Imagine staring down a line of towering men, their faces hidden by masks and their legs braced to charge. Their only mission: to slam into you and send you tumbling to the ground.
That’s the image that Garrett Cheadle HM ’20, the star running back for the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps football team, confronts every Saturday.
“It’s a scary position — when you have the ball, everyone wants to get you,” he said. At the same time, “it’s definitely a rush when you know that there’s 11 people on the other side of the ball who want nothing [more] than to rip the ball out of your hands, or to tackle you and punish you for carrying the ball. And you’re just kind of like, ‘F you.’”
Cheadle, a six-foot, 215-pound runner, has given a lot of “F you”s to opposing defenses so far this year. The reigning SCIAC Offensive Player of the Year has already amassed four touchdowns and 307 total rushing yards in CMS’ (2-2, 0-1 SCIAC) four games this season.
He’s a crafty, hard-nosed runner, using defenders’ momentum against them, spinning around and changing angles to get opponents off-balance, then bulldozing through tackles when necessary.
“One of the reasons why I really like football and running back in general is because it feels like it’s an intellectual battle as well as a physical battle,” Cheadle said. “Every step that you take, people react.”
It didn’t always come easy, though.
As a kid, Cheadle was the smallest on his team. He finally had a growth spurt in high school and, as has been a theme throughout his career, injuries to players ahead of him on the depth chart gave him a chance at the running back position.
When college recruiting season arrived, though, Cheadle didn’t have years of experience as a runner or much film to dazzle college coaches. During a game partway through his senior year, he suffered a serious ankle injury that broke bones and ligaments and required two surgeries to fix.
Cheadle wasn’t highly recruited, but was happy to go to Harvey Mudd College, a Division III program and a school that fit his STEM interests.
“Coming in freshman year … I hadn’t played football since that moment. Since the moment I heard my bone snap,” Cheadle said. “It’s a confidence-killer for sure, and you have to just be able to fight through the mindset, the negative thoughts in your mind.”
Injuries to other running backs during his first two years as a Stag gave Cheadle the chance to show off his skills at the collegiate level. Junior year, he took over the starting job full-time and didn’t look back.
“When you get that opportunity, you don’t get many more opportunities,” Cheadle said. “So it’s just this idea of ‘I have to run as hard as I can to not let anyone bring me down, do anything it takes to get that extra yard, do anything it takes to break that extra tackle.’”
Last year as a starter, Cheadle ran for 1,305 yards, the second-most in a season in Stag history. He also set the record for the most rushing yards in a single game, churning out a staggering 274 against Whittier. But CMS head football coach Kyle Sweeney said Cheadle is more than just a runner.
“I don’t think he gets enough credit for his blocking and catching the ball and doing all the little things that don’t show up on the stat sheet,” Sweeney said. “He is a very complete football player.”
Cheadle said he wasn’t focused on getting the single-season rushing record last year, but some of his teammates are buzzing about the possibility this time around. It would be “cool” to get the record, he admitted. But he’s focused more on another SCIAC title.
“I don’t think it’s good to be motivated by individual accolades,” he said. “Obviously, our goal is to repeat [as conference champions]. That’s like one of the most difficult things to do in sports — you always have a target on your back and you’re never the same team that you were.”
Off the field — as one might expect from a Mudder — Cheadle defies the football player stereotype. He’s a computer science-math joint major with a passion for analytics, numbers and tutoring, and he thinks he might become a math teacher.
“Maybe that’s down the road,” he said. “Math is a true passion of mine.”
Football and academics, however, don’t always dovetail.
Last year, Cheadle was just getting a handle on a difficult math class when he sustained a concussion during a game.
“I was really struggling in a way that I haven’t struggled before. … I couldn’t study, I couldn’t think,” he said. “That really made me think about quitting. Like, ‘Is this really worth it? If I get another concussion, what do I do? Should I set some kind of precedent?’”
Cheadle stuck with it and scraped by in the class. His parents bought him a new, more protective helmet, and since then his head has been “a-OK.”
But concussions and football are inextricably linked, especially as the consequences of repetitive hits to the head become more well-known and former NFL players open up about how chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease, has impacted their lives.
Concussions have “become much less of a taboo” subject, Cheadle said. “I felt back in high school you don’t really talk about that.”
Cheadle doesn’t know how many concussions he’s had between football and high school lacrosse — certainly more than three. The football helmet he wore in high school had a sensor that alerted him when he sustained a hit that could cause a concussion; one game, it went off eight times.
“It’s definitely scary — I don’t think that one more year of football is going to change the outcome for myself, and I don’t know what that outcome’s going to be,” Cheadle said.
Running backs are particularly likely to hit the ground with their heads, he said, because they’re not going to let go of the ball to break their fall.
“It’s just how comfortable are you with your brain’s health,” Cheadle said with a sigh. “It’s hard, it’s really hard.”
Still, he wouldn’t trade football for anything.
“Just the level of competition that you play at and the nitty-gritty of the sport, the things that happen behind the scenes and the team dynamic is something that I feel like I can’t get elsewhere,” he said. “It’s not something I’d ever give up.”