Courage Bowl about more than football

By Keith McMillan

PITTSFORD, N.Y. – In 2006, two weeks after the second annual Courage Bowl with Rochester, St. John Fisher trailed Ithaca 10-0 at the half.

This news would surely have not been pleasing to Steve Taylor, a young man who had grown close to the Cardinals during his stint as honorary coach the week of the Courage Bowl. Taylor was hospitalized with a life-threatening illness and was not at the Ithaca game.

Gary Mervis, an assistant coach, spoke to St. John Fisher’s players during halftime.

"Which one of you guys wants to be with me when I contact Steve and tell him that we lost?" Mervis recalls asking.

Andy Episcopo had nine tackles in St. John Fisher's win against Rochester.
St. John Fisher athletics photo

The Cardinals scored 34 unanswered points in the second half, and Mervis never had to break any bad news. That season was full of good reports to Steve, who according to Mervis would ask his mother to bring the Sunday paper to his hospital room so he could read up on the game, and then have his mother e-mail his insights back to the St. John Fisher staff.

The Cardinals went 12-2 in 2006, going all the way to the national semifinals.

Relationships between teams of 18- to 22-year-olds and boys half their age who will never get to play college football because of cancer form each season St. John Fisher and Rochester play the Courage Bowl. Last Saturday’s game at Fisher’s Growney Stadium was the fifth annual installment, televised by the local CBS affiliate and attended by 5,461 fans, officially. Dedicated to the critically ill boys and girls who attend Camp Good Days and Special Times, founded by Mervis after his daughter Teddi was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor in 1979, the Courage Bowl and its efforts have been embraced by the Rochester-area community.

And though the game came down to a two-point conversion pass ruled incomplete, most eyes were otherwise on the 10 most important people in the stadium. Griffin DellaPenna (age 8), Cole Parker (8) and Evan Tringali (9) were St. John Fisher’s honorary coaches, getting to spend Friday and Saturday with the team, leading them onto the field and staying on the sidelines for the game. Kaytryn Forbes (11) and Bridgette Merriman (11) were Fisher’s honorary cheerleaders. Nick Ahearn (11), Ricky Merlino (11) and Jack Sutherland (10) were Rochester’s coaches, and Jamie Clark (11) and Melissa Roberts (10) its cheerleaders.

Though Courage Bowl’s main purpose is to give the honorary captains and cheerleaders an experience they’ll never forget, and might not otherwise have, it’s a first-class Division III experience for everybody who attends.

Held under the lights at Growney, a top-notch facility that the NFL’s Buffalo Bills use for training camp, Courage Bowl V featured fireworks at halftime -- and when the game resumed -- not to mention two moon bounces and a tailgate party for the children of Camp Good Days who weren’t honorary captains.

But perhaps the most fulfilling experience isn’t the children getting to be around the players, but vice versa.

"It’s been a tremendous opportunity for our kids to learn and grow," says fourth-year Rochester coach Scott Greene, a Western New York native and former NFL running back. "It’s been an opportunity to understand what other families go through … it awakens [our kids] and opens their eyes to the big picture of life."

That picture, says Mervis, in his 20th season coaching, is sometimes not fully developed when freshmen arrive at college.

"Especially young men who are blessed to be good at athletics, and have often been the apples of Mom and Dad’s eyes," Mervis says. "They tend to think the universe revolves around them."

But it doesn’t take much exposure to a cancer-stricken pre-adolescent to flush out whatever sense of entitlement might have existed.

Rochester players visited the camp, and Greene says the sight of a rock pile by a creek that signifies all the kids who have died or lost a family member is a stunner.

"Man, [the players] realized the opportunity they had in front of them to live life," he said. "To embrace it."

The honorary captains, says Mervis, get Fisher’s student-athletes to "take a moment to enjoy the ability to play this game."

Not having that ability is what gave Mervis the idea for the Courage Bowl while driving home one day from the camp. On a beautiful day, he says he had his car’s top down at a red light. He saw a mother yelling at her kids for tossing a football back and forth, and realized that even children feel an upcoming football season in the air.

"The kids I had just left couldn’t even really dream about that," Mervis said. "To get a doctor to sign off and let them play organized football is more than wishful thinking. They could wish, but they really couldn’t dream."

And with the camp’s motto, "courage knows no boundaries," fresh in his mind, an idea was born. The coaching staffs and athletic departments at both schools were on board quickly. The idea was driven home at St. John Fisher when Katherine Keough, the school’s president, passed away from cancer in 2004.

In 2005, the annual Rochester-St. John Fisher game became the first Courage Bowl, the local Fox station televised it, and the response exceeded Mervis’ expectations.

The community’s interest was a nice surprise, but Mervis had also worried if college-age players would "get" what the game was trying to accomplish. "Or are they going to see it as a nuisance," he says he wondered.

"Our kids have absolutely fallen in love with the honorary captains," he said.

That much was on display Saturday, when after a prayer with Rochester’s team at midfield, St. John Fisher hoisted DellaPenna, Parker and Tringali on their shoulders. The Cardinals’ postgame bring-it-together shout was "courage," and after the crowd broke up, one of the young boys stumbled out of the group wearing an autographed St. John Fisher jersey and holding a silver-bowl-and-wood-base trophy practically bigger than he was.

And while heads briefly hung from the loss on the Rochester side, players’ eyes lit up when Ahearn, Merlino and Sutherland approached.

"Man, we had an opportunity to win a football game, and that’s always in the back of your mind because you’re a competitor," Greene said. "Then you see the kids afterward …"

Greene says he tries not to tear up.

"I tell myself I’m not going to get emotional. But then you see the parents give their kids hugs, and you imagine it being your own kids."

Therein lies the rub. The bond the teams and campers form throughout the weekend makes it more painful when the inevitable occurs. Mervis says three of St. John Fisher’s honorary captains have died, including Tristan Hartman two years ago.

"When I had to tell our players after practice," Mervis said, "They really took it pretty hard."

Hartman’s family had a non-traditional funeral, a celebration of Tristan’s life. When Mervis arrived, a St. John Fisher jersey was framed on an easel.

Mervis says Taylor, the honorary coach whose mother e-mailed his comments to the team, asked her if he could be buried in his jersey.

And while there’s nothing easy about surviving with cancer, or dying from it or any other disease, the biggest lesson from the Courage Bowl is reminding the rest of us how to live.

"These kids are living every day just happy to be here, enjoying it," Greene said. "I wish life was that simple."

More on the Courage Bowl:
Adam Samrov’s Around the East on Courage Bowl III

About Camp Good Days

About Gary Mervis

From Rochester’s point of view

Five Things You Should Know About the Courage Bowl

The Heart Behind ‘For the Love’

The unofficial Division III athletics motto is ‘For the Love of the Game,’ and Division III’s inspired efforts don’t stop in the Rochester area.

Saturday, at least 111 Division III coaching staffs will wear ‘Coach to Cure MD’ patches, as part of an American Football Coaches Association-backed effort to raise money and awareness about Duchenne muscular dystrophy. The progressive genetic disorder affects all voluntary muscles to the point where it becomes hard for a victim to survive past his 20s.

As of Sept. 16, Division III coaching staffs signed on to support the efforts included Allegheny, Amherst, Anderson, Anna Maria, Aurora, Austin, Becker, Beloit, Benedictine, Bethel, Birmingham-Southern, Bluffton, Bowdoin, Buena Vista, Cal Lutheran, Capital, Carnegie Mellon, Carroll, Carthage, Castleton State, Chapman, Christopher Newport, Coe, Colby, Cortland State, Defiance, Delaware Valley, DePauw, Dickinson, Dubuque, Earlham, East Texas Baptist, Elmhurst, Fitchburg State, Franklin, Franklin and Marshall, Frostburg State, Gallaudet, Gettysburg, Grove City, Guilford, Gustavus Adolphus, Hamline, Hardin-Simmons, Hartwick, Hiram, Hobart, Howard Payne, Huntingdon, Husson, Illinois Wesleyan, Ithaca, Johns Hopkins, Juniata, Kalamazoo, Kenyon, Lake Forest, Linfield, Lousiana College, Luther, Lycoming, Macalester, Marietta, Mary Hardin-Baylor, Mass-Dartmouth, MIT, McMurry, Methodist, Middlebury, Millsaps, Mississippi College, Moravian, Mount St. Joseph, Mount Union, Muhlenberg, North Park, Ohio Northern, Ohio Wesleyan, Olivet, Otterbein, Randolph-Macon, Rhodes, Rose-Hulman, Rowan, Salisbury, Salve Regina, Sewanee, Shenandoah, Simpson, St. John’s, St. John Fisher, St. Norbert, SUNY-Maritime, Texas Lutheran, Thomas More, Trine, Trinity (Conn.) and (Texas), Tufts, UW-Stout, UW-Whitewater, Utica, Washington & Lee, Western Connecticut, Western New England, Wheaton, Widener, Wilkes, William Paterson, Wittenberg and Worcester State.

If you root for one of those 111 schools and you see the patch on Saturday, now you know what it means and what cause you’re supporting.

Learn more, or sign up your staff at CoachtoCureMD.org. You can also donate $5 on your next cell phone bill by texting "CURE" to 90999.

Hobart will wear camouflage jerseys in conjunction with the Wounded Warrior Project for its Oct. 3 game against St. Lawrence.

Hobart’s hockey team had donned camouflage previously, and the football team, led by senior lineman Angelo Catalano, took on the idea this season. The Statesmen will hold a raffle and sell customizable camouflage jerseys as well, here.

Ten Best

As part of Around the Nation’s celebration of 10 years of D3football.com, let’s delve into recent history with another top 10 list.

Rivalries are part of college football’s charm, and although some of the top rivalries (Randolph-Macon/Hampden-Sydney, Coe-Cornell, Millsaps-Mississippi College and Trinity-Wesleyan) forgo the hardware (or make very little mention of it), most come with something for the victors to hold.

ATN could easily list the ten best trophies or rivalries – Walnut and Bronze not included; Monon Bell, Cortaca Jug, Bronze Turkey, Dutchman’s Shoes, Little Three, CBB, The Drum, The Goat, the Little Brass Bell, the Victory Bell and the Secretary’s Cup.

This isn’t that list. (Besides, that’s 11.)

There are 52 trophy games listed in the NCAA’s official Division III record book, which is 23 more than you’ll find on Wikipedia. The above are the more well-known rivalries. Add the Courage Bowl to that group. The below? Well, let’s just say ATN hasn’t been remembering to circle the date on its calendar.

Ten trophy games played in the D3football.com era ATN has written little about:
(In no particular order)

10. The Cranberry Bowl: The season-ending Bridgewater State-Mass. Maritime game turned 30 last season, but the Bears and Buccaneers have rarely been good enough at the same time for the rivalry to draw much attention. The trophy, a wooden cranberry scoop purchased by the Edaville Railroad, is a perfect symbol of Massachusetts cranberry country.

9. Bridge Bowl Trophy game. Geographic elements enhance many rivalries. But few make it their trophy. But Thomas More (Crestview Hills, Ky.) and Mount St. Joseph (Cincinnati) made the likeness of the bridge connecting Northern Kentucky and Southern Ohio the symbol they play for. And while the series started in 1990 and already has had a seven-year hiatus, resuming the annual clash was a priority for the current coaching staffs. And with both teams contenders in their respective conferences these days, it’s looking like a game we need to keep an eye on.

8. Admiral’s Cup game Admiral sounds way cooler than Secretary, but the Coast Guard-Merchant Marine rivalry of the latter name is quite well known. The Maine Maritime-Mass. Maritime trophy is actually a year older (1980), and the two coastal academies share more than an acronym (MMA). The similar curriculum makes the two schools rivals beyond football.
Similar: The Secretary’s Cup; Merchant Marine 33, Coast Guard 27, OT, Sept. 12

7. The Academic Bowl. Case Western Reserve’s website describes its annual clash with Carnegie Mellon like so: "The two schools are among the nation's elite research and scholastic institutions, therefore a rivalry already exists in the academic aspect of the universities. So as competition in the classroom continues, the winner of the coveted Academic Bowl trophy can claim bragging rights on the athletic field for at least one year."
Similar: The Book of Knowledge; Carleton and Macalester (since 1999, series resumes Saturday at Macalester)

6. The Old Rocking Chair Classic. This Nov. 7 in Vermont will mark the 30th game with the trophy on the line, but Hamilton and Middlebury have played since 1930. The Panthers are in the midst of an 11-game winning streak against the Continentals, but this makes the list on trophy name alone. It’s not quite Old Funky Knickers, but it’s up there.
Similar: The Old Tin Cup, Gettysburg and Muhlenberg (1954; Saturday at Gettysburg)

5. The Soup Bowl. Greensboro’s program played its first game in 1996, so its crosstown rivalry with Guilford doesn’t have the history of others in Division III. But like the Courage Bowl, it’s got heart. Greensboro won 12-7 in Week 1 to move their all-time mark in the series to 6-7, but Quakers fans outdid Pride fans 3,855 to 2,292 in non-perishable food items collected for the needy in "the Gate City." Since the first Soup Bowl in 1997, 45,259 items have been donated.

4. The Paint Bucket game. Hamline and Macalester have been playing each other since 1887, making theirs the oldest Division III rivalry not involving a NESCAC team. The Paint Bucket that the Pipers and Scots battle for is not nearly that old, but no one involved seems to mind. The campuses are located two miles apart on Snelling Ave. in St. Paul, Minn. (Around the West columnist Adam Johnson writes about the five-minute bus ride here, from his days as a player). The 110th game, on Nov. 7, will keep it the 12th-most-played rivalry in D-III, even though it’s the fifth-oldest.
Similar: The Brown Bucket, Dickinson and Gettysburg (1946, Oct. 24 at Gettysburg); The Old Water Bucket, Martin Luther and Maranatha Baptist (1989, Knights 44-0, Sept. 5)

3. The Conestoga Wagon Trophy game. Dickinson’s Web site phrases it like this after defeating Franklin & Marshall: "As the winning team, the Devils earned the right to retain the coveted Conestoga Wagon Trophy, a golden model of the wagon that transported the Devils and the Diplomats when these longstanding rival teams played each other in the nineteenth century." Though Dickinson just beat F&M last Saturday, 45-43, to hang on to the trophy for the sixth season in a row, it’s hard to top the 2008 game. That was the 100th in the series, the 1,000th in Dickinson history and the first under the lights at Biddle Stadium.
Similar: The Wagon Wheel, Lewis & Clark vs. Willamette (1949; Oct. 10 this year at L&C)

2. The Doehling-Heselton Memorial Trophy game. One must look hard to find a mention of this symbol of the Ripon-Lawrence rivalry, named for former coaches and first presented in 1988. But that’s fitting, since no one seems to know the whereabouts of the Paint Bucket, the previous trophy the Red Hawks and Vikings played for. They’ll meet for the 109th time since 1893 in a series once tied 46-46-7 that’s tilted Ripon’s way of late. And even though the trophy hasn’t been around the whole time, the grudge has been, according to these articles.

1. Myron Claxton’s Shoes game. Occidental vs. Whittier. Awesome story. Tells itself, here. If you’re not a link clicker, the short version is that Claxton went to the visitor’s sideline, stole back his cleats, and later had them bronzed. Like all great trophy games, there’s history (100th meeting is Nov. 14), both ancient and recent (the 67-61 season-ending game in 2007), and a great backstory. We’ve got a winner.
Similar: The Dutchman’s Shoes, Union vs. RPI (1903/1950; Oct. 31 at Union)

There are others, with names that probably carry great meaning locally but just don’t quite roll off the tongue, like the Baird Bros. Golden Stringer (Case Western Reserve and Wooster), the Edmund Orgill Trophy game (Rhodes and Sewanee) and the no-longer-played Pella Corporation Classic (Central and NAIA William Penn).

React to this week’s list, make submissions for the coming week’s list or come up with new categories for future use by using our message board, Post Patterns, on the Around the Nation thread under general football. You can also send e-mail to Keith@D3football.com or use our feedback form.
Coming soon: Ten most successful post-D3 careers

Upon further review

It’s been quite a week for Division III getting national attention, as former Coe standout Fred Jackson rushed for 163 yards for the Bills on Sunday, and former Mount Union standout Pierre Garcon scored the winning touchdown for the Indianapolis Colts on Monday night football.

Pat Coleman recalls seeing Jackson play on the Daily Dose. Garcon tells an Indiana newspaper the game-winning play was one he ran at Mount Union.

The death of Myles Brand on Sept. 16 from pancreatic cancer was described by the NCAA as the loss of a visionary leader. By mainstream publications, he was described as the man who stood up to Bobby Knight. To Division III, however, Brand was simply one of us. An RPI and Rochester graduate who championed the well-rounded student-athlete, Brand also didn’t forget where he came from. In 2005, he took in the Stagg Bowl, the first one between Mount Union and UW-Whitewater.

You guys are suddenly having a great year for feedback. One of my favorite responses this week:

"Thank you for mentioning the officials who help preserve the integrity of the game. You hit the nail on the head when you mentioned the word volunteer. Some games require an overnight stay, and by the time you factor in fuel and mileage, you are losing money to officiate DIII college football. You better love the game if you officiate this level. Thanks again for remembering us,


On the ATN Post Patterns thread, read feedback from former Linfield quarterback Tyler Matthews and an old college teammate of Skip Bandini’s, among other things.

Postcard from Around the Nation

This week’s podcast covers quite a bit of what I wanted to share about my three-stop trip to Western New York. In logging 391 miles between the Buffalo-Niagara airport, Hobart, Alfred and St. John Fisher and the airport again, some of them helplessly looking for Rochester’s Fauver Stadium in the dark of night, I had just a couple extra things to add:

My visit to Alfred included a chat with one of our more prolific Post Patterns users, AUPepBand. An Alfred lifer, Dave – it’s always strange to learn the real names of people you know by their board handles – had some interesting observations about Division III football. I wisely whipped out my audio recorder to get some of them on the record, but my battery had run low, even though I had specifically removed it to avoid such an occurrence.

But two things he said stuck with me. One was a story about not really liking Ithaca and its fans for many years, until actually getting to know them. "They’re just like us," is the classic realization many opposing fans have once they break down the walls between them. There’s nothing wrong with hearty rooting and a little good-natured ribbing between fans, but keeping in mind that we’re all fans with an abnormal love for college football is probably wise. We probably have more in common, once we stop to chat with our rivals, than we would at first care to admit.

The other thing that stood out was Pep’s notion that his band plays songs as a pick-me-up for Alfred and its fans, but never chants "Warm up the bus" or sings "hey, hey, Goodbye." Look, I’m far from an old fuddy-duddy, but it’s a good point he makes – you don’t have to down theirs to uplift yours.

Pep, er, Dave, had quite a bit more wisdom to share, gleaned over years of rooting for the Saxons. A lot of what he’s noticed over time are the same things you’ve read in Around the Nation, but I still wanted to have it on audio. It’s one thing when we say it, quite another when it comes out of the fans’ mouths unprompted.

Ah, well.

Other quick observations from the trip:
I’m something of a geography nerd, and I had no idea Niagara Falls was just 15 minutes north of Buffalo. Ideally I would have flown in and out of Rochester, about an hour east on I-90. But a leisure trip to either metro area seems wise, especially when you toss in Toronto, which locals estimated was a 90-minute drive from Buffalo if the border crossing is clear.

If I’d really been feeling crazy (or if I was still single), since I flew out of Baltimore, I would have taken in Gettysburg’s Friday night game at Johns Hopkins and made it a four-game weekend.

Real places spotted along my drive: North Chili, West Chili and Chili Center, plus LeRoy, Clarence and Sonyea.

If I were commissioner of the football universe, any late-game catch that was close would be ruled complete. The momentum from Rochester’s comeback from down 35-13, aided by two crucial St. John Fisher fumbles, was too much fun to stop with a low pass that may or may not have been a trap. Maybe other people liked the quick resolution and wanted to go home, but even after the longest of days, I was ready for overtime.

For the record, any one-handed grabs, bobbled receptions or tiptoes along the sideline or back line of the end would never be ruled incomplete if the effort involved to make the catch was extraordinary. Of course, as a former defensive back, I would also outlaw wide receiver whining about pass interference, all celebratory first-down pointing before the final drive of a close game, and any celebration of a routine tackle in which the offense gains yardage.

Who are those guys?

Since it’s hard enough to keep track of the 238 teams and 27 conferences we follow, ATN keeps a watchful eye on Division III’s record in out-of-classification competition:

vs. Division I, FCS (0-1 in Week 3; 1-6 in 2009)
Carthage at Valparaiso (non-scholarship Pioneer League)

vs. Division II (1-1 in Week 3; 3-6 in 2009)
Missouri S&T (Great Lakes Football Conference) at No. 24 UW-La Crosse
Albright at Pace (Northeast-10)
Lake Erie (independent) at Adrian

vs. NAIA (2-1 in Week 3; 18-6 in 2009)
No. 14 Linfield at Southern Oregon (independent)
No. 17 UW-Stevens Point at Azusa Pacific (independent)
No. 21/No. 23 Malone (Mid-States Football Association) at Anna Maria
Ferrum at Southern Virginia (independent)
Ohio Dominican (Mid-States Football Association) at UW-Oshkosh
MacMurray at Bethany, Kan. (Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference)

Also: Martin Luther at Trinity Bible (N.D.)

Games of the week

For a breakdown of this week’s games to watch and why, see Friday morning’s Triple Take, featuring a look at what to watch this week by D3football.com’s Ryan Tipps, Pat Coleman and myself, on our blog, The Daily Dose.

The press box

Readers: ATN is looking for particular feedback on best post-D3 careers, famous Division III alumni (players, coaches and entertainers/politicians, etc.). ATN is also interested in talking with former players about their experiences in pay-for-play postseason all-star games.

Also seeking feedback on Ten Best (top 10 of the past 10 seasons), moments to remember for the year-in-review and road trip suggestions for October and November (ATN especially likes non-Saturday afternoon kickoffs that can be paired with a game at a traditional time).

Around the Nation always encourages general opinions on the column. Readers can best get a response by posting on Around the Nation's running thread on Post Patterns (under general football). Send e-mail to Keith@D3football.com or use our feedback form.

Five Ways to Saturday

Follow Around the Nation …
1. … When the column publishes on Thursdays.
2. … Throughout the week on Twitter. This is ATN’s first season tweeting. Follow @D3Keith.
3. … Mondays, Pat Coleman and I wrap up the week that was in our podcast. Download from iTunes or listen to it in the Daily Dose’s media player.
4. … When ATN travels on Saturdays, trip highlights are blogged on The Daily Dose.
5. … Further discussions raised here on Around the Nation’s Post Patterns thread, at the top of the General Football board.

Sports Information Directors: To contact Keith McMillan, use Keith@D3football.com, or mail to D3football.com, 13055 Carolyn Forest Dr., Woodbridge, Va., 22192.

Adam Turer

Adam Turer graduated in 2006 from Washington and Lee University, where he was a two-year starter at free safety. He lives in Cincinnati and covers area high school sports in addition to his full-time job as an attorney. Adam has contributed to D3football.com since 2007 and is in his second season writing Around the Nation after spending four seasons writing Around the Mid-Atlantic.

2014-2015 columnist: Ryan Tipps.
2001-2013 columnist: Keith McMillan.

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