|Pat Cerroni's teams have been the most successful in UW-Oshkosh football history. But how would that play at Ramsey College?
UW-Oshkosh athletics photo
It’s an unlikely friendship, the playwright and the football coach.
It’s an unlikely comparison, the sports of football and buzkashi.
In his play The Boy Inside, Richard Kalinoski explores themes of maturity, pain, risk, and growth through the prism of a Division III football program. Kalinoski is a professor of theatre at UW-Oshkosh as well as a fan of the Titans football program. His interactions and friendship with head coach Pat Cerroni and his staff helped inform the playwright’s research. He spent two years embedded with the Titans coaching staff, behind doors that usually remain closed. Cerroni also helped Kalinoski get in touch with several other small school coaches, including former UW-Whitewater coach Bob Berezowitz.
The play is set at fictional Ramsey College, which Kalinoski says he modeled somewhat on Linfield and St. Norbert. The football program at Ramsey is successful, but is threatened when a prominent donor makes a significant offer to the college, contingent upon the extermination of the football program. The play brings to center stage the philosophical conundrum facing football.
“I was always a football fan, but I made a lot of assumptions that I was happy to explode in my research,” said Kalinoski, who also directs the play. “I wanted to show why a coach might want to be a coach, knowing that he’s not going to become wealthy from it. The whole thing was very refreshing for me.”
The conversations with Cerroni and his staff began right around the time the Titans began their ascent to national prominence. The Titans entered this season with a 30-5 mark in WIAC play over the past five seasons. The run includes a national quarterfinal appearance last year and a national semifinal in 2012. Cerroni has lived the challenges faced by Ramsey coach Tony Bartolo in The Boy Inside.
“You have to have a common message. Getting a bunch of people to believe in one thing isn’t as easy as you think,” said Cerroni. “We really coach our senior classes on how to lead and we’re recruiting the right people. With all of that, you need the administration’s support behind you, giving you a chance to prove yourself.”
The play explores the sometimes contentious relationships between football coaches and college administrators. In recent years, Cerroni has enjoyed the support of the UW-Oshkosh administrators. It wasn’t always as good as it is now. Coach Bartolo has to plead his case to his school’s college president when she fails to see the merits of college football the same as he does. She compares it to buzkashi, a brutal sport popular in Afghanistan in which players ride horseback and battle over a goat carcass at the center of the field. The physical toll of football is at the forefront of the play.
“There is danger in football. The play doesn’t try to hide from that,” said Kalinoski. “I wanted the audience to understand that the danger of football is real.”
Cerroni has always tried to limit the risk of injury. The Titans do not tackle in practice. If any of them are going to suffer an injury, it’s likely going to occur on a Saturday.
“We haven’t been very physical in practice. You can’t afford to do it,” said Cerroni. “Injuries take their toll over time. Watching kids who work so hard see their career end in a second, that’s hard.”
It wasn’t just the physical toll of football that Kalinoski was interested in exploring. He wanted to get to know the players and why they play, in addition to understanding why coaches coach. He was surprised by what he discovered.
|The Boy Inside premiered in 2015 and won second place in a playwriting competition this past spring.
“I had an enormous number of stereotypes about football players,” said the playwright. “I went in with a combination of ignorance and prejudice. One thing I assumed was that football players are of one ilk, focused on self-glory and self-gratification.
“What I began to uncover in talking to Pat and his staff was that all football players are very individual. Those guys are grinding it out day by day. It was interesting to watch how they interact with each other.”
It was the camaraderie created by football, not the glory, that stood out among the young men Kalinoski observed. At the Division III level, players almost universally play for one another.
“The success and the records make you feel good, but it’s the things that people don’t always take time to appreciate,” said Titans quarterback Brett Kasper. “The seniors always tell you to cherish the moments and take every practice seriously and work hard. It’s the little things I’m going to miss the most, becoming closer with my teammates, joking in the locker room, and practices.”
Although they originate from different worlds on campus, the playwright and the football coach continue to find out how much they have in common. The football players were in the audience when The Boy Inside premiered on campus in February 2015. Theatre students have ventured off campus to Titan Stadium to cheer on the football team.
“Our worlds are so comparable, it’s ridiculous,” said Cerroni. “He coaches actors and actresses, I coach football players. We enjoy each other’s company. He’s so thorough and that’s what I appreciate. He’s a professional.”
Kalinoski set out to explore the role of football in American society. He began writing the play in 2013 and it debuted in 2015. The conversation remains in the limelight today. Parents, fans, coaches, players, and administrators across the country continue to wrestle with defining the meaning and value of football. The Boy Inside shines a light on the spark of youth that lives in football coaches, as well as the vulnerability below the tough exterior of football players.
Coach Bartolo was not modeled directly on Cerroni, but there are core values shared by the character and the coach.
“I’ve been very fortunate that people have given me the opportunity to help people. It’s a great game, it’s a lot of fun, and I can’t imagine doing anything else,” said Cerroni. “I’ve always looked at this as an opportunity to teach young men how to survive in this world and be successful, to help them grow mentally, physically, and with maturity.”
Every Division III player has a personal story about the game and what it means to him. This week, Austin quarterback Cooper Woodyard opens up about how much football means to him and his family.
I fell in love with football when I was 5 years old. We had a pee wee football league where I am from down in The Woodlands, Texas and everybody I knew played there. My parents wouldn't let me play that year because they didn't want me to get hurt. I begged them that whole next year and finally they gave in. I loved the game from an early age because it runs in the family. My father played it, my brother played it, and if I am being honest, my mom probably knows more about the game than a lot of guys do. My dad really fueled the fire for me because he himself was so passionate about the game. He was my coach all through pee wee football and when I got older and moved into junior high and high school we still talked about the game all the time.
The game of football is unique to me because it’s helped shape who I am today. The challenges I have faced off the field have been tremendous. Losing my father to cancer [in 2010] was one of those challenges. Not being able to talk to my father about the game we both loved took a lot to get used to, but also football was an outlet for me to just go out there and play the game that I love. There is always going to be adversity, that's guaranteed, but the main thing I realized is a lot of things will not go your way in life or on the field, but having family or teammates around you will help you overcome those obstacles. That's why this game is special to me.
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. 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!