edcai

After leading the team in sacks and tackles for loss as a junior in 2014, senior lineman Ed Cai took a year off to work for Facebook before returning to the team in 2016.

Photo: Hunter Martin / The Daily Pennsylvanian

After falling just short of its first league title since 2010, Penn sprint football returns much of its starting defense from 2015. So coach Bill Wagner isn’t going to need to bring in too much untested talent.

But what about an old friend?

After taking the 2015 season off, senior defensive end Ed Cai is finally back for a fourth year — and he might just be better than ever.

As a sophomore, the Fairfax, Va., native was named first team All-CSFL, followed by honorable mention league honors a year later. After logging team highs in tackles for loss and sacks that season, expectations were high for Cai’s senior year in 2015. But when the lights came on at Franklin Field, the defensive end was nowhere to be found.

In fact, he was almost 3,000 miles away.

Following a pair of summer internships in finance, Cai realized he wanted to try something new. As a software engineer, he was able to secure a position working in California with Facebook for the fall semester.

In most situations, an athlete in Cai’s position would have to choose between essentially ending his career and foregoing the opportunity to work in California. But sprint football is a different beast.

Cai’s roommate, Wesley Zhao, was a linebacker for the Quakers who graduated in 2015. Zhao also went through a similar process, taking a year off from sprint to go to work following his freshman year before then returning. Having seen Zhao’s ability to transition back made the decision much easier for Cai.

“Mentally, I think it has been a really easy process, but the first week of full hitting was — it was the first fall in probably 13 or 14 years that I didn’t play football so that was pretty crazy for me,” he noted. “So coming back and hitting for the first time helped me remember how much I missed football.”

The decision wasn’t to forego his final year — it just simply got delayed.

That’s not to say his time in California was wasted from a football perspective. Cai kept in shape and was ready to go in spring practices once he returned to campus. In fact, his coaches think he’s even sharper after a year off.

“He does ten thousand things at once, but he is one heck of a defensive end. He can come off the edge as fast as anybody in this league,” Wagner said. “I expect him to have a big year — and he does too. He’s in top shape right now.

“He did not miss a step. Last night he got my attention, and I didn’t realize it was him. The way he went from defensive end laterally to the ball was nice to watch.”

It’s a testament not only to Cai’s work ethic but his talent that he has been able to so seamlessly reintegrate himself into the program.

On a team already viewed as a contender for the Collegiate Sprint Football League title, bringing back an old hand is the kind of move that can put a program over the top. Certainly, his teammates are glad to have him back.

“It definitely makes us more versatile — he can play pretty much anywhere on defense and it gives us a little more freedom to mix everyone else around,” sophomore linebacker Sam Smallzman said. “He’s a leader. He’s one of the older guys. He’s experienced. He’s a laid back dude, but I’ve heard he really turns it up in the games.”

While Cai has yet to see game time in his return to the gridiron, that will change against Mansfield this coming weekend. The Red and Blue head north to face one of the younger programs in sprint football — just nine years old — and a team that has never beaten the Quakers, though the Mounties gave Wagner’s squad a scare a year ago.

For Cai, though, it doesn’t matter who the opponent is. This weekend, he gets back in the ring.

“Not playing for a fall, I realized how much I missed football — because I could have just dropped out and continued working, but playing football was a big reason why I came back.”

And, most importantly, the decision paid off. Cai says he sees a future for himself in tech — but not until he takes one last shot at his sole remaining goal.

“I’ve never won a championship in my 13, 14 years of playing football. So I definitely want to check that off. This is a really good team — this is the best team I’ve ever played with, so I think we’ve got a really good chance.”

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