for release Friday January 7, 2005
by Melodie Davis
I was trying to think of a word to describe being national champions after years of enduring scorn, disappointment, and jokes like “We go to the games to hear the band. At least the band is good.” Is the word vindication? Validation?
This column deals with our local James Madison University (Va.) football team going to the national championship at the I-AA level of football in a final game played in Chattanooga, Tenn. on Dec. 17 against the many-season western powerhouse, University of Montana. But anyone who has ever followed an underrated, underdog team to the top of any state, provincial or national heap should be able to find something to connect with. It’s a big deal in this small town; we’re celebrating with a planned parade yet January 15.
Yours truly was at the championship game along with her husband and about 6-7,000 other JMU diehards. Montana fans, even though needing to travel 1700 miles, were not in short supply, either.
If you are surprised that a mild mannered middle-aged mother would be found at a testosterone-and-alcohol fest like a national football championship game, well, my excuse is “I had a daughter playing in the band.”
Along the road to any championship—whether it is Olympic glory, World Series finale, or football playoff, there are hundreds, maybe thousands of tiny and huge triumphs and miracles—some stories that have been told and I suspect many more than haven’t.
There was the class act of senior team captain Matt LeZotte, playing second fiddle to newcomer get-it-done sophomore Justin Rascatti at quarterback. And this was in a year when he was joined on the field by his freshman brother, Tony, a hot and hotly recruited safety. Many times during the season I ached for Matt, watching him on the sidelines. To Matt’s everlasting credit (and maybe some credit is due the coach, too, for handling this situation), he not only stuck it out, the word is he was always able to cheer the guys on and get them going after bad play.
But I ached even more for the coach’s son, Clay, a former star football player himself, sidelined in a wheelchair by catastrophic accidents which paralyzed him. Oh how I ached as a mother, imagining what I’d feel like if it were my son or daughter. And on top of that, knowing your husband was under fire almost every day not only in the media, but also in the athletic department, knowing that if he didn’t start winning a lot of games, he would be job hunting without a great resume. The word was that coach and wife went to bed at night waiting for the phone to ring telling them he would be out of a job.
But this is a coach’s lot, and everyone who takes up the career knows it is as much a part of the game as W’s and L’s. No one knows it better than another JMU class act, the original JMU head football coach for 13 years from 1972 to 1984, Challice McMillin, who helped the baby Dukes achieve some early national notoriety beating I-A team University of Virginia one season, nurturing future Redskin player Gary Clark and other pro players, and steadily moving the team from Division III status, then Division II, and finally to I-AA. Then he was unceremoniously shelved when, if I recall correctly, the administration at the time thought they needed a new coach “to succeed at the I-AA level.” To McMillin’s everlasting credit—he made the gutsy decision to stick around the same school and pursue a career as a fine teaching professor of Kinesiology.
Fast forward to the 2003 season. If anyone, at this time last year, had dared to predict that JMU would win the national championship this year by winning all four playoff games on the road, he or she would have been regarded as foolish as a Floridian buying a snowblower.
At the championship game, what saddened me were kids throwing up from too much alcohol, and a young man carrying a wasted college-age girl out of the stadium. Many small airline-sized bottles of scotch, gin and whatever littered the bleachers of the older alumni around me—bottles which I assume were sneaked in. This was not classy. Who needs alcohol to have fun and act crazy at a national championship game?
And oh yeah. In a heart-thumping, hair raising game where the lead changed hands several times, JMU finally hit their stride playing old fashioned, eastern-style, grind-em-out, wear-em-down, rush and run football. And won 31-21. My daughter was featured with her flute friends celebrating, for three seconds of national ESPN fame. My husband and I had one of the most fun nights of our lives, a memory to last a lifetime.
Life lessons? Never give up: anything can happen, especially the unpredictable. If you feel like going to a national championship game 400 (or 1700) miles away the week before Christmas because your kid is playing in the band (or the game), it could be a once in a lifetime chance, so go. So many things have to happen “just right” in a single season, so don’t take it for granted. And as Coach Matthews said many times after his son’s accident, “There are a lot of things life more important than a football game.” Keep all things, sports, football, alcohol, your fan enthusiasm (remember the Piston and Pacers basketball game?) in its place.
Maybe the word this season brings to mind is one that gives meaning to life itself: keep hoping. And working toward your goals.
Comments? Write to me at Another Way, Box 22, Harrisonburg Va., 22802, or e-mail email@example.com
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Melodie Davis is the author of seven books and has written her column since 1987. She taught feature writing and has won awards from the National Federation of Press Women, Virginia Press Women and the American Advertising Association. She and her husband have three daughters.
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