Football: Freshman corner Gaffney breaks out for Tigers
Growing up only 20 minutes from campus, Princeton was always something that was on Gaffney’s mind. While the football program run by head coach Bob Surace ’90 and a Princeton diploma certainly factored into Gaffney’s decision to join the Tigers, it was the Orange Bubble’s proximity to home that drew him the most.
“I’m real big on family, and my family, no matter where I’m at ... they [are] at every game,” Gaffney said. “Being so close to home was one big reason I decided to come here. And plus, it’s Princeton; you really can’t get much better than that.”
Anthony is one of five siblings, and they, as well as his parents and his grandfather, have continued to come to cheer him on this year, providing a support system for the freshman who has been thrust into a large role on an emerging team in the Ivy League.
“I have a crew of at least eight every game that come. Plus any friends that come along too. I basically have my own cheering section,” Gaffney said.
As they are every week, his parents and siblings were in the stands to see the Tigers beat Harvard, coming from behind on a drive that was started by Gaffney’s impressive 59-yard runback on a Harvard re-kick.
“Sometimes when people watch football, they overlook how important field position can be,” senior wide receiver Shane Wilkinson said. “[Anthony’s] one of the most dynamic returners in the league, and he takes a ton of pressure off the offense time and again with his great returning ability.”
While he currently occupies the role of cornerback, Gaffney is no stranger to versatility and changing positions. After beginning his football career in fourth grade in the town league of his hometown of Columbus, N.J., Gaffney has moved around to play almost every position on the field at one point or another.
“I was a lineman first, actually; then I was a tight end, then a fullback, then a running back, then a quarterback, then a receiver,” Gaffney recalled. “I was just bigger than everyone so I played line, and then as the years progressed, I guess, I kind of moved. I just got more athletic, and I was able to play more positions.”
His speed and athletic talent led to an outstanding high school career as a receiver, and he was recruited by almost all facets of the Tiger coaching staff, from the defensive backs coaches to the special teams and offensive coaching staffs. However, football was not his sole athletic passion growing up.
“Actually, [my dad] was a basketball player, and so I started playing basketball before I started playing football,” Gaffney said, who scored over 1,000 points in his high school basketball career.
When asked who his biggest role model was when growing up, Gaffney responded, “My dad,” without hesitation.
“He grew up in New York and wasn’t really a privileged kid, but he always instilled a good, hard work ethic in me and always made sure that I wasn’t content with what I did and made sure I was always working harder than I should be to get to where I wanted to be,” he said.
Despite his basketball background, Adolphis Gaffney played a large role in his son’s transformation into a football player.
“I enjoyed football better; I was better at football,” Gaffney said. “Yet he still supported me, and he still made sure that even though he knew nothing about football — he never played; in New York City there’s not a lot of football—he still made sure I was working out and doing everything I could to get better at football and be the best I could.”
The best he could do turned out to be a starting spot as a freshman as a cornerback on a Division I team that is beginning to see success, in great part on the back of its defense.
“It’s good to be able to come in and just help the team out in any way I can,” Gaffney said. “I mean, even if I didn’t play, if I was playing scout team and helping the team out with their practice, I’d still feel great about myself. But it feels good that I come in and the coaches trust me enough; that’s the biggest thing, that they trust me enough to come in now, as a freshman, and start and play and provide whatever I can for the team. It’s definitely a good feeling.”
Surace has the greatest faith in the resilience of his young talent and the ability of his team as a whole to come back in difficult situations.
“When you go up against the receivers we face ... you’ve got to have confidence,” Surace said. “You are going to get beat. Saturday was the first time [Anthony’s] gotten beat in a long time ... so how he responded, that’s what’s so terrific. You never know with a young player; that’s why there are minor leagues in baseball. They need to know how to overcome failure, and to see Anthony have a play that didn’t go our way and then come back and play so strong, that shows his maturity.”
“The scariest part is that he’s only going to get better,” Wilkinson added.
With the help of the upperclassman mentorship program, Anthony has taken in stride the high stress moments of play the Tigers have experienced this season and currently leads the team in interceptions.
“I’ve never really been affected by pressure, truthfully,” Gaffney said. “It’s a big task I guess, but I look at it like if I’m in fourth grade playing, [any other game is] just like that. High school or college, it’s just another game, and I have to keep my head in the game and not let anything get to me.”
While Gaffney may downplay the challenges he has faced coming into an academically and athletically tough environment, the coaching staff has recognized and credited his maturity and accomplishments.
“He came in here with a lot on his plate. You’re asking a freshman to play all three positions, and he’s never once shied away from that. He’s got a lot of confidence,” Surace noted. “I just want [all the players] to continue to work and get better every day, and to me he’s met that standard.”
Though he took a post-graduate year to play at the Taft School in Connecticut, and so already has the skills and physical abilities of some of the returning players, having the chance to play early has forced Gaffney to mature on another level.
“The next four years he’s going to have a lot of challenges, and there’s going to be frustrating moments, and we want to develop a camaraderie where guys pick each other up when they hit those low moments,” Surace said. “We were down pretty good last week, but you want to see guys get up and compete, and once in a while you’re going to get those special moments.”
The team has gone through ups and downs this season — more ups than the Tigers have experienced in recent memory, but it took going through those losses at Georgetown and Lehigh early in the season to get where they are today. Celebrating with teammates after beating the nationally ranked favorite in the league was definitely one of those special moments.
The trust they have developed in each other comes partially from spending so much time together both on and off the field, but the time spent with his teammates off the field has also helped him adapt to the rigors and multiple demands of college life.
“The guys are great, and the team is great; coaches are great. It’s a good environment to be part of,” Gaffney said. “I love all the guys, and it’s a real strong brotherhood. There’s always a guy there to pick you up. Just as fast as they’ll knock you down during practice, they’ll pick you right back up, and there’s always someone there to talk to. No matter what, if you need help with homework, [there’s] someone to help you; if you need to talk about girl troubles ... It’s a family. Being part of the team — it means a lot.”
Beyond football, Gaffney would someday like to coach. Whether it be basketball or football, he does not yet know.
“I think that goes back to my dad,” Gaffney said. “My dad was my first basketball coach, and he coached me frequently throughout high school and throughout my middle school days, so he was definitely a big part of me growing up, so I think I definitely want to coach something at some point in my life. I don’t know if it’s early on or later on, but at some point I definitely want to coach and just give back what my coaches and my dad have given to me throughout my life.”
In the meantime, he’s learned the secret to college success: naps.
“I’ve found those to become crucial to my time here. Just trying to make sure I’m well rested so I don’t get myself overwhelmed,” Gaffney said.