvin Hill of Yale.
Asked to rank Reese among the Lions' all-time rushers, Bill
Steinman, a veteran of more than three decades in the Columbia
athletics communications office, says, "It's hard, because on the
heels of just one super season he seems to have outdistanced them
all. For the most part, the Columbia football record book just says
‘Reese.' Johnathan not only passed Lou Kusserow's records, he
records weren't that big of a deal," Reese says in typically modest
fashion, when asked to reflect upon his performance against
Dartmouth. "It was more important that we won the game."
"But," he allows after some thought, "I guess it was pretty
amazing that so many of them came on that same day."
Kusserow's career mark fell on Columbia's first offensive play
the following week at Yale, but the team could not match the
performance of its star running back. While Reese continued to pile
up 100-yard rushing efforts, the Lions dropped their final four
games of the season to finish at 3-7 including an Ivy mark of 1-6,
a major disappointment for a team that had hoped to challenge for
the league title.
undisputed bright spot of the season was Reese. The 6-1, 210-pound
running back scored 18 touchdowns rushing, another Columbia record.
He caught 20 passes for 254 yards and returned 10 kickoffs for 368
yards and another touchdown. His 36.8 yards per kickoff return
would have led the nation had he qualified for the NCAA leaders by
running back two more kicks. He ranked sixth in the nation in
scoring and 14th in rushing, and was selected unanimously to the
first-team All-Ivy squad.
Reese was the focus of the Columbia offense last season as he
ran around and through opponents for a school-record 1,330
what can Reese possibly do for an encore as a senior?
started working out earlier this offseason than before, and I'm
working harder," he says. "I'm going to be better this year, and
most importantly, so is the team."
Reese's journey to collegiate stardom began in his native St.
Louis. His high school career at St. Louis Country Day School was
impressive: he totaled nine varsity letters and excelled at
basketball, baseball and track, as well as his first love,
football. He was named his league's MVP as a senior and took his
team to the 1997 state championship game at the Trans World Dome,
home of the NFL Rams.
was also an honor roll student, and that naturally drew the
attention of the Ivy League to the streets of the Gateway
"Most of the schools in the league recruited [Reese]," says
Columbia coach Ray Tellier, "but we went after him hard and we were
fortunate that he chose us."
Tellier benefited from an ace in the hole. Kirby Mack '00
earlier had transferred to Columbia from the University of Virginia
to take up residence as the Lions' fullback (he moved to outside
linebacker for his senior season). And just as he bolstered the
Light Blue's running attack in 1998, Mack also improved it by his
actions off the gridiron: He is Reese's cousin, and immediately
began recruiting the high school standout.
wouldn't say I played a huge role in Johnathan's decision," says
Mack, "but the fact that I was going to be at Columbia probably
helped him feel comfortable going there."
Reese also cites the lure of the Big Apple in his
appeal of New York City was a major factor for me," he says. "When
I stepped off the plane at LaGuardia [for a recruiting visit], "I
was just blown away by all of the tall buildings. Growing up in
Missouri, you don't see buildings like that so close
While Reese, a history major, has come to know and love many of
Manhattan's attractions during his time at Columbia, his primary
focus has been improving the Lions' on-field fortunes. When he
arrived on campus, Columbia was looking to bounce back from a
disappointing 4-6 season just one year removed from the Marcellus
Wiley-led 8-2 1996 campaign.
"Like every first-year, I wanted to be the one to change the
program around," says Reese, "and I was frustrated by having to sit
on the bench so much." His playing time increased as the season
went on, however, and Reese finished the year with 417 rushing
yards, good enough to earn him Ivy League Rookie of the Year
played more than first-years do," notes Tellier, "and he made an
immediate impact. We always knew he was going to be a real good
player, but even we didn't know how good."
Though hampered by nagging injuries, Reese showed flashes of
brilliance in his sophomore year. He gained 607 yards on the ground
and scored four touchdowns, but he was far from satisfied with his
a sophomore, I was not prepared to take over and become the focal
point of the offense," he says. "After that season I knew I wanted
to grow both mentally and physically."
grow he did. Reese added almost 20 pounds of muscle that offseason,
but Mack believes that the extra bulk was not the most important
addition his cousin made before the 2000 season.
definitely did get bigger and faster," Mack said, "but he also
developed a mental toughness he didn't have before. In high school,
he was always used to being the best by just stepping out on the
field. He needed to make the mental adjustment that that is not how
things work in college."
changes paid off. In the season opener against Fordham, Reese
seemed to draw energy from the excitement surrounding the Lions'
first night game in the 77-year history of Baker Field by ripping
off 172 yards in a 43-26 rout of the Rams. The message was sent:
the 2000 Lions were Johnathan Reese's team.
"They're going to put the ball in Reese's hands," Fordham coach
Dave Clawson told the Columbia Daily Spectator after the
game, "and they're going to go as far as he can take
Reese did his part. He rushed for over 100 yards six times and
over 200 twice — the record-setting day against Dartmouth and
a 201-yard game against Lafayette. Unfortunately, the Lions'
deficiencies were too much for even Reese to overcome. While the
offense blossomed under starting quarterback Jeff McCall '02, the
defense was porous, giving up over 40 points in six of their 10
games. The Lions also faltered in close games, losing all three
contests they played that were decided by four points or
"It's no secret that our defense struggled last year," says
Tellier, looking ahead to the 2001 campaign that begins at Fordham
on Sept. 15. "That will need to improve, as well as our ability to
win tight games. The offense was good, though, and should only get
better, and Johnathan's continued development is a big reason for
the upcoming season, Reese's leadership will be officially
recognized: He's been picked as one of the Lions' captains by his
teammates. Mack believes that Reese, a very quiet and reserved
individual, will do an excellent job leading by example.
"He's a great teammate," Mack says, "and everybody likes him.
He'll work hard and get the most out of that team."
most fiercely competitive athletes, Reese's only stated goal for
the upcoming year is a team championship. He does, however, have
his sights firmly set on where he'd like to be a year from
want to play in the NFL," Reese says. "I believe I have the talent
and work ethic to at least get a shot at making it. It's what all
football players want, and I'm no exception."
not eager to leave Columbia just yet, however.
first, I was a little distant from the school because I was
frustrated with how things were going on the football field," says
Reese. "But now that the end is almost here, I don't want to
Before graduation comes for Johnathan Reese, there will be 10
more football games, 10 more chances to add to his already
impressive entry in the Columbia record book. Mack, who as a
linebackers coach for Brown will have the challenge of trying to
stop Reese this season, believes that more greatness is in store
for the most accomplished running back in Columbia
know my cousin," Mack said, "and we've yet to see the best of
About the Author: Jonathan Lemire '01 is a former
columnist and associate sports editor of Spectator who wrote
the cover story on Lerner Hall in the May 2000 issue of