Hey Jay, thanks for coming back

On Saturday Jay Cutler plays his final home game at Dudley Field. For one last time before the home fans, he will try to work his magic and lead the Commodores to a win. For his loyalty to his coaches and teammates-- for turning down the big bucks to give it one more college try-- for sacrificing his body and his estimable abilities for the glory of the old school on West End-- Jay Cutler deserves a heartfelt thanks.

NASHVILLE-- He arrived on Vanderbilt's campus in the fall of 2001 to very little fanfare. (Most who had evaluated Vanderbilt's recruiting class of 2001 doubted little-known Jay Cutler would be able to hold a candle to California hot-shot recruit David Koral.)

How wrong they were. Let us go ahead and call Cutler what he is-- the greatest quarterback in Vanderbilt's 117-year football-playing history. After he plays his final game as a Commodore-- hopefully in December or January rather than next week-- the cagey signal caller from Santa Claus, Ind. will move on to the National Football League, where 32 teams will await him with open arms and open checkbooks.

After holding a hammerlock on the starting quarterback position for four seasons, he will play his final game at Dudley Field on Saturday. Fans who miss this final opportunity to see this great talent in action may be kicking themselves for years to come.

As might befit a quarterback for a school like Vanderbilt, Cutler has made his living defying the expectations of others around him. Plenty of media types guffawed in July when the SEC's coaches voted him the best quarterback in the league; now, 11 weeks into the season, no one's scoffing.

"Their quarterback is a really good football player-- hands down he's the best football player I've ever faced," said Florida's Jarvis Moss last week, after the Commodores' Superman had finished wrestling with Gators in the Swamp.

In the fall of 2002, few thought he'd be able to beat out veteran Benji Walker for the starting quarterback position... which was exactly what the plucky freshman did. Still others doubted he'd be able to build himself up in the weight room in order to meet the physical rigors of the SEC-- that was before all the hours he spent under John Sisk working up to a strapping 230 pounds.

What Cutler has accomplished in his five years on campus is a testament to (A) his toughness and (B) his perseverance. Recent comparisons between Cutler and Packer star and future Hall-of-Famer Brett Favre don't miss the mark by much.

Oh, sure, Kurt Page (1983-84) was probably a better pure passer for Vanderbilt. Eric Jones (1986-88) was more slippery and precise running the option. Cutler lacks the smoothness of Bill Wade (1948-50), and so far he's not led Vanderbilt to a bowl game as did Don Orr (1954-56) or Whit Taylor (1981-82).

Critics are fond of pointing out that Cutler is still prone to throwing up the occasional flutterball off his back foot-- though he completes a fair amount of those.

But shout it from the top of Vanderbilt Stadium, and let it ring out across the synthetic surface of the John Rich Practice Facility-- Jay Cutler is unquestionably the toughest son-of-a-gun ever to bark a signal for the Black and Gold. His will to lift his team for the last four years has been nothing short of inspirational.

At times in his career he's taken hits that would put a lesser man in ICU. Against Florida his freshman year, a Gator nearly ripped his head off in rotating his helmet around 180 degrees, Linda Blair-style. Several times last season, he was blind-sided and nearly decapitated.

Always, always, Cutler pops up off the ground and looks to the sidelines for the next play. It's a point of pride with Cutler-- never let 'em have the satisfaction of knowing they hurt you. Dozens of times after games, we media types have asked him, are you OK? How does a mortal survive a pounding like that?

His answer never changes. "A few little bumps and bruises," he mumbles.

Then, with a smile and a shrug, "It's just football."

As if it's normal for a body to get slammed to the ground, or sandwiched between linemen.

Amazingly, he's never missed a start due to an injury (though he did miss one start due to a suspension in 2002). Saturday's Kentucky game marks his 44th start as a quarterback, the most of any in school history. He already holds the records for passing yardage, total offense, completions and touchdown passes. And after he throws his 20th pass today (to surpass Greg Zolman's pass attempt total of 1,156), he will own every significant passing record in the book.

But it's for none of those reasons that he is so adored by the Vandy nation.

Last December, as most will recall, Cutler faced a decision. Academically he was on track to finish his classwork in the spring. After a 2-9 season in which he had been sacked repeatedly, his body had taken a pounding. As did some of his teammates, he sought out a confidential NFL Draft evaluation which virtually assured him he would be drafted in the middle rounds.

Outsiders would tell him he had little to gain by returning. Three of his fourth-year junior teammates had already made the leap.

But Cutler took a more cautious and contemplative approach. He looked deep within himself, and he looked into the eyes of his teammates. He envisioned having to tell them he would be going on to the Big Show without them.

In January he called them together to announce that he would be back to finish what he'd started. He would return for his fourth and final year of eligibility.

"There is some stuff that I still want to get done here," he said at his press conference. "Obviously I'd like to win more games."

Ultimately, he was true to his school, his teammates, and the fans in Vanderbilt Stadium that had been privileged to watch him in action the previous three years. The NFL would still be there after one more year, he reasoned.

A year later, there is little question his decision was a good one. Cutler has stayed injury free, and has done plenty to help himself draft-wise. NFL scouts have been present at every game this fall.

Meanwhile, his mere presence has lifted Vanderbilt to a higher level of play and restored needed enthusiasm to a program that desperately needed a spark of any sort. While it remains to be seen whether Cutler can get the Commodores over the 22-year bowl-less hump, his senior season has already been the most memorable one at Vandy since 1999.

On Saturday, Cutler plays his final game at Dudley Field. For one last time before the home fans, he will try to work his magic and lead the Commodores to a win. Before the game he, along with 20 other seniors, will be honored by the school and fans for dedicating five years of his life to the football program.

For his loyalty to his coaches and teammates-- for turning down the big bucks to give it one more college try-- for sacrificing his body and his estimable abilities for the glory of the old school on West End-- Jay Cutler deserves a heartfelt thanks.


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