|Certainly one purple team or another seems to be represented in Salem every year, at least every year since 1999.
2005 photo by Todd Allred, D3sports.com
By Adam Turer
|Mount Union and UW-Whitewater have certainly provided many highlights in Salem over the past years.
2014 photo by Larry Radloff, d3photography.com
On my first trip to Salem, I overslept.
It was 2005, when the Stagg Bowl was still played on a Saturday morning at 11 a.m. My teammate Walker Williams and I, as ODAC players, were invited by our coach and conference to assist with the festivities leading up to the game. We spoke on panels and helped run the youth football clinic. Then, we celebrated. Maybe a bit too much. Little did we know that the next morning would be so historic.
That game happened to be the first meeting of two dynasties that became regular Salem rivals. We made it in time for kickoff, barely, and watched Nate Kmic and Justin Beaver go back and forth in a thrilling 35-28 Mount Union victory vs. UW-Whitewater.
Six years after I attended my first Stagg Bowl, I was covering the game for the first time. The same two teams were playing, and had played one another in every Stagg Bowl in the interim. They had developed their own special Salem traditions.
“It’s unique. You have a town that really embraces it and does its best to put on a show. It’s Division III, but when you carve your own little niche in the football world, it’s important,” said former Warhawks defensive back Brady Grayvold. “Salem treated it like it was important. It’s the D-III Super Bowl. That was the biggest game any of us ever played in.”
The first time the Stagg Bowl was held in Salem, in 1993, was also the first time Mount Union won the national championship. Salem and the Purple Raiders have grown their symbiotic relationship over the past two and a half decades. Mount Union fans know the route from Alliance to Salem as if it’s a second home.
Larry Kehres always had his Mount Union teams stop at the Tamarack rest area in Beckley, West Virginia. Driving from Ohio myself, I would usually see the Mount Union buses parked at the popular stop on I-64.
Vince Kehres made his first Salem trip when he was a high school senior in 1993. He returned twice as a player and won championships. He then made several more trips as an assistant coach under his father, before assuming the reins and leading the Purple Raiders to their 12th championship in 2015. He has more than two decades of Salem memories, like watching National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation on the bus ride there, and letting players walk around Valley View Mall earlier in the week. Mostly, he remembers the hospitality and developing lasting friendships with the host families provided to the teams in Salem.
“We pull into Salem that first year I remember thinking, ‘Man, this must be what the Rose Bowl is like,’” said Kehres. “The thing about Salem is that they just continued; it never got old for the people trying to make it special for the student-athletes. They worked really hard. It was the same core group of people that really worked to make it special for the players, coaches, and families.”
Salem, Virginia has a special place in the hearts of many players, coaches, and fans in Division III.
Salem Virginia was the name of a create-a-player designed in NHL ‘96 by a future Division III head coach while he was a college student-athlete in 1995.
Glenn Caruso’s Ithaca team fell just short of making it to Salem in 1994, losing in the semifinals to Washington and Jefferson. Ever since that loss, his motivation to get to Salem was palpable, so much so that the city became the namesake of one of Caruso’s video game avatars. He did not make it to Salem as a player, but broke through as head coach at St. Thomas in 2012, then made it back in 2015.
“Salem became almost this mythological place. All your efforts and all your thoughts turned to Salem, Virginia,” said Caruso. “To say it has a special place in my heart is not just because we played there; it really goes back to the antithesis of what college football players think about, getting to the pinnacle of your sport.
“It’s unbelievable for our kids to be able to experience that. You go back and look at the slideshow that you put together. It’s something that brings people together in a way unlike any college event that I know of.”
Ryan Cortez, like Vince Kehres, has been to Salem as both a player and a coach. The former Warhawks linebacker and current assistant coach remembers the extra bonding he shared with his teammates at the hotel and banquet leading up to game day.
“I have a lot of good memories from going there. It’s always fun when you can spend an extra five weeks in the playoffs with your teammates,” said Cortez. “It’s always great to end the season in Salem. It’s the biggest stage in D-III.”
Caruso finally made his first trip to Salem in 2011 when Tommies receiver Fritz Waldvogel was invited as a finalist for the Gagliardi Trophy. Caruso spent hours absorbing all that he could from Mount Union coach Larry Kehres and UW-Whitewater coach Lance Leipold.
“I had to see what it’s like, see what the rhythm is. I’d wanted to go there for 20 years at that point,” he said. I really soaked it all up. I felt like a tremendous failure because I’d always wanted to go to Salem. That really became a driving force for me to get us there in 2012.”
This site has dubbed its postseason features the “Road to Salem.” There was undeniable sadness when the NCAA announced that for at least the next four seasons, the Stagg Bowl would be played elsewhere.
“It was mixed emotions there, as good as Salem has been to us and to Division III football. I was sad to hear it wasn’t going to be there,” said Vince Kehres. “I understand why they’re doing it; new and fresh is good, too. The people that will be involved understand the significance of it to the student-athletes.”
Caruso remembers the warm cookies that greeted you when you check in to the Hotel Roanoke and sitting in front of the fireplace with his team while waiting for the bus to pick them up and take them to the biggest game of their lives.
|We didn't have any photos of Kevin Burke eating pasta on file, but there's plenty of this.
Photo by Steve Frommell, d3photography.com
Kevin Burke still thinks about the pasta alfredo that was served at the Champions Dinner the night before the Stagg Bowl (“If someone can point me in the direction of that chef, I'd greatly appreciate it. Seriously. (@vburke10).”). Burke made three consecutive appearances in Salem, winning a title in 2012, then finishing as runner-up and winning the Gagliardi Trophy in both 2013 and 2014.
“I think my favorite part of Salem was the hospitality. There was never a moment of discomfort while our teams were in there and that's all thanks to the many, many people that helped to make the Stagg Bowl run so smoothly,” said Burke. “Whether it was Mr. Harveycutter or one of the catering employees, everybody in Salem was eager to help and greet you with a smile to make sure you had a great experience.”
Every single person interviewed for this column mentioned Carey Harveycutter, the Director of Tourism for the City of Salem and the unofficial mayor of the Stagg Bowl.
“Carey Harveycutter is as proud a constituent of that Blue Ridge Mountain region as anybody,” said Caruso. “He’s done such a wonderful job. They treat you just like gold.”
“It's a tall task for any city to put on an enjoyable experience for two teams of 60-plus people. The slightest mishap can ruin a team’s view of the city and the experience of playing for a national championship,” said Burke. “But for Salem to do it year after year - often for the same two purple teams - with seemingly nothing going wrong is extremely impressive.”
So, for now, this is the last Road to Salem. This is the last chance for programs to set a goal of traveling to the Blue Ridge Mountains on the third Friday in December.
I love Salem, in part because I went to school just up I-81. But it’s also the people who make Salem so special: Carey Harveycutter, Brad Bankston, J.J. Nekoloff, and all the folks who embrace their role in making the two best teams in Division III football feel like champions for three days each year. It’s the fine folks at Mac and Bob’s who graciously allowed our crew to host a live podcast there following the Stagg Bowl last season. We’ll do it live again this year, and we hope you’ll join us.
Every coach will tell you his team is focused on one week at a time. The teams that take care of business over the next 17 weeks will be able to celebrate in D-III’s favorite city. Let’s take this journey together.
See you in Salem.
There is not a huge D-III foothold in Texas, but three programs are hurting and trying to help with the healing in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Mary Hardin-Baylor, East Texas Baptist, and Southwestern all have many players on their rosters who hail from the greater Houston area. This has been a trying week for all.
“In Texas, we are still in search and rescue mode. Until we move into a recovery phase, it’s difficult to say what the exact needs of the state will be,” said Southwestern coach Joe Austin. “For now, contributing to well-known service organizations is the best course of action for those that want to help.”
Representatives from East Texas Baptist spent Wednesday organizing and delivering supplies to help those in need of drinking water.
Crusaders players volunteered at a local church, sorting and organizing donations. UMHB's equipment manager has been doing laundry for evacuees housed locally.
The Pirates are making one of the longest Week 1 road trips in Division III. Coincidentally, the remnants of Hurricane Harvey are expected to follow the team from Texas up through Ohio, where the Pirates play Denison on Saturday night.
“We can’t seem to get away from it,” said Austin.
As part of my attempt to rekindle a love for football, I’ll be reaching out to players all season long to give them space to explain why they love the game. Kicking off the 2017 season of the Players’ Corner is Wilmington defensive lineman David Henry, who grew up in Wilmington, Ohio, and stayed home to play collegiately. Now a senior, he and his teammates are seeking their first win since the 2015 opener.
I fell in love with football when Jerome Bettis played for the Steelers. I liked how he ran people over and just did what he wanted on the field. Ever since, I've loved to play football.
I still love football because it is kind of a sanctuary from school and other life stressors. I can go out on the field, be as loud and mean as I want. Also, I couldn't really imagine doing anything else.
If you or someone you know would like to be featured in Players’ Corner this year, please reach out to me at any time.
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 D-III football. If you have suggestions for next week's column, please reach out to me on Twitter at @adamturer or via email at email@example.com. Thanks for reading!