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Three Linebackers, Seven Surgeries: A Trio of Fifth-Year Linebackers is Fueling Owls' Football Resurgence

Westfield State linebackers Tyler Robbins, Andrew Carpenter and Zach Howard.
Westfield State linebackers Tyler Robbins, Andrew Carpenter and Zach Howard.

For most college students, five years after they start higher education, they are ready to come back to school for their first homecoming as an alumnus.

But for Westfield State's trio of starting linebackers; Andrew Carpenter, Zach Howard, and Tyler Robbins, the trio will all STILL be on the field, playing in their final homecoming game.

Each member of the trio has been granted medical redshirt status, as they have had seven knee surgeries between them, yet have chosen to endure to continue to play college football.

The group's experience and leadership is one key in the Owls 4-3 start to the season.  Carpenter came up with 11 tackles and recovered a fumble in last week's win over Fitchburg, Howard, the team's leading tackler, was named the MASCAC player of the week after returning an interception for a touchdown in a big win over Worcester State, and Robbins has been the Owls leading tackler in twice this season and ranks second on the team in tackles (48), while Carpenter is third (43).

The Owls will face a big test in their homecoming game, facing defending league champion Framingham State, which is unbeaten in league play in 2018.

"Some of the seniors from last year, they're coming, there gonna stay at my house," said Howard. "And it's kind of difficult when you know when they get up, first thing they are going to do is drink a beer.  I'll be sitting there drinking a Gatorade to get ready for the game. "We'll be with them after the game.  But we'll be playing, and they'll be on the sideline hooting and hollering and making jokes about us."

"I couldn't have asked for a better game at homecoming," said Carpenter. "It's a statement game and it's going to be a dogfight. I love that it's our homecoming and they're coming in here. It makes the atmosphere that much better."

The triad has gone through a lot, and there is a familiar thread in all their stories.


Tyler Robbins (Valley Christian HS (Calif.)/Southwick, Mass.) considered several schools on the West Coast, including Division III power Linfield (Ore.) and Oregon State, but eventually chose Westfield because his father lives in nearby Southwick, Mass.

After an ACL injury in high school, "I tore my patella tendon during preseason my freshman year. I missed my sophomore and junior year. Last year was the first year, I have played football since high school.  I made a few 'life choices' that allowed me to stay here. I had 117 credits and another year of eligibility, so I'm taking one class and playing football. Technically I'm a sophomore athletically, but my 10 semesters will be up."


Zach Howard (David Prouty HS/Spencer, Mass.) was a high school running back and tore his ACL at a camp after his junior year. 

"Coach O'Brien came to my high school to recruit a friend of mine, and my coach recommended me to him." said Howard.  I decided to come for criminal justice, and then three days into camp tore  my ACL again.  I thought about transferring and giving up football, and toured Costal Carolina, and that I might go down south, go to school and party.  But I love football too much and couldn't give it up. "

"I came back to Westfield, switched to offense, wanted to play running back, didn't see the field at all, switched back to defense, played eight games, and then tore my ACL again, somehow got all conference and thought, geez, I should really give it up, but don't want to."

"So I came back and had a good season and got convinced to play again.  So I decided to get my master's degree, and I am trying to finish in one year.  I took two summer classes, I am overloaded this semester with four, and I should graduate in the spring and be done with Westfield. 


Andrew Carpenter (Auburn HS/Auburn, Mass.) says, "Similar story."

"My senior year of HS was looking at a few schools, and Westfield wasn't really on my radar, my senior year I ended up partially tearing my ACL.  I didn't know if I would be able to play in college and really wanted to play the rest of my season, so I braced it up an played, and ended up blowing it out completely – ACL, MCL and meniscus. My dad encouraged me to check out Westfield, he's a detective in Worcester. So I sent in my HUDL (film) at 9 o'clock at night, and 10 minutes later I get a call from [Westfield State Assistant Coach] Sean O'Brien. I told him I wanted to go to Endicott College for CJ, and the first thing he says to me is 'What are you, an idiot' with that thick Irish accent and his sense of humor, and he convinced me to come here."

"My first two years my knee was good, junior year, ACL same knee in an intra-squad scrimmage … did rehab." Said Carpenter. "Senior year knee was pretty good.  And then, these two bozos, we all had the same idea, if one of us was going to come back we'll all come back.  We all had debilitating injuries, but we all had the agreement we'd all come back.  I ended up starting my master's in public administration with a concentration in criminal justice."

Howard and Carpenter laud the efforts of Westfield State athletic trainer Cheryl Lee in helping them with their rehab from surgery.  (Robbins says he "didn't rehab at all," and decided to come out for football two years after his surgery).

"I did the majority of my rehab at Westfield State," said Carpenter. "You're exposed to so many resources, stim, ultrasound, top of the line equipment, a $50,000 HydroTrack that some D1 schools don't even have, which gave me the ability to start running earlier.  I was able to fully rehab in 7 months. I had the ability to rehab every day and having the resources in the athletic training room is huge."

"Honestly, Cheryl would push us better (than other rehab centers)," said Howard. "She's trying to get you back on the field."

Question: Do you guys feel 100 percent at this point?

Answer:  [Laughter]

Zach: "Like 40?"

"We want to be effective leaders on the team, but also stay healthy," said Carpenter. "Staying healthy was the name of the game this year, and Coach K and the coaches understood that we're not sitting out to sit out, it's to save ourselves.  We have to find a balance between being prepared and being healthy. "

Being graduate students presents other challenges.

"I have class Monday, Tuesday and Thursday night, I'm really only here Wednesday and Fridays," said Howard. "Tuesday and Thursday I go on the HydroTrack and run a couple of miles to keep in shape.  I probably couldn't practice every day anyway with the pounding."

"I have to leave early twice a week for class," said Carpenter. "Cheryl's good about making sure my legs are strong. We try to get in on the same practices, it's huge to prepare together."

"Last week I didn't practice at all," said Robbins.

"It's been difficult at times, the difference between being hurt and being injured," said Carpenter. "We want to create an environment where you can be tough and push through some things. You need to stay healthy but show you need to practice. 

"It's a huge point to emphasize," said Robbins, as the trio essentially completes the others' sentences.

"We try not to be hypocritical" said Howard. "After we lost to Bridgewater I made a point that all of us practice.  On Monday, we had 6-7 seniors sitting on the sideline, and it was a bad look for us, we're supposed to be leaders."

"Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do," adds Carpenter. "You gotta practice when your body isn't feeling great.  Football is a tough sport, it's not for everyone."

"Sometimes when people tear their ACL they are all done," said Robbins. "We have played again, twice, three times, fighting through injuries trying to make the most of it."


How did the group all decide to come back ?

"Cali was a late add," said Carpenter of Robbins. "I always knew that Zach and I were on the same page and wanted to use all of our eligibility, and I know (Robbins) had second thoughts - I did too when we had our injuries. We missed a good deal of football, and I still had a little gas left in the tank and I wasn't ready to give it up.  And (Zach Howard and I) are both going into law enforcement where having a master's (degree) is really a benefit."

"I egged Cali on for a while," said Capenter. "He said he was done.  But thankfully he did come back."

"The positive end to last season," was a big factor in Robbins' return. "I missed my senior year of high school, which is one of your biggest dreams as a kid. I couldn't miss my senior year of college.  I can't do it twice."

"One night, [Devin] Lekan came up to me and he's like 'you should come back.'  First week of camp, he told me he knew the conversation at the bar would work.   [Ed. Note: Lekan is also a fifth year senior for the Owls, playing as a tight end and fullback on the offensive side if the ball]

"The momentum," said Howard. "We had so much potential as a team it was hard to give up, and you want to be a part of that success."

The veteran group has been a key in the Owls 4-3 start to the season.  Their fifth-year status shows in their leadership and other traits, as the triumvirate arrives precisely on time for the interview, dressed in matching Westfield football polo shirts and khakis, and groomed for the TV cameras.

"The three of us play really well together, we trust each other, we are going to be in the right spot at the right time," said Robbins.

"That lets me focus on what I have to do.  That jell-like quality makes us better," adds Carpenter.

"We may not be the three most athletic linebackers we have, but our football IQ is good, and we're always communicating," says Howard.

"It's because we play so well together, that it makes us individually better," says Carpenter as the commentary from the group flows together.


"We have the top teams in the leagues from here on out, and we need to win out," said Carpenter. "We can play with these teams.   We were right there with Framingham last year.  We have the ability to play with those teams.  From here, every game is a playoff."

"Last year we finished with one of the best passing teams and quarterbacks in the country, and he threw two picks to me alone," adds Robbins.

"We know we have to win those games to win the conference," chimes Howard.

"That's what I love about football one game a week, every game means that much more, and it's tougher to be at the top. One game can really change the outlook of your season." said Carpenter.

But with three games remaining in the regular season, the trio also has perspective on their time at Westfield State.

"Five years doesn't seem like a long time, but the freshman on the team now were in eighth grade when we started college," said Carpenter. "We've invested our time, and the other players see we've earned our stripes."

"Your closest friends are the kids in your class, as you've gone through the same things and had the same experiences," said Howard. "The best men at my wedding are gonna be guys I played football with at Westfield. Everything that you accomplished, you did it together."

"I should be in California. It's nice to have the opportunity to still play," said Robbins. "It's nice to enjoy the sport one last time. I'm never going to forget the people here, even if I move back to California – Coach Lenfest, Coach K, Obie.  It is a home for me. I consider this my home.  Even though I'm from California, I've been here for five years this is my new home."

"I don't even remember the scores from a couple of years ago. The camaraderie is bigger than the sport itself.  Coming out of high school I couldn't picture myself going to Westfield. Now I can't picture myself having gone anywhere else. Some people don't even get the chance to play a sport in college.  We've had the circumstance to play five," said Carpenter.

"I think we're pretty fortunate to have one last ride."

Andrew Carpenter Zach Howard Tyler Robbins