What started as a feel-good story could soon become much more significant, and a Syracuse football player who started as a luxury could soon become a necessity.
Gabe Horan grew up in Baldwinsville, a suburb of Syracuse, and has been going to games at the Carrier Dome for as long as he can remember. When he was really young, he went as a fan; now, he’s 18 — still pretty young — and suiting up as one of the Orange’s reserve tight ends.
“My whole life, I’ve been coming with my dad to all these games,” Horan said after his team’s 51-21 walloping of UConn last week. “And I just can’t believe that I’m out here playing on the field now.”
Horan saw his first collegiate action in the win over the Huskies. With his team already leading by two touchdowns late in the first quarter, the 6-foot-6 behemoth trotted onto the turf and lined up on the left end, on top of the ESPN graphic reading “1st & Goal.” The rest is history.
First catch, first TD 🍊 pic.twitter.com/e7e3mK7bpu
— Gabe Horan (@horangabe11) September 23, 2018
Horan’s tweet leaves out one first: he had never played a single snap with SU before that touchdown (note how long it took the announcer to attach a name to the phantom No. 88).
“The coaches told me this week to be ready to play,” Horan said. “So I just studied the playbook as best I could and hoped to go out there and make a play.”
We had heard rumblings throughout the week that starting tight end Ravian Pierce was banged up and may not be able to suit up against UConn. The rumors proved to be true — the preseason All-ACC selection was nowhere to be found.
“He’s got an upper-body injury and he’s going to be out for a while,” head coach Dino Babers said after the game. “It’s really kind of disappointing. It kind of snuck up on us. He’s such a tough guy. We don’t know exactly when it happened.”
Pierce is, without a doubt, built more like a pass-catcher than Horan is. The latter told the Fizz last summer that he may move to tackle in college; the former was a four-star recruit who was previously committed to Mississippi State. At 6-foot-3, 244 pounds with wheels that most men his size only dream of possessing, Pierce owns the tools to terrorize defenses between the 20s.
But Babers’ offense has never really utilized him in that vein. Pierce has caught 35 passes for 319 yards over 13 games since joining the team last year. Six of those catches have gone for touchdowns, revealing his true role: drive finisher. Pierce is more DeAndre Jordan than Anthony Davis — he’ll convert from in close, but needs someone to set him up first. To use a different basketball-football analogy, his game mirrors that of post-injuries and post-aging Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham, rather than the every-down, yard-gobbling monsters they used to be. (Folks, did you know both those guys played basketball in college? Wow!)
Horan won’t torch linebackers like Pierce may be able to, but certainly seems capable of filling Pierce’s shoes as a red-zone hammer. It’s safe to assume the play Horan scored on was originally designed for the starter — and Horan knew his number could be called.
“I was hoping it was [coming to me],” Horan said. “I turned my head around, saw the ball in the air, and I was like, ‘Let’s go. Let’s get it.’ I knew I had to score right there, because I was on the goal line.”
It was the only catch Horan made Saturday, and it didn’t necessarily lock him in as Pierce’s No. 2.
“It’s not like he’s the backup tight end, but he does go from not playing to playing,” Babers said. “He has good hands. We’re excited about Gabe. We’re excited about what we see in practice.”
Horan proved two things over the weekend: it’s really cool when people fulfill lifelong dreams, and he can step up as a weapon when his hometown team needs him.
“It’s really indescribable,” Horan said. “I’m playing in front of my hometown. I’ve always dreamed about this, so, can’t really put it into words. Craziest experience ever.”