Blue Collar Man

When Lenny Cusumano flicks on his television to watch "The Sopranos," he feels like he's home again. No, Cusumano doesn't hail from a Mafia family. Rather, the show films near his home in West Paterson, N.J. So whenever he watches the HBO series, he'll recognize the occasional high school or neighborhood deli.

Cusumano is blue-collar through and through. From his Jersey roots ( "I go down da Shore," he says in Garden State lingo) to his thankless tight end position on the Syracuse football team.

"He does the dirty work for us," SU tight ends coach Chris White said. "He's the lunch-pail guy."

Indeed, Cusumano, a senior, has one catch this season-a two-yard touchdown reception. He makes his biggest contributions with his blocking.

Remember running back Walter Reyes' 35-yard touchdown run in the third quarter of SU's 30-20 loss to Louisville on Sept. 13?

"Lenny made that play," SU fullback Thump Belton said. "The guy he had to block was so far away from him. He busted his butt and ran down there and cut him down."

Cusumano's block freed Reyes for the touchdown, but, as Belton said, "You'll never see it. The only thing the fans will see is a long ball thrown or an interception caught."

Cusumano prefers it that way. He's a quiet sort, a guy who realizes he won't play in the NFL and instead aspires to coach high school football. He boasts about being the first member of his family to graduate from college. (He earned his undergraduate degree in physical education and is pursuing a minor in speech communications.)

"I take great pride in making a big block," he said.

He leaves the pass-catching to Joe Donnelly, SU's flashier and much more talkative tight end.

Said Donnelly: "He always says to me, 'Joe, you run 4.4 [seconds in the 40-yard dash]. Go catch the ball.' He's one of the few guys on the team who could handle a situation like that."

"They are polar opposites in terms of everything," White said. "If something's bothering Lenny, you can tell it's bothering him, but he won't say it. If something's bothering Joe, you'll know it."

Donnelly remembers meeting Cusumano at a Syracuse football camp before their senior year in high school.

"He was real quiet," Donnelly said. "We used to call him Mr. Personality. He's not a guy who you'll find at a club in New York City at four or five in the morning.

"He's the grandfather of our [tight end] group. Definitely the most mature, straight-edge guy. We try to loosen him up, and he tries to keep us serious."

When Cusumano and Donnelly arrived at Syracuse, they roomed together during preseason camp, and they've done so every summer since then. Both came in as fullbacks, before switching to tight end. While Cusumano said their relationship remains mostly professional, each has learned from the other.

The 6-foot-1, 259-pound Cusumano picked up pass-catching and route-running skills from the 6-foot-3, 250-pound Donnelly. That still doesn't much atone for Cusumano's speed-or lack thereof.

"If I see Lenny running," Donnelly said, "I'm gonna tell him, 'You look fat and slow.'"

On the other hand, Donnelly, more of a pure athlete, notices the attention Cusumano pays to blocking technique during practices.

"He used to joke around with me," Donnelly said, and say, 'That was a pretty good block for a wide receiver.'"

Such joking is rare for Cusumano, who some teammates refer to as Coach Cus (rhymes with Goose).

Cusumano talks at length about his "first step" and how crucial it is in blocking an on-coming defensive lineman. Once the ball is snapped, Cusumano bases the size, distance and direction of his first step on where the defensive lineman is positioned.

"It's a step of balance," Cusumano said. "It's all a game of balance and leverage. Just getting those techniques down makes up for a lack of size and speed."

Said White: "He knows his liabilities. He's not gifted with blazing speed. He knows that to be a starter, he has to have great technique."

Of course, some physical gifts help with blocking. Cusumano bench presses 455 pounds and squats 610. But teammates notice something else about him.

"If I were a defensive end, I wouldn't let him get his hands on me," Belton said. "He's got those big, strong, gorilla hands."

While Donnelly has learned to focus more during technique drills (he admitted natural athletes often neglect such details) Belton learned how to use his hands more efficiently during blocks.

Belton, never at a loss for words, is also trying to pick up on Cusumano's humbleness.

"I do the same job he does," Belton said. "Sometimes, you get tired of doing the dirty work. He does it without complaining."

Cusumano learned those values from his parents, Anna Maria and Lenny (short for Leonardo, which is also Cusumano's full first name). Anna Maria and Lenny attend every SU home game. Lenny even hopped a train to Blacksburg, Va., to watch the Orangemen's Oct. 11 game against Virginia Tech. Now that's blue-collar.

"I characterize myself as one of Jersey's finest," Cusumano said.

Few seem to disagree.

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