Zach Pidgeon, a senior linebacker on the Ithaca Bombers football team, is second on the team in sacks with 2.5. As the team looks to bounce back from a three-game losing skid Saturday against Buffalo State, Pidgeon will play a vital role in the team’s pass-rush. This time last year, Pidgeon wasn’t focused on rushing the passer- he was focused on throwing a fastball.
After pitching for the school’s baseball team for two years, Pidgeon tore his ulnar collateral ligament (UCL), an elbow ligament, while throwing pitches off the mound in the batting cage prior to his Junior year.
Instead of going through the grueling process of Tommy John surgery, which typically takes a calendar year for pitchers to recover from, Pidgeon did something he’s always wanted to do at Ithaca, play football.
“One of the first things that really went through my mind was ‘I want to play football,’” Pidgeon said. “Every August comes around and you just get that football smell.”
Pidgeon, an Oneonta, N.Y. native, was recruited to Ithaca by both the baseball and football teams. He played linebacker on the gridiron and catcher on the baseball diamond. While he comes from more of a football background than a baseball one – his dad Tim was a standout linebacker at Syracuse and had a brief stint in the NFL with the Miami Dolphins in 1987 and his brother, Brenden played linebacker for four years at Division III University of Rochester. Even so, Pidgeon chose baseball and was highly touted by Bombers head baseball coach, George Valesente.
“From a baseball standpoint he literally could be a professional baseball player.” Valesente said. “When he got the elbow injury I was really disappointed and sad for him because I thought he’d really have a future in this game.”
As Pidgeon gradually improved as a pitcher at Ithaca, those pro aspirations took a turn for the worse when he suffered the UCL injury last February.
“It wasn’t a pop exactly it was a discomfort kind of thing,” Pidgeon said. “I was like this is weird I never get elbow pain.”
After attempting to rehab the injury the next week, he then found out the severity of it, and the tough decision he would now have to make. This type of injury is very unorthodox, in that the only time it hurts the person affected by it is when they throw a baseball.
“The only thing that hurt me was throwing a baseball,” Pidgeon said. “I could do every lift every lift, I could do pushups, I could do anything.”
With Pidgeon deciding against the Tommy John surgery so that he could play football, Coach Valesente suggested that Pidgeon also continue playing for the baseball team as designated hitter. Taking Valesente up on his offer, Pidgeon served as the DH of the baseball team last spring, while also working with the football team during spring practices.
Pigeon was able to do well in his new role on the baseball team, finishing second on the team in hitting with a .379 average as the Bombers captured the Empire 8 title. As he helped the baseball team win games he took on the tall task of learning the ins and outs of the football team’s defensive schemes.
“That’s not something people usually do in one year,” Pidgeon said. “You don’t really see freshmen making an impact or truly playing a lot on defense.”
To help Pidgeon make the transition to football, Mark McDonough, Ithaca defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, spent hours on end going over the defensive playbook, defensive schemes and watching film with his new player in order to catch him up to speed on the 3-4 defense the Bombers run.
McDonough was thrilled to be able to bring in someone with Pidgeon’s combination of speed (he runs a very impressive 4.47 40-yard dash) and size (6’5 230). That being said, he also knew it would be a very tough learning curve for Pidgeon to overcome.
“The number one thing is you have to want to do it,” McDonough said. “As a coach I can’t make you do it. He wants to do it.”
Pidgeon of course made the transition and come August was ready to get back out on the football field. Unfortunately the start to his season didn’t go as planned for him. Pidgeon suffered an appendicitis early into training camp, which forced him to miss the team’s first game against Union.
Just as he was ready to make his football debut week two in the home opener against Hobart, Pidgeon dislocated his kneecap in practice that Wednesday. This injury kept Pidgeon out for both the Hobart game and the Alfred game the following week. He finally made his long-awaited Ithaca football debut on the road at Utica.
Pidgeon has now played in five games for the Bombers. His best one came in week five, when Ithaca faced Hartwick in Pidgeon’s hometown of Oneonta. In that matchup Pidgeon had 3 tackles and 1.5 sacks, as the Bombers defeated the Hawks 47-19.
“It definitely added to it that it was my hometown and I had a lot of people there watching me.” Pidgeon said.
With the Bombers football season almost finished, Pidgeon will make the reverse-transition this winter, going from football back to playing baseball. As Pidgeon reflects on his athletic career at Ithaca College thus far, he is happy he’s gotten the chance to play both baseball and football, just like his idol Bo Jackson – who excelled in both sports at the professional level.
“I think being a two-sports athlete in college is something to be proud of.” Pidgeon said. “It’s something not a lot of people do especially with two big sports like football and baseball.”