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Bruins' long road to respect

More news about: George Fox
Justin Kruse, George Fox defensive lineman
Justin Kruse has been at George Fox since the beginning, one of a group of players who went through an entire developmental season before the program actually took the field. He and his remaining classmates have helped lead the Bruins into the Top 25, heading for a showdown with Linfield on Oct. 21.
George Fox athletics photo
 

By Adam Turer
D3sports.com

After more than seven years of the process, and more than three years on the field, the George Fox football program is hitting its stride.  

In March 2010, George Fox announced that it was bringing back football for the first time since 1968. Initially, the plan was for the football team to take the field in 2013. That plan was delayed by one year. Chris Casey, a Linfield graduate who was a Bruins ball boy in the program’s final season, was named as the head coach of the future back in February 2012.  

Five years later, Casey has the Bruins tied atop the Northwest Conference standings at the midway point of the season. The only blemish on this year’s record is a two-point loss in the season opener on the road against now-No. 9-ranked UW-Platteville. Oh, and the Bruins are also a Top 25 team for the first time in program history, cracking the poll this week at No. 21.

“I don’t want to say we expected this, but we never doubted ourselves as long we put the work in and made the commitment we all knew we needed to,” said senior defensive lineman Justin Kruse.

Kruse is one of the few seniors who has stuck it out since the program’s inception. Of the original 77 players on the roster, 22 graduated last year, nine are playing this year, and two more are still part of the program but unable to play due to injury. Those 33 players graduated high school in 2013, but had to spend the fall of 2013 practicing without games to play on Saturday.  

“Those guys are so special. I can’t say enough about them being the real foundational pieces of this whole program and our whole identity and what we do. They’re like an extension of the coaches with their leadership,” said Casey. “Coaching is very important, but players modeling the identity of your program — here’s what defines us, here’s our standards — is I think even more powerful than coaches teaching and preaching that.

“To have those guys as examples, they’re just all very, very good leaders. They’re just all in. They’re a special group. They’re the guys that had the guts and the courage to come start this when they knew they wouldn’t get a chance to play in a game for a year. You’ve got to build a foundation first. They knew they were going to face those challenges. We wouldn’t be where we are without them.”

That also meant that those courageous players had some explaining to do to their buddies back home. The Bruins have spent the past four seasons, and five years working to quiet those skeptics.

“I can’t tell you how many people I had to explain to that we weren’t playing any games that first year. ‘Why would you go somewhere where you aren’t playing any games?’” said Kruse. “I told them we’d end up being pretty good. It’s nice to be able to text friends back and kind of say ‘See, I told you so.’”

The program has fulfilled its goal of steady improvement. After spending six days a week practicing and lifting weights in 2013, the Bruins won just one game in their first full season of play since 1968. They followed that with a 4-6 record, then secured their first winning season last year, finishing 5-4, 5-2 in the NWC. This year’s 4-1 start puts the Bruins on track to continue making history.

“It’s just been a continual progression of improvement. Our goal is always excellence,” said Casey. “To us, that’s your highest achievement level. I don’t think you get confidence and win; I think you win, and that gives you confidence to believe you can continue to win.”

Defensive coordinator and recruiting coordinator John Bates had the challenge of bringing players to a program that had no recent history, no foundation to build on. But he quickly developed a trust with his players. That faith is now being rewarded on the field every Saturday.

“Coach Bates always told guys, ‘If you stay, you’re going to be a champion.’ Never for a second did I not believe him,” said Kruse. “Obviously, we’re not there yet, but I put a lot of faith in those words and can see it starting to come to fruition.”

Back when he was hired in 2012, Casey told the George Fox administration that his two biggest priorities would be staffing and recruiting. But he had unfinished business at Aloha High School and did not begin his work at George Fox until January 2013. For a variety of reasons, the Bruins program pushed back its restart date from 2013 to 2014. That gave the program an extra year to prepare.

“It really gave us time to build in that Zero Year, to build our schedule, a lot of logistical and administrative things,” said Casey. “We were so busy, it wasn’t really a wait. We didn’t really have time to think about it.”

The George Fox community, which already has a rich athletic tradition led by the women’s basketball and baseball programs, immediately embraced the return of football. According to Casey, the Bruins have led the league in home game attendance each of the past three seasons. The Bruin Football Club, an alumni group of players from those last 1960s teams, has a presence on campus. Professors text players after games each Saturday. The student section showed up and never wavered in their support.

“We have an outstanding student section. That thing is packed every home game. They give us great energy,” said Casey. “We have a really strong relationship with the fans. It’s been a neat and special connection between them and our program.”

What many of those fans may not realize is just how far the program has come in such a short time. They may not know that the Bruins practiced on an old grass soccer field six days a week through the week of the Stagg Bowl in 2013. Or that the players were up lifting weights with the rest of the student body four days a week at 6 a.m. Or that the players kept their equipment in drawstring bags. The Bruins loved every minute of it, not knowing how much better things would be once the football facilities opened the following year.

“We hardly ever mention it unless one of the younger guys asks us about it,” said Kruse of that Year Zero experience. “There’s such a sense of family here. I’ve got 130 guys I’m going to be friends with for the rest of my life. We didn’t have juniors and seniors to lend us a helping hand and guide us along the way. We all shared that unique experience with each other. I don’t think you can get that type of bond by just showing up to a program that’s already established.”

The players and coaches genuinely care about one another. They hold one another accountable to reaching the level of excellence that the coaching staff expects. The coaches demand that they improve each day, just as they demand it of the players. Opening the season with nationally ranked UW-Platteville the past two seasons has been a good test of the program’s progress. Last year, the Bruins suffered a 35-0 home loss. This year, they traveled to Platteville and lost 30-28. The 0-3 start to the 2016 season was a wake-up call.

“Everything we had been doing was still not enough to be an excellent team. I don’t think we knew how to beat a team that maybe we weren’t supposed to beat in other people’s eyes,” said Kruse. “This year, I think it opened our eyes even more to be two points away from beating one of the best teams in the nation at their place. I think we kicked it into another gear and it’s shown these past four games.”

The first Top 25 ranking in program history is not a milestone that the Bruins players care too much about. It’s a nice recognition of the work they’ve put in this season and over the offseason, but they have higher goals. 

“Not just in football, but anything in life, it’s what are you going to do now? What are we going to do to stay humble and hungry and keep that message in front of our players?” asked Casey. “It’s another progression of improving — how do you handle success? It’s neat for the players and the school, but now it’s how do you maintain that standard of excellence?”

Excellence has been the standard since day one, since that first group of Bruins committed to putting in the work, knowing that any chance of glory on Saturdays would be delayed by a full year. They took a chance on a program and forged a unique brotherhood. The results on the field are product of the effort, the drive, and the commitment that has been in place since Year Zero.

“The younger guys now can’t believe we did it, how committed we were. I think that made a huge difference; now we’re seeing the fruits of our labors,” said Kruse.

“I don’t think I could have made a better decision.”

Players’ Corner

This week, the Players’ Corner is reserved for the Albright Lions.

As you’ve surely heard by now, sophomore backup quarterback Gy Durante was dismissed from the team earlier this week.

Don’t let the national headlines fool you. Durante was not dismissed simply because he kneeled during the playing of the national anthem. But, at the end of the day, Durante was dismissed from the team because he kneeled during the national anthem.

The team set out to send a message of unity on Homecoming weekend. What resulted left me and many others scratching our heads.

What follows is the official statement released on Wednesday by Albright College, annotated with my comments and questions.

At Albright College, we celebrate and value the rights of all students and community members to express their thoughts and opinions civilly, respectfully, and peacefully.

Is this sentiment undermined by the fact that the Albright football team dismissed a player for civilly, respectfully, and peacefully making a statement by kneeling during the playing of the national anthem?

Within our college community, student organizations, clubs and teams can establish and uphold their own unique practices to enhance College-stated values.

This is absolutely correct. Playing football at Albright is a privilege, not a right. If Durante’s teammates and coaches felt that he was not committed to them and the team and was not fully buying in, they have the right to unanimously decide that they no longer want him on the team. Dismissing Durante from the football team is most likely not a violation of his First Amendment rights.

Prior to the football game against Delaware Valley University on Saturday, Oct. 7, and upon the recommendation of the team’s leadership council, which is comprised of 24 student-athletes selected annually by team members, the football team made a team-wide decision to both kneel during the coin toss and stand during the National Anthem.

Why though? What was this supposed to accomplish? Why kneel during the coin toss, unless it was an excuse to forbid kneeling during the anthem? What was kneeling during the coin toss supposed to demonstrate? And by forbidding kneeling during the anthem, how was the team voicing support against oppression? Requiring conformity does not seem like the best way to demonstrate camaraderie.  

This action, which was supported by the coaching staff, was created as an expression of team unity and out of the mutual respect team members have for one another and the value they place on their differences. It was established as a way to find common ground in a world with many differing views.

How many differing views are to be accepted? If one person believes all people should be treated equally regardless of the color of their skin, but another person believes the opposite, is that simply “differing views?” I really want to know what specific message these gestures were supposed to convey. Unfortunately, because this story is still unfolding, Albright players have declined to provide any further explanation at this time. 

The team agreed to uphold the council decision, with the understanding that there may be consequences for those who choose not to support the team.

Were the players explicitly told that they would be kicked off the team if they either stood during the coin toss or kneeled during the anthem? If so, again, how does that display support and camaraderie between and among teammates? How does threatening discipline for failing to agree with the majority show mutual respect, or value placed on one another’s differences? If a player stood during the coin toss, would he have been dismissed from the team?

One football player, unbeknownst to the coach and the team, chose not to support the decision of the leadership council and team.

Again, if the players were threatened with discipline or were told to put up a unified front, I can understand why the rest of the team would be upset by this dissension. That makes perfect sense. But it still begs the question, what was the purpose of kneeling or standing in the first place? How is requiring 81 young men from a variety of backgrounds to do the same exact thing or risk being disciplined a demonstration of finding common ground in a world with many differing views? Wouldn’t a true teammate have his brother’s back even and especially when he doesn’t agree with him, as long as he is not doing anything to hurt the team’s chances of performing to the best of its abilities?

He has been dismissed from the team,

It’s hard to remain teammates with someone you can no longer trust. Trust is critical to any team in any sport or profession. It appears like Durante’s biggest transgression was not his act of kneeling, but his violation of his teammates’ trust.

Still, we have seen players suffer far less severe consequences for much more dangerous actions. A punishment for violating team rules, such as a one-game suspension or running extra laps at the next practice, seems reasonable. To an outsider, dismissal appears extreme. 

but remains a valued member of the Albright College student body.

Is he really? I doubt Durante stays at Albright much longer, if he hasn’t left already.

To read the football team’s statement, which was read as the team took the field at Saturday’s game, please visit our Homecoming highlights page:http://alumni.albright. edu/homecoming/index.html 

Here’s a portion of that statement:

We both kneel and stand tall out of the mutual respect we have for each other and the value we place on our differences; because we believe that teamwork is not about tolerating our differences, but about valuing them.

The dismissal of Durante seems to directly contradict that message.

What many people seem to have forgotten is that the #TakeAKnee movement is not and never was intended to be about the flag, the anthem, or the current White House administration. It began as a peaceful protest against police brutality and in support of equal rights.

We often celebrate #whyD3 because Division III colleges, universities, athletic programs, and student-athletes seem to understand that D-III is about so much more than sports. I’m sure the Albright football team had the best of intentions on Saturday. Their plan backfired. Now, the Lions are in the national news and not because of their impressive 5-1 start to the 2017 season.

According to Albright’s statement, Durante knew what he was risking when he decided to kneel alone. He kneeled anyway. That is taking a stand.  

The invitations I sent out to Durante and to the Albright football program on Wednesday remain open. I would love to get more insight into all that went on in the decision-making process before, during, and after Saturday’s events.

What do you know? Do you know things? Let's find out!

There are so many worthy stories to be told and I can’t find them all on my own. Please share with me those stories that make you passionate about Division III football. If you have suggestions for next week's column, please reach out to me on Twitter at @adamturer or via email at adam.turer@d3sports.com. Thanks for reading!

Adam Turer

Adam Turer graduated in 2006 from Washington and Lee University, where he was a two-year starter at free safety. He lives in Cincinnati and covers area high school sports in addition to his full-time job as an attorney. Adam has contributed to D3football.com since 2007 and is in his second season writing Around the Nation after spending four seasons writing Around the Mid-Atlantic.

2014-2015 columnist: Ryan Tipps.
2001-2013 columnist: Keith McMillan.

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