Countdown to Cortaca: The Road to MetLife Stadium Part 4

By Kerry C. Regan, June 18, 2019
Cortaca Bloodlines: For some players, Cortaca isn't just a game — it's a family tradition.

The 61st Cortaca Jug football game between Ithaca College and Cortland State University will be played on its biggest stage yet this fall — MetLife Stadium, the home of the National Football League’s New York Giants and New York Jets. To shine a light on this historic matchup, we will run a multi-part series in this space leading up to game day on Saturday, Nov. 16 at 1 p.m. We’ll cover all things Cortaca — interviews with Cortaca Jug legends, plans for alumni gatherings around the nation, ways the game is being incorporated in academic programs and other topics. Previous stories in the series can be found here.

Some of Keith Heinzelman’s ’95 earliest memories about the nature of the Cortaca Jug rivalry came courtesy of his uncle Tom ’75, who was a part of the rivalry during some of Ithaca’s early national success under College Football Hall of Fame head coach Jim Butterfield.

“I always heard bad things about Cortland,” said Keith. “My uncle was all about beating Cortland. Playing football for them was outside of his realm of consciousness. I realized that the best way to get thrown out of the family would have been to attend Cortland.”

To date, the Heinzelman clan remains intact, as three family members have donned the blue and white of the Bombers: After Tom came Keith, and then Tom’s son Kevin ’09 and ’10 . Each speaks passionately of the college, their long-time friendships with teammates, and the roles of both Butterfield and Mike Welch ’73.

And having played in three different eras gives the family a distinctive perspective on Ithaca College, Bomber football, and the Cortaca rivalry.

Lifelong Love

A player playing in a football game

Tom Heinzelman ’75 in action during a Cortaca Jug game. (Photo submitted)

Tom fell in love with Ithaca College at an early age. He wanted a career teaching physical education, and two of his role models growing up in Goshen, New York, were Ithaca College grads. He also followed several locals who played football for the Bombers. The program was ramping up its competitiveness, and when Butterfield made a trip to recruit him that sealed the deal. “There was not another college I would consider,” Tom said.

And although the program goal was to advance to the Stagg Bowl — which they did during his senior season, losing 10-8 to Central (Iowa) in the Stagg Bowl — there was nothing like Cortaca.

“It was two schools with great programs for students who wanted to teach physical education, just 20 miles apart,” he said. “It was an intense rivalry that took on a life of its own.”

His teams won three of their four Cortaca games, kicking off what would become a nine-game Bomber winning streak from 1973 to 1981.

Tom continued to draw upon his Ithaca College football experiences for 33 years as a coach and administrator at two high schools: Shenendehowa in Clifton Park, New York, and Hudson Falls, New York. “Everything I did was based off what I learned at Ithaca. I stole the entire playbook,” Tom said. “Short of my father, Coach Butterfield had the most impact on me of any man.”

"I realized that the best way to get thrown out of the family would have been to attend Cortland.”

Keith Heizelman ’95

One downside of coaching was that he was rarely able to see his sons Mark and Kevin play for their respective schools. So before Kevin’s final year at Ithaca, Tom retired and attended every game that season, including Cortaca. “Just watching him stand on the sideline with an Ithaca uniform on made me feel like a success,” Tom said. “And seeing him play was one of greatest things that could ever happen.”

Tom is still connected to his alma mater. He is a member of the Ithaca College Athletics Advisory Council, and his house has something Bomber related in every room. “I find a reason every day to talk about Ithaca College,” he said. “It had that much of a profound impact on my life. And when I drive into Ithaca and pull onto the campus I feel like I’m home.”

The Next Generation

A player intercepting a pass

Keith Heinzelman patrolled the Bombers' defensive backfield. (Photo credit: The Ithacan/Dave Slurzberg ’97)

“I really wanted to go to Ithaca and play football like Tom and be a physical therapist like Linda,” Keith said. “When I discussed this with my Tom, he told me, ‘If you want to play college football, go somewhere else because you'll never see the field there. It’s very competitive.’”

That only fueled Keith’s competitiveness. A quarterback in high school, he switched to defense after seeing the depth Ithaca had at the position. He became a cornerback but was injured most of his freshman year, then spent his sophomore year as a backup on the junior varsity program. But he surprised everyone by earning a starting position, despite his demanding physical therapy major. For years, future head coach Mike Welch used Keith as an example when future players wanted to pursue that major.

“It can be done,” Keith said of balancing athletics and academics, “But you have to really love both football and physical therapy.”

Keith also played in a great era of Bomber athletics. Football, wrestling and women’s soccer all won national championships during his tenure. “It was a cool time to be there from a sports standpoint.”

But few things topped Cortaca. “Coach Butterfield always made it feel like the game meant so much,” he said. “He told stories of all the guys who played there before, the history. It really felt like it mattered. And the campus was abuzz. “It was Cortaca week. It felt bigger than just the guys on the team.” 

Keith played in Cortaca during his junior and senior years, and was modest about his impact. “It’s not like I had exceptional games,” he said. “A lot of times at safety your job is to not screw up, and I didn’t. And we won. But the energy leading up to it is what was special about it — how important it felt to everyone across campus.”

Tom’s son Kevin also heard a lot about Ithaca College when he was growing up. “It was kind of in our fiber,” he said. The family visited the campus a number of times. On those trips, Tom would tell Kevin and his brother, Mark, “This is where you will go to college."

Finding the Right Fit

Mark had a successful football career at Holy Cross, while Kevin searched for schools with football programs that could prepare him for a teaching career, like Ithaca — and Cortland. In fact, his recruiting trip to Cortland in 2004 came during Cortaca. Kevin attended with his father.

“We don’t like to talk about that,” Tom joked. “I had to disguise myself so no one would recognize me. I told him you can go there if you want, but I refuse to put a Cortland sticker on my car or wear their clothes. I just won’t do it.”

For Kevin, it was a fun memory. “I didn’t understand the rivalry as well as I do now. At halftime, dad went to the Ithaca side and sat with his friends. I can only imagine how painful that must have been for him, but he was incredibly supportive.”

Thankfully for Tom, the Bombers won that day, 47-22. Even better, when Kevin made his visit to Ithaca, something clicked. Following a meeting with Brian Angelico, the position coach who recruited him, he remembers walking on the footbridge outside the Hill Center on a snowy day when it hit him: He was going to continue the family tradition of being a Bomber.

“Something just felt right,” he said. “I felt at home there. There’s something about Ithaca and the South Hill and Butterfield Stadium that I wanted to work my tail off to be a part of.”

That also meant working to beat Cortland. In fact, that was one of the team’s stated goals each season. But there were other things that made the game different, like its place on the schedule. “If we’re not going to the playoffs, it’s the seniors’ last game,” Kevin said. “And there’s a different energy and intensity.”

His teams lost their first two Cortaca games in 2005 and 2006, which did not sit well. “I remember guys in our class saying ‘we can’t go under .500 at Cortaca,’” Kevin said.

Thankfully, the Bombers won the next three games, the last when Kevin was a graduate student.

And Cortaca has stayed in his blood even after graduating. Last year, he attended a bachelor party on Cortaca weekend. The group of a dozen or so gathered in a private room at a Nashville barbeque restaurant to watch a live stream of the game. “The ones who didn’t go to Ithaca couldn’t understand how into the game we were,” Kevin said. “It was another moment when I realized just how special Ithaca College football is and how lifelong the bond is.”

Although they took slightly different paths to the Cortaca rivalry, they’re going to wind up in the same place this November. When Kevin learned about the Cortaca game in MetLife Stadium this fall, he said, “I told my wife we’re going, I don’t care what the date is.” So he’ll be making the trip from Braintree, Mass., where he works as an account executive for cloud-based software platform provider, Workhuman.

Tom was equally enthusiastic about the move. “As soon as they were out, I bought tickets and made a hotel reservation,” Tom said. “I think this is a catalyst that will propel the game into the next dimension.” Keith, too, will be flying in from Washington State, noting that he expected see many players from his era at the game.  

For these three Heinzelmans, the Cortland rivalry was the centerpiece of a college football — and education — experience that continues to resonate. “I’ve talked Ithaca College football a lot in my life, and now I find out my nephew and son are doing the same thing,” Tom said. “It’s so special, to be a family thing.” 

Up Next

We take a look at two brothers who were both standout performers for the Bombers, and ask them to share their Cortaca memories.

Tickets and Merchandise

Tickets for the game are sold through Ticketmaster and at can be purchased at

Cortaca Jug 2019-branded T-shirts and other merchandise has arrived at the campus store and also is available on the website at: