The Comeback Captain
Written by Paysha Rhone for the Summer 2017 issue of Holy Cross Magazine
When Crusader quarterback Peter Pujals ’18 felt his left leg crack under a hard tackle in the fourth game last season, he assumed he’d walk it off. Playing through pain was normal.
But when teammates saw their captain limping on the sidelines, they knew. “He was like, ‘I’m going back in,’” remembers friend and co-captain James Murray ’18. “But you can’t play on a broken leg.”
Breaking his fibula and playing a fifth year wasn’t in Pujals’ game plan. But it’s given the 22-year-old psychology major a unique opportunity.
This fall, he’ll become the first Holy Cross football player to serve as team captain four years in a row. And his return is creating a lot of excitement for the upcoming season.
“It’s not just rare, it never happens,” says head football coach Tom Gilmore, of Pujals’ fourth-year captaincy, which Gilmore says places Pujals in an elite group of college athletes nationwide. “It might be the first time in college football history.”
It’s no accident Pujals is making Holy Cross history, Gilmore says. “Peter’s leadership qualities are off the charts. Even as a young player coming in, you could tell he was very special. He was a hard worker. He’s always the first one out and the last to come in.”
Pujals also immediately landed in a starting position, due to the injuries of older players.
“It’s very difficult for anyone to come in as a starting quarterback,” Gilmore says. “But he was able to perform. No one wants to win more than he does. No one prepares more than he does.”
With that kind of dedication, Pujals was named a captain as a sophomore, and he’s remained in that leadership role ever since.
Pujals has always been a fiercely competitive athlete. Growing up in Glenview, Illinois, he started playing football in third grade; he’s played quarterback since fifth. He also played baseball and basketball.
He and Murray — also a returning fifth-year player — grew up in the same community and played football and basketball together at Loyola Academy in Wilmette, Illinois.
Pujals was a high school basketball captain too, Murray says, and during their senior year of football, he played through an injury. “He’s crazy competitive in everything he does. But he’s very humble at the same time.”
Pujals says he had to decide whether to play football or basketball in college. Ultimately, he felt he could continue to play basketball casually. Playing college football was special. “I loved the culture and environment of football, the team aspect of it.”
Making the Comeback
He liked the coaches and academic environment at Holy Cross, which began offering scholarships the year he joined the team. Having family in nearby Leominster, Massachusetts, was also a draw.
He never regretted his choice. Every year, the team’s record improved — from achieving three wins and eight losses in his first year, to six wins and five losses in his junior year. Going into his senior year, Pujals was pumped. “It was supposed to be our year.”
Suffering a season-ending injury in the Dartmouth game was a setback, he admits. But luckily, it occurred just before the deadline that allowed him to play another season.
He was in a boot for about eight weeks and he spent months strengthening his leg in physical therapy and rehab. He had to take the spring semester off from both sports and academics to remain eligible for fall.
Gilmore says Pujals worked tirelessly with the younger players while he was injured. “He was another set of eyes, another coach on the field,” he says. “I’d look in the film room, and there was Peter, conducting a meeting. His will to win didn’t dissipate after his injury.”
Pujals says he works to lead by example. “You can’t be slacking, you have to be doing it right.” He’s learned when to push his teammates and when to encourage. “It’s about getting people to be their best.”
Though Pujals is highly driven, his background has also made him compassionate. He has two younger brothers, one of whom has Down syndrome.
Taking care of his brother taught him so much, Pujals says. “He’s so happy all the time. I think he brings out the best in other people.”
He also mentors a 10-year-old boy through Big Brothers Big Sisters in Worcester, and recently interned for BERG Associates, a global financial investigations firm founded by John Moynihan ’83. In his spare time, he works at a local liquor store. He can see himself going into the business world someday, or coaching.
He’s also hoping for a shot at going pro, and he’s grateful for another year to attract attention. “Honestly, I think this extra time will open up doors,” he says. “Every year, I learn more.”
Gilmore confirmed that almost every pro team scouted Pujals last year, and he’s betting they’ll return. “I do think he’s capable of going on in football. It’s a bright, bright future for Peter.”
But between Pujals and that future — the time remaining until his December graduation — is summer training, August camp and his much-anticipated last season.
“I’m extremely appreciative to come back and play another year,” he says. “I’m excited to have another shot at a championship.”
Pujals’ return — along with the return of several other strong, fifth-year seniors — gives this year’s team the potential to achieve an extraordinary season, Gilmore says. “We have a very talented team. It does make it special, and it raises the expectations. It gives us a lotof optimism for this season.”
“Peter elevates himself and the rest of team, because of his work ethic and his passion,” he says. “It’s all in how hard you work, and his ability to lead the team through preparation is one of his biggest assets. That’s why the sky’s the limit.”
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Holy Cross Magazine (HCM) is the quarterly alumni publication of the College of the Holy Cross. The award-winning publication is mailed to alumni and friends of the College and includes intriguing profiles, make-you-think features, alumni news, exclusive photos and more.
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