November 16, 2011

Football doesn't owe you anything

More news about: Huntingdon
Cody Pearcy leaves Huntingdon with a number of the school's receiving records.
Huntingdon athletics photo

“Football doesn’t owe you anything, you owe football.”

I first heard this from Tom Elsasser, my head coach at Mansfield University, as a player after practice over 20 years ago. And I have to admit, at the time, I was probably too self-centered and/or too immature to fully understand what he meant.

But I’ve thought about what he meant many times since I walked off a muddy field in Loch Haven, PA as a player for the last time in November of 1990, but probably never more than this Fall.

I know now that Coach “E” was telling us that the lessons the game teaches are more important than whether you were an All-American, starter or a scrub. The lessons that the game teaches are more important than the number of yards gained, tackles made or games won.

You have to work hard and sacrifice as a college football player, but even that doesn’t guarantee you success. You learn humility. Everyone gets knocked down on a football field on occasion or takes a butt-whipping at some point, it’s how you respond to that failure that matters.

This is what the D-III philosophy is all about and what all other levels of college football are or should be about. I’ve been fortunate to be able to coach on the D-III level for nine seasons and cover it in print, on radio and internet for eight years. I never been failed to be impressed with the coaches and players that I’ve had the chance to interview.

But perhaps the greatest thing I’ve taken from this season has been the sense of community and togetherness that football can provide.

I’ve seen a team and community rally around the family of Wesley offensive coordinator Chip Knapp and his family after his son Ben suffered a cardiac arrest a few weeks ago.

I’ve gotten to tell the story of Centre running back Jonathan Pinque, a Haitian orphan, whose coaches, teammates and community rallied around him when his adopted grandfather died to help him to care for his autistic uncle.

I‘ve gotten to tell the story of the group of kids at Sewanee that had won just four games in the past four seasons and see them eclipse that and post a .500 season under first-year coach Tommy Laurendine.

This past Saturday, Huntingdon traveled to Dover taking on Wesley with an outside chance at still grabbing a Pool B playoff bid if they could knock off the seventh-ranked Wolverines. And though the Hawks took in on the chin 54-13, I was fortunate to spend some post game moments with their coach Mike Turk, a couple of seniors and a group of their parents.

And though a couple of questionable calls didn’t go their way early, Turk, whose team finished 7-3, offered no excuses.

“We got beat by a very good football team today,” Turk said. “They beat us fair and square. It was not close. It’s unfortunate for our guys to end their season this way but you don’t leave here with regrets when you lose to a team of that caliber.

And though they may have a way to go to compete with the elite teams in D-III, the Hawks played one of the toughest schedules in the country and defeated ranked teams in Hampden-Sydney and Wittenberg.

“We’ve accomplished a lot and I told our guys after the game we’re not going to let one day sap all the joy out of what those seniors gave us this year,” Turk said. “The leadership they provided. We had some big wins and we are proud of what we accomplished.

“They’ve done a great job with our football team this year. They bought into what we were trying to establish as guidelines for success and provided some great leadership for the young players, mentoring them and showing them the ropes. We’re going to miss them. We’re going to miss them all. They’re some good players in there but some better kids.”

Players like Kaleb Futral, a linebacker, and receiver Cody Pearcy are just two of many seniors across the country who have probably played their final football game Saturday.

“So many memories come to mind, but I came into this as a kid and I’m walking away from this a grown man,” Futral said. “I’ve learned so much from my coaches and teammates. As far it coming to an end, I’d have to say that there’s so much that’s happened to me. I’ve definitely changed and these are the memories that I’ll never forget.

“Division III football, if you love football, it’s where it’s at. Your heart’s got to be in the right place all the time. It’s definitely not for everybody. If it’s what you decide to do, you’re going to have to give everything--- 100 percent.”

 Pearcy was the Hawks leading receiver this season with 46 catches for 766 yards and eight touchdowns. The senior holds most of school’s receiving records, but knows he’ll take more away from his experience than a record book. Even though his career as a Hawk in done, he has hopes that the program which began in 2003 is headed for bigger things.

“We’ve worked hard. We’ve come a long way,” Pearcy said. “I think we’re turned some heads in Division III. It seems like every year we are just one big win away. But it’s going to come, these coaches are taking the program in the right direction. It’s been a pleasure being under these guys for four years. It’s been the best four years of my life. You could probably say that for the rest of the seniors as well. They’re going to put Huntingdon on the map soon.

“It’s a life changing experience. A lot of people say, you know anybody can play D-III but there’s a lot more to it once you get there. I came in thinking I was going to start. I didn’t start my freshman year. More than just becoming a better player you become a better person. That’s what I can take from my D-III experience. It’s become fun, I look forward to coming to practice and coming to see the coaches. It’s been awesome.”

And the players and coaches aren’t the only ones that develop a sense of togetherness. Just check the parking lot.

Many parents and fans develop bonds that last beyond their son’s playing careers. In fact, Huntingdon fans maybe the most traveled group in Division III. Their travel log includes trips to Florida, Texas, Delaware, Louisiana, Maryland , Mississippi, Wisconsin, Missouri and Tennessee over the past four years. (The best D-III road trip in their opinion is San Antonio.)

“There only a few away games that we haven’t gone too,” said Glenn Johnson, who son Garrison, a senior, is a starter at guard. “We’ve been chasing them around for four years,

 Johnson and his wife Gaye, have befriended the parents of center Eric Stroud (Brian and Nancy) along with those of tackle AJ Swift and linebacker Jimmy Rich (Mike and Nancy.) They’ve seen their sons develop a “brotherhood” as they have player, practiced and roomed together.

“We have had a blast. We’re like family now,” Gaye said as she pokes fun with the Richs. “He’s a defensive guy. He’s like the odd man out.”

The group made the trip to Delaware to see their put on their Huntingdon uniforms for the last time. Following the game, the tailgate is in full swing behind Wesley’s south end zone. Complete with a RV and an awesome sound system that blares everything from AC/DC to Alan Jackson.

“It’s been fun, we got kind of nostalgic,” said Glenn, who coached his sons in Pee-Wee ball. “Even when he was too young to play, he’d run sprints with his older brother. It’s done now. This is it. He’s learned a lot.”

Gaye sheds a few tears as she comes to grips with the fact that her little boy has grown up.

“I didn’t want to do this,” she said as she wiped them away.

I guess even mothers can owe football a little from time to time.

Update on Ben Knapp

Ben Knapp returned to Delaware last Friday and is currently in AI DuPont Children’s Hospital in Wilmington. The son of Wesley offensive coordinator Chip Knapp suffered a cardiac arrest three weeks ago on the way to Wesley’s game in Ohio against Walsh. He has spent the last three weeks at UPMC Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh.

“There are small improvements in his condition every day, but his recovery will be a marathon not a sprint,” said Wesley coach Mike Drass.

The family has been uplifted by the overwhelming support they have received from across the D-III nation. Chip made his first appearance on the Wolverine sideline since the incident in Saturday‘s game against Huntingdon. He surprised the team by walking into the pregame breakfast on Saturday morning after debating whether to leave Ben’s side.

It was great to see a man who I have personally learned so much about football and teaching on the sideline. He has been so positive and strong throughout this ordeal that it was nice to see him get a few hours of release doing something that he does as well as anyone in the game.

Coach Drass has set up a fund to help with the medical expenses for Ben’s care. Please keep your prayers for Ben’s full recovery coming. If you’d like to donate, I have included the address: Ben Knapp Medical Fund c/o Mike Drass, 120 North State St. Dover, DE 19901.

Feel free to send me your comments at jason.bowen@d3sports.com. You can also find me on Facebook and Twitter (@D3Jason). I apologize that I haven’t been posted a column in a couple of weeks. I appreciate those of you that take the time to read it provide me with feedback. Piloting a new biology curriculum, along with quarterly exams, end of marking period grades, traveling most weekends to broadcast and three children under ten, including a six-month old future linebacker have overwhelmed me of late. I’d like to thank my wife Amy for all she does that allows me to follow my interests. Enjoy the playoffs!

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Justin Goldberg

Justin Goldberg is a newspaper copy editor and freelance writer in southwest Virginia. Originally from New York, he played Division III basketball in that colder region of the country, but moved to Virginia in 2008 to earn his M.F.A. in creative writing. He has written for multiple publications, including C-VILLE Weekly and The Roanoke Times. He is happy to join D3football.com for his first season as the Around the South columnist.
2013 columnist: Andee Djuric
2012 columnist: Kyle Robarts
2008-11 columnist: Jason Bowen

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