Valpo pressing on in face of adversity
Sean McCarty hoists his 6-foot-6 frame up and over the chain-link fence enclosing Valparaiso University's football stadium, home of the worst team in Division I football.
The wide receiver walks past a field goal post that's slightly bent, past the empty sidelines, and sits in the front row of the bleachers, a new college football season just around the corner, a new semester having just begun, all of it filled with youth and innocence and the possibility of starting over.
McCarty's eyes look toward the center of Brown Field, where a huge brown and gold Valparaiso Crusader logo is painted on the turf. Two groundskeepers are the only others in sight. In the stillness of morning, McCarty's mind goes back to mid-autumn the year before: the lowest point of a low season, the worst moment of his sporting life and the instant where he decided whether to return for a fifth year at Valpo and squeeze one more football season into his disappearing youth.
It was humiliating, McCarty recalls, that one game. Valpo's football team was already 0-6, struggling under a new head coach after winning only a single game the year before. Then Jacksonville University came to town, and everything went wrong. A punt was blocked and recovered in the end zone. An interception was returned for a touchdown, then another. Two and a half hours after opening kickoff, McCarty's team had lost, 86-7, and any optimism for a year that was supposed to be this struggling program's new beginning had vanished.
The team took a knee around their coach. Alumni and classmates had long since left the stands. McCarty's parents, who'd driven three hours to see their son's team get crushed, waited by the gate. The coach gave a short postgame pep talk, then players walked toward their locker room. McCarty could almost feel it: the moment when much of the team checked out.
McCarty lingered behind on the field that afternoon. He sat alone on top of the Crusader logo, and he wept.
Then he made his decision.
Yes, the 22-year-old would pay another $10,000 for one more fall semester's tuition and one more football season. He would return to a team that went 0-11 last year and finished 126th out of 126 teams in the FCS rankings. He wouldn't give up and put his love for football in the past. No. One more year, one more clean slate, one more chance to reinvent himself and this program.
"I couldn't finish with that," McCarty says. "I couldn't give up there. I wanted to work to see this program turn around. It was easier to give up and walk away, but there's nothing like it, being part of a football team. And going through such tough times and being able to come back from it, it sets you up for the real world."
And really, whether you're playing for a team that's 0-11 or 11-0, who wouldn't take it — that opportunity to extend your youth just a little bit longer?
"Someone is going to have to tell me I can't play football anymore," McCarty says, and a few hours later, he's back on the field, wearing pads, catching quick slants, one more shot to make it right.
What is it about college football that brought Sean McCarty back after that embarrassing and painful season? Why did McCarty tell Target, which offered him a full-time managerial position after a summer internship, he would start the job only after one more season for a team that was outscored 514-100 last year?
Why were head coach Dale Carlson and his assistants able to travel the country — to Florida, to California, to Texas — and recruit a new freshman class, convincing them to pay private school tuition and play for a non-scholarship team that hasn't tasted winning in nearly two years?
The answers can be found all around the leafy campus of Valparaiso University, in a small town just outside the orbits of Chicago and Indianapolis, a place known more for being the home of Orville Redenbacher and an annual popcorn festival than for college football. The answers, you will find, lead you in a very different direction than you'd expect: Not toward the multi-billion dollar business that is big-time college football. Not toward the turmoil of scandal and conference realignment that's ruled the college football universe the past year. Not toward anything that even has to do with football, really.
Instead, at a time when the best college football programs are bringing out the worst parts of the sport, one of the worst programs in college football can show us what's still good about this game — about how it teaches perseverance and commitment and holding your head high, even in the toughest of times.
Go past the signature campus landmark, which is not a giant football stadium, but instead the beautiful, humbling Chapel of the Resurrection. Go past students lazily tossing a football on the campus green. Walk into the president's office, with its fireplace and leather chairs and airs of higher education.
"These are extraordinary embarrassments for higher education, certainly embarrassments to the sport," Valparaiso president Mark A. Heckler said, talking not about wins and losses, but about recent scandals at schools like Ohio State and Miami. "What really bugs me about where all of that is going is that there are plenty of places like us who are doing a completely different thing ... We're trying to build young people of character. When they stop playing football, they've got a lot more of their lives."
The president thinks back to the year before. Yes, 0-11 was difficult. Players got teased on campus, and the coach counseled them to have a tough skin. Players quit. Opponents ran up the score. But when the football team had its senior banquet after the season, Heckler marveled at the players' reactions. They didn't speak of impressive victories or game-winning touchdowns, but of more important things: teamwork, brotherhood, solidarity and turning a year of seeming failures into something else.
"These particular years with the football program are really valuable because they're trying to rise up from real adversity," he says. "The guys who stuck that out, who saw people come and saw people go, who saw those who couldn't grasp the change or weren't up to the task, the ones that went through all of that transition and got to the other side, that's what life is."
Losing 86-7 one day, facing classmates and another grueling practice the next — that's a lesson more powerful than any lesson on partial differential equations or the finer points of theology.
More answers can be found inside the armory-like football building on the other end of campus. There, head coach Dale Carlson is drawing Xs and Os on a whiteboard, trying to figure out how his pass-happy spread offense can win their opener against a Division III team that beat Valpo 42-7 last year.
Carlson, you see, is an eternal optimist. He grew up on the north side of Chicago and attended hundreds of Cubs games as a kid, so he's well-versed in the hope that this year will be better than the last. Twice before, Carlson has started new football programs, at both a Division III and a Division II school. The Division II team, Carlson's most recent coaching position, began his tenure 1-15, but finished it 35-11, including an undefeated season.
His optimism was tested last year. A losing streak that currently stands at 20 games meant poisonous attitudes seeping into the locker room. Carlson counseled the team against joining the "fellowship of the miserable," but it didn't matter. Toward the end of last year, when the first thing went wrong during a game, you could feel a hopeless feeling take over the sidelines: Here we go again.
The season ended, and dozens of players who made up the Fellowship of the Miserable quit. Carlson didn't care. The 0-11 season was a test, and by quitting on teammates, those players failed.
"You gotta find a special kid to do that, who wants to be a part of rebuilding," Carlson says. "Our young guys, we've been honest with them. We've told them what we're trying to do, that we need a commitment from them. And they want to be part of turning this around."
At a place like Valpo, it's OK if that takes time. At places like Ohio State or Miami, though, winning — winning now — is paramount. And that, Carlson believes, explains a lot about the current state of tumult in college football.
"The problem with college athletics today is there's so much money at stake, so much pressure to win because of the money, that we've forgotten what we're here for," he says. "And, first and foremost, the reason the kids are here is to graduate."
But finally, down the street from Carlson's office, more than 100 young men are running pass routes and working out defensive schemes in the late summer sun. Here, all these high-minded platitudes — about how football builds strong young men of character, about how these non-scholarship athletes are here for the love of the game, about how college sports is really about academics — fall away, and a final truth is revealed ...
The Crusaders must win.
The young man who led the Football Championship Subdivision (previously known as Division I-AA) in punts per game last year booms punts. Carlson looms over a passing drill where garbage cans stand in for defenders. When the center snaps the ball over the quarterback's head twice in a row, Carlson screams at him and motions for a new center. Wide receivers drop ball after ball, and Carlson assigns 20 push-ups for each.
The Crusaders, it is clear, have a long way to go.
And yet …
"The attitude's a lot different from last year," says junior tight end Mike Gerton.
"You can see the potential as soon as you step on the practice field,” says junior running back Sterling Summerville. “This team is ready for a victory, and if ever a team needed a victory, this is one.”
“It's a privilege to play," says senior center Ferdy Velez. "Be happy to be on the field every day, because once these days are gone, these are the days you'll remember."
That's why running back Bobby Wysocki decided he, like fellow fifth-year senior Sean McCarty, would come back. Friends didn't get it. Why come back for an 0-11 team? What's the point?
The point, he says, is going out on a high note.
"Instead of 11 games, it felt like 11 years," Wysocki said of last year. "In Week 10 of practice, you're still doing the same drills, and it's like, "What's the point anymore?" (But) football's my life. It means everything to me. I can't even imagine how the end of this season will be for me. I'll be a wreck."
For Wysocki, for the coach, for the university president, for a campus whose morale has fallen along with this team's struggles, this season comes with a simple goal: Win one game. Just to remember what it feels like.
Why did Bobby Wysocki return?
"I just wanted to be a winner," he says.
Francis Baker, Jr. takes a swig of breakfast — a small carton of chocolate milk — as he walks down his dorm stairs and heads to his first class in the new school year.
Baker is a soft-spoken sophomore linebacker, a civil engineering major from southern Maryland with a 3.2 GPA and polite manner of "sirs" and holding doors for ladies. He also has a determination to turn things around for his football team. He was excited a couple years ago when he got a recruiting call from Valparaiso coaches; the first thing he did was go to Google to figure out where Valparaiso was. When he boarded his first plane ever and flew to Valparaiso, he never expected the team would go winless his freshman year.
This morning began earlier for Baker than for most anyone in his dorm. With a 6:20 a.m. alarm, with an hour-long weightlifting session, with a strength coach hollering over his shoulder, pushing him to work harder as teammates wiped sleep from their eyes.
Now, Baker cuts across the campus green near the Chapel of the Resurrection, which is decorated for this afternoon's opening convocation. Baker's socks become wet from the dewy grass, and his Air Jordan sandals are soon caked in grass clippings. He walks into his first class of the new school year, Calculus III, and sits in the front row.
"Losing is always hard," he says. "You come out here and practice every day, and to not see results, it's hard. It makes you feel, 'What have I been doing with all my time?' I go home and tell people I play football. They ask how we did. It's kind of embarrassing.
"But now there's new people on campus, and I'm sure they've heard how horrible the football team is," he continues. "I'm looking forward to showing them something that first game."
The class begins. Students ask about office hours and grading policies. There's that anxious newness in the air, the feeling that the script is not yet written for the upcoming year.
Not long from this moment — tomorrow night, in fact — Baker and his teammates will run onto Brown Field to play Franklin College, the Division III school that beat Valpo by 35 points last season. The lights will shine on the Crusader logo at mid-field. Thousands of fans and students will pay $10 for a ticket and fill these stands, aware of the team's struggles, but excited for the new year. The annual rituals of college football will begin again. The Crusaders will have a fresh start.
This is the moment Francis Baker thinks about when he sits in this classroom, listens to his professor and opens a fresh notebook. Nothing is written on these pages, not yet.