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Cory Booker's college football struggles echo in his presidential campaign



That day at his parents' house near Hackensack, it was not Booker's physical traits that impressed those gathered. It was his maturity and the way he handled himself around Holtz. After the interview, Booker's High School coach Jim Miceli remembers his wife leaning over and saying, "'You know what? That kid could be president some day.'"

Booker ended up committing to Stanford out of high school. But when he got to Palo Alto, California, the expectations he carried with him from New Jersey did not translate. He did not play a down until his junior year. Even when he saw the field, he was hardly the star he'd been back home.

Interviews with Booker himself, together with former coaches and teammates, offer a point of comparison to another time in Booker's life when he struggle to meet high expectations. His failure on the football field may also inform how Booker deals with the frustrations of a listing of White House bidding

 BERKELEY, CA - NOVEMBER 1[ads1]7: Cory Booker # 81, John Lynch # 17 and Jason Palumbis # 12 of the Stanford Cardinal jog on the field before the game against Cal on November 17, 1990 at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, California.

As a presidential candidate, Booker runs as a happy warrior. On paper, he looks like the ideal Democratic nominee: US senator, long-time progressive mayor of a big city, African American and a bridge between his wings. His reputation leans more towards pragmatic problem-solving than ideological rigidity. He's even got bipartisan credibility as the chief proponent in the Senate for the crime-justice reform bill favored by the Trump White House.

And yet things have not clicked. His fundraising has been lackluster. His message has not been punched through. In a crowded field, he has no problem to call his own. In short, a promising career has so far failed to translate on the biggest stage, though he will have the opportunity to make a splash at CNN's Democratic Debate in Detroit on July 30 and 31.

The paradigm is not lost on Booker, either. In an interview in his home in Newark, Booker admits that his failures as a college football player remain fresh in his mind and are newly applicable to his current situation.

"This definitely has echoes of many past experiences of my life where, again, here I find myself a David walking on a field and having to fight Goliath," Booker told CNN. "This is very familiar to me."

A broader view of life

There was little doubt that wherever Booker ended up playing in college, he was well positioned to move on to the next level . Holtz was one of a handful of top-flight coaches calling on Booker. Duke, UCLA and Stanford were all recruiting him. Former President Gerald Ford personally lobbyed Booker to play at the University of Michigan; Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young did the same for Georgia Tech

That year Booker was named to USA Today's All-USA Team, and a list that included more than a dozen future NFL players. Big and fast, Booker was a triple-threat who played a wide receiver, tight end and safety. To college recruiters, he was the total package.

His choice of Stanford – a major conference school but with an elite academic reputation – also reflected the likelihood Booker would pursue something other than professional football.

"I knew then that football was going to be an extraordinary ticket but not a destination," Booker said.

But Booker did not play during his first two years on the Stanford team. On a full scholarship, he still practiced and trained with the team, but he became a fixture on campus in other ways.

"You do not miss Cory in a room," Samantha Davidson Green, a classmate and close friend of Booker's from Stanford, told CNN's Mackenzie Happe. "He was always friendly, warm and gregarious, I think some of the football players kept to themselves and were on their own schedule." Cory was always reaching out to the people of all different backgrounds. "

Booker was deeply involved with a 24-hour crisis hotline for students on campus, and was a All Pac-10 honors student, majoring in political science. He also began volunteering in East Palo Alto, Silicon Valley's poorer "inner city" populated largely by Latinos and Blacks.

 Cory Booker (# 81) plays against USC at Stanford on Oct. 13, 1990. (Photo / Stanford Athletics)

"I always knew he was going to be some kind of leader in some way. said Paul Nickel, who also played a tight end for Stanford and was his roommate during one summer.

"When you're at Stanford, you run across a lot of guys like that," said Brian Billick, the former Stanford tight ends coach who went on to win a Super Bowl as head coach of the Baltimore Ravens. "

That broader view helped fill the gaps created by the disappointment of his lack of playing time, Booker now says

" Those early years at Stanford were the greatest gift to my life, "Booker said. "Having two years for that, becoming a student at Stanford and still having a football and then really falling in love with what became my life's goal, which was a service."

Once it became clear, , say teammates and coaches, booker charted and different course. "For a lot of guys that's very tough, very dramatic," said Andy Papathanassiou, another Stanford teammates. "When football did not work out, he was not one of these guys who put on a sad face. He became known and active in another area."

It was no surprise that the outgoing football player was elected senior class president at Stanford. Coaches, Booker recalled, started barking "Mr. President" at him in practices. Billick says his nickname for Booker at the time was "the Governor."

Finally, a chance to play

Still, expectations remained high for the Booker on the football field. "Like many guys coming to college, Cory came in with a great reputation and great skills," Papathanassiou said. "Cory, like all of us, dream of getting out there."

Booker got his chance to play in his third year at Stanford, with the Cardinal squad now led by head coach Denny Green. Two years younger, Nickel remembers seeing Booker for the first time on the practice field that season. "We were running routes, and I see this big athletic guy in a split-out [formation]," Nickel said. "I remember he made this incredible one-handed catch."

Booker's role as a versatile tight end would have fit in with Stanford's pass-heavy offense. Billick reminds Booker as "very coachable" and a good "all-around player" and especially praised his blocking skills. But he struggled to get much playing time over two seasons, getting on the field for just 7 plays in 1989 and 13 plays in 1990.

That last season, Booker's last in a Stanford uniform, Nickel started at tight end. Nickel remembers Booker taking his second-string position in stride and even being a mentor in the movie room and on the practice field. But he was a big letdown for Booker, who was watching his dreams of football glory wither.

"He was aware and humbled, but he was not insulted by it or blaming anyone for it," Nickel said of Booker being passed

'Nice catch by Cory Booker!'

The pinnacle of Booker's college football career came on October 6, 1990 in South Bend, Indiana. Stanford, in the midst of a lackluster season, was going up against the undefeated, number-one ranked Notre Dame, led by none other than Lou Holtz. Booker was not supposed to play, but midway through the first half, the starting tight end, Nickel, had to come out of the game with an injury.

Booker went in and, in his teammate's words, "played his ass off. "

Booker's performance in South Bend that day is preserved in a grainy video on YouTube that captures two key pass plays. In the first, he appears to tower over Notre Dame defenders trying to bring him down.

"The first big offensive game in the game for Stanford," says the play-by-play announcer as the " Cardinal squad continued and touchdown drive

In the second play, Booker makes a leaping fingertip catch over a defender

"Nice catch by Cory Booker!"

"He had two incredible catches, he kind of gave us some life, and the next thing you know, we're upsetting the number one team in the country," Nickel said. Stanford won the game, 36-31.

The Notre Dame game remains a peak and pivotal moment for a young man who would find himself at a crossroads in a few weeks

"It was one of those nights where you get home at night and feel the good kind of tired, "Booker said. "I took a deep breath, and I remember saying, 'Okay, I've done it.'"

The next week, Booker scored his first and only touchdown in a Stanford uniform against the University of Southern California. But after the season ended, he had a meeting in early 1991 in Denny Green's office that Booker said would "change my life."

Green had already suggested that despite his fifth year of eligibility, Booker was probably not going to be asked to play again. So Booker was excited to hear that Stanford had decided to keep his scholarship. But as he told his coach he was ready to play another season, Green interrupted. "You did not understand," he said. "We're letting you keep a scholarship here at Stanford, but we're not letting you play football."

 PALO ALTO, CA - 1989: Cory Booker # 81 and his Stanford Cardinal teammates jog on the field during warmups before it's a football game during the 1989 season at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, California. Other visible players include Scott Eschelman # 34, Alan Grant # 2, Kevin T. Scott # 3, and Gary Taylor # 15

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