There are all kinds of opinions around the NFL on new Miami Dolphins quarterback Jay Cutler but there also are at least two places in America where you will never hear anything but good.
One of them is Lincoln City, Ind., down near the Kentucky border. Abraham Lincoln spent most of his childhood on a farm near there and, a little bit later, Cutler led the local high school, Heritage Hills, to its first state championship in any team sport during the perfect 15-0 football season of 2000.
Cutler scored the winning touchdown in overtime of the state final against Zionsville, and he did it as a receiver.
First Cutler threw a lateral to a teammate and then he released down field to make himself wide open for a 12-yard score. The rest of the passing attack hadn’t gone all that smoothly for Cutler, who threw three interceptions that night, but he also scored a touchdown on a quarterback sneak earlier in the game and was credited with 19 tackles as a two-way player at safety.
Cutler was a three-year starter at quarterback for Heritage Hills and a first-team All-State selection in football and basketball so, yeah, the good folks of southern Indiana aren’t too interested in hearing from anybody who is disappointed in their boy.
The next stop was Vanderbilt University, which last year added Cutler to the Commodores’ Hall of Fame.
Vandy is the only private university in the SEC and they don’t do a lot of winning. It was no different during Cutler’s time there, but in four seasons as the starting quarterback he put a major scare into some of the league’s traditional powers.
One of the most memorable games was a 49-42 double-overtime loss at Florida in his senior season of 2005. The Gators appeared to be in good shape, leading 35-21 with 4:11 to play and getting a couple of touchdowns off Cutler turnovers. However, two quick Cutler touchdown drives, sandwiched around a successful on-side kick, tied the game and Vandy actually came awful close to winning it in regulation.
A celebration penalty on the receiver who caught Cutler’s fourth touchdown pass of the game prevented coach Bobby Collins from trying for a two-point conversion and the win. Ultimately, Cutler, who passed for 361 yards in the game, was intercepted in the second overtime to end the upset bid.
Cutler was voted the SEC’s Offensive Player of the Year as a senior and he remains the career leader at Vanderbilt in passing yards (8,697) and touchdown passes (59) and total offense (9,953 yards).
Not bad for a player whose scholarship offer from Illinois was withdrawn, leaving Cutler to fight his way through an 11-35 career with a Vanderbilt program that was overmatched at every position but quarterback. Cutler still keeps his offseason home in Nashville, close to Vanderbilt, and he got a little emotional while addressing the crowd at his Hall of Fame induction there.
“It snuck up on me a little bit,” he said. “I have such fond memories here and have been surrounded by so many people at this university and within this organization.”
A former Vanderbilt teammate, wide receiver Brandon Smith, said Cutler would step into the huddle at the roughest moments and say “It’s time to play, I’m going to be your leader, that’s what I’m here for, trust me.”
A little bit of that would go a long way with the Dolphins now.
Cutler didn’t win any championships at Vanderbilt but his final play there was just as dramatic as the way he wrapped up his high school career in Indiana.
With the last pass of his college career, a 5-yard touchdown to Earl Bennett with 1:11 to play, Cutler gave Vanderbilt its first victory over Tennessee in 23 years.
Not quite a fairy tale, not with a 4-27 record in every other game Cutler played against SEC competition, but a foundation. The guy just keeps coming, and there are at least two places in America where people believe he always will.