Former Air Force tight end finding niche at GVSU

GVL / Courtesy - Pete Cender

Pete Cender

GVL / Courtesy – Pete Cender

Beau Troutman

Whether he’s a blocking tight end or a receiving tight end, a student or an athlete, the next George Carlin or the next Tracy Morgan—Pete Cender doesn’t really care.

He wants to do it all.

“Like my dad said, try to be a renaissance man,” Cender said. “Try to do as much as you can, and as much as you want to.”

Cender is entering his second year on the Grand Valley State football team after transferring from the Air Force Academy. Heading into the 2016 season, he is looking forward to receiving significant playing time for the first time in his collegiate career.

Cender was a three-star recruit and a Division I target coming out of Howell High School in 2013. He held offers from various Division I programs, including Bowling Green and Western Michigan, and attracted interest from places like Michigan and Michigan State.

Eventually, Cender committed to Air Force. He was attracted to the academic programs the academy offered, moving away from home and the level of competition he would face in the Mountain West Conference.

Shortly after arriving to the academy in late June, Cender and the other incoming cadets participated in a six-week boot camp. Cender, a lauded recruit, didn’t get off to the start he had envisioned coming out of high school.

“Football players were treated the same as any other cadet,” Cender said. “That really was a humbling experience. A lot of people say athletes have more of a privilege than the regular students, and that’s kind of what I was expecting until I got out there. Nothing was further from the truth.”

Cender’s schedule at Air Force was highly regimented and left little time for anything other than football and school.

His days began at 6:30 a.m. every day, and had class from 6:30 to 11:30. Class was followed by mandatory lunch, and football practice started shortly thereafter. Mandatory dinner was held each day after practice. Finally, Cender got to sleep—and then wake up and do it all over again.

On top of the rigorous schedule, Cender says he had hard a time standing out on Air Force’s loaded roster.

“(Air Force) could bring in as many freshmen as they wanted,” Cender said. “I remember I came in and there was 10 other tight ends that came in with me in my class. There was like 100 kids that came in our recruiting class. We only played with one tight end a lot of the time, so it was really discouraging.”

Air Force is able to recruit as many football players as it sees fit, unlike other Division I programs, because many players end up quitting football or changing plans.

His freshman season began in the fall of 2013, and Cender saw “a few snaps” in the first game of the season, a 38-13 win over the Colgate Raiders, an FCS team. That was the only game action he got all season, and ended up being the only time he ever saw as a Falcon.

Air Force is a federally funded institution and its athletes aren’t required to pay tuition or other college fees. Because of this, the academy does not grant redshirts. This directly effected Cender, who spent a whole year of eligibility on a few snaps in his freshman season.

He was injured at the beginning of his sophomore season, causing another year out of his four total years of eligibility to go to waste.

“I don’t even remember (the game against Colgate) to be honest,” Cender said. “I took a snap at field goal, and used my whole year of eligibility.”

At the end of their sophomore season, cadets are required to either make a commitment to remain in the armed forces for seven more years, or quit the academy. After all he had been through and his desire to play college football, Cender decided to put an end to his tenure at the academy.

“I didn’t really enjoy myself (at Air Force), but I’m happy I had the experience that I did,” Cender said. “I learned a lot about myself. I gained a lot of discipline from it, I just decided the military life wasn’t for me.”

Following his departure from Air Force, Cender returned to Michigan and gauged the interest of several GLIAC schools, but GVSU was always his first choice.

Head coach Matt Mitchell says they welcomed the Division I talent with open arms.

“It was pretty much a slam dunk,” Mitchell said. “He wanted to come here, there wasn’t much of a recruiting process.”

Cender was required to sit out his first year with the team to establish residency, per NCAA rules, and he could participate with the team in everything other than games.

During that year, Cender played starting tight end for the scout team, and worked on his pass-catching ability, which deteriorated while practicing in Air Force’s run-heavy offense.

Mitchell said he commends Cender for being able to stay focused throughout the year, especially after essentially sitting out the previous two seasons at Air Force.

His first real action as a Laker came in the form of the 2016 GVSU Football Spring Classic on April 16. He had been off of scholarship during his year of residency, but spring practice marked the start of the new year. He is technically a sophomore for the Lakers, and has three years of football eligibility remaining.

“Spring ball was really the first time that I had taken first-team reps in my collegiate football career,” Cender said. “So it was pretty cool to play football with the intention of either starting or having significant minutes.”

Another reason Cender left the academy and came to GVSU was so he could have more time for his true passion: stand-up comedy.

“I picked it up this year,” Cender said. “The main reason was, I really wanted to get my voice out. I wanted to tell people what was on my mind, and I thought of mediums to do that. I’m a huge fan of Jon Stewart, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, a lot of the political humorists.

“I might as well get out of my comfort zone and try something new.”

Cender has already done six gigs as a stand-up comic, and has performed at Area 51 in the basement of Kirkhof Center, as well as a few bars in Grand Rapids. Cender writes his own material as much as he can, and has a couple of different sets he likes to use.

Though he has gained a considerable amount of confidence, his first time as a newly christened comic—much like his first experience at Air Force—didn’t go quite how he had planned.

“The first time I performed, I was downtown,” Cender said. “I was expecting to be the next George Carlin, really funny and clever, but I was more like a white Tracy Morgan; not very funny and kind of hard to understand.

“I’ve improved a lot since then.”

Though GVSU won’t need to count on Cender’s comedic delivery, it will be counting on him as a force in the running game. While both Cender and fellow tight end Nick Keizer will share responsibilities in receiving and blocking, Cender has been noted as a standout blocker.

On a team that struggled with run-blocking last season, Cender figures to play a big role in the offense.

“We saw him on tape,” Mitchell said. “He’s aggressive, likes the physical nature of the position. We’re really excited about it and the future that he has within our program.”

As Cender prepares for what could be his first year as a starting college football player, he’s going into it with an outlook that has changed the way he defines himself—a result of the experiences he’s had to go through to get to this point.

“Being a football player, that doesn’t mean I have to be just a football player,” Cender said. “I can be a football player and a good student and a comedian, you know? I’m not just doing one thing, whereas at the academy, I considered myself just a football player.”

Cender will be performing at the Riverfront Hotel in Grand Rapids on May 15 at 8:30 p.m. for his next stand-up performance. His first performance on the gridiron is set for Sept. 1 in the Lakers’ opener against Tiffin at Lubbers Stadium.