Dear players: Heed our advice

Whether you're Alma defensive lineman Justin Harris or Thomas More quarterback Kevin Niehus, you will miss your playing days.
1999 file photo

By Keith McMillan

I’m 34. I’ve never had a recurring dream in my life except for one. 

Every few months or so, I dream of myself in a slightly different situation, angling to earn a starting job in the 1996 Randolph-Macon defensive backfield, or trying to earn back my coaches’ lost trust, or discovering that I have one more year of eligibility. In that dream, I get back in shape and report to camp, using my old-man smarts to keep up with the young’uns.

Once, I dreamed that instead of broadcasting the Stagg Bowl with Pat Coleman, Gordon Mann, Ryan Tipps and Frank Rossi, Mount Union pulled me down to the sideline to be the backup quarterback. If it went well, I was promised a shot at the starting job the following year. Hey, I can’t explain it, nor do I need to. It was a dream.

It’s both strange and remarkable that once playing Division III football gets in your blood, it’s a part of you. For life.

For some of us – at least those who played on grass – it takes but a sniff of the late-summer air to transport us back to a place and time where there were no kids’ activities to traipse off to on Saturdays, no wives to obey, no shifts to be worked. Once you’ve been a player, you always are one.

Rather than dedicate this valuable cyberspace to has-been musings, I thought it wise to ask those of us who’ve been through it all to impart a little wisdom on those just starting out. I distinctly remember a coach during pregame claim that he’d give his left, um, arm to play just one more game. He meant then that we should savor it, and while I heard him loud and clear – after all, a man had just two, um, arms to offer up – it’s now time for me and those like me to pass that wisdom down.

All players might not have that coach whose voice resonates, whose wisdom can pierce a 21-year-old mind and get him to think big-picture. But you’ve got Around the Nation.

I conducted this experiment through Twitter, so the real Oldie Oldersons who could tell us a few things about life didn’t participate. But a handful of ex-players did, and hopefully we reach at least one guy who will someday be in our shoes.

Haslam, a former Emory & Henry left guard, actually tweets some good wisdom for life. But as it relates to football, living in the moment is something coaches preach -- think ‘one week at a time,’ or Frosty Westering’s playing against your best self.

When we’re young and we think there are many moments ahead, it’s easy not to live in them. But everyone who takes the football field knows the game can be cruel. An injury, or perhaps just a lost grasp on a job, could be right around the corner. Savor what you can while you can.

As Turer, a former Washington & Lee safety and current D3football.com contributor points out, your football life is over in your early 20s. Maybe you can get into a flag, semi-pro or an alumni game after your career is over, but none of it is the same. I played a season of semi-pro, and it was easy compared to what we ran in D-III; I started a game at tight end despite never playing there in my life. Current players might not realize it, but D-III is some high-level stuff. Our really good teams are running schemes as involved and as intelligent as really good pro and other-level college teams. Once that’s gone, there is no replicating it.

And of course, leaving it all on the field is a great feeling. In life there are far more important things than football, but once you know you can give your all to something, that you can dig deeper than you thought you could, and pull out an effort you didn’t know you had in you, you’ll be confident that you can overcome just about anything. I have a weird memory of making a goal-line tackle that I conjure up from time to time. Because I was far from a fierce hitter, the memory stands out because I wanted to win so bad I was willing to give up my body, to absorb pain for it.

And that’s a career in a nutshell. You start out as a skinny little nobody, but you dedicate yourself through horrible weight-room workouts and exhausting runs because you want so badly to be good that you’ll do anything the coaches ask. And I’m being dead serious when I say that once you prove to yourself you can start something, and see it through to its finish four years later, you realize you have the strength inside to deal with life’s greater tribulations.

Ryan Carlson, a former Linfield defensive end, e-mailed this to accentuate the above tweet: “Just don't quit because it gets hard. I wasn't some super frosh, nope, I was just a dude on Linfield's roster in 1994 and I had so many talented freshmen classmates give up because they thought they wouldn't see the field in a couple of years. If you believe in yourself and have a passion for the sport then don't give in, because if you do, then you'll regret it for the rest of your life.  I'm not promising you that you'll one day get to be a major star or even a starter but if you keep preparing, keep improving, keep working on your craft then when the opportunity arises you'll be ready to make the most of it and you'll never have any regrets about your college football experience.”

They say in 10 years you won’t remember the score, and in 20 years you’ll be arguing about which one of you scored. It’s true that a lot of the memories you’ll make won’t be game action – and this is one the fans can relate to. Off top, I remember the light-hearted practice moments and the road trips as much as anything else. A bus breakdown that wasn’t funny at the time is a laugh now. A homecoming or rivalry game doesn’t go by without someone doing an impression of our O-line coach barking or our defensive-minded head coach spitting and mixing up clichés in pregame speeches. (“I want you to run around like heads with your chickens cut off!”). Sometimes one of us even lets our baseball cap sit way on top of our head like the ol’ running backs coach used to. Your personalized memories will be different than mine; they’ll be your own, but something you cherish a dozen years after your last play.

Fick just finished up last season as Lebanon Valley’s all-time leading passer, so his memories are more fresh than mine. But we can still relate. There is a family feel to a lot of teams, in the sense that you take care of everybody in the circle, no matter how much you like them. And they do the same for you, no questions asked.

Wins are earned. Because there’s another team of guys who’ve put in work, who’ve dreamed the dreams, and who care probably as much as your team. There is no such thing as who wants it more. Desire definitely matters, but so does the technical stuff. There are a lot of esoteric ways to describe what tilts football games – leadership, desire, luck and destiny. But sometimes it’s just who did what they were coached to do better than the other guy.

Being coached by one of the game’s legends, as Tom Linnemann, a former St. John’s quarterback was, is a gift. But at some point, too, you learn to coach yourself. Linnemann went on to tweet, “But only because I studied football. Ask yourself as a QB -- if there were no coaches calling plays, could you win? Do you know the game?”

Football is such a beautiful game because there’s a place for brawn, but there’s also a demand for smarts. Athletic skill without it rarely triumphs. And so those of us who studied video, game plans, tendency reports, other players ... whatever we could to get an edge, and gain an understanding, became good. Some of us became great.

I remember when I stopped getting butterflies in my stomach before games. It was when I became a starter, and I no longer went on to the field wondering if I’d mess up. Because I finally put the work in, and absorbed everything there was to know before we kicked off, there was no nervousness. Only confidence, and an intense desire to go against my opponent.

I go back to the Carlson well because it captures a moment in time that players can relate to. I have a comparison to his ideal defensive end moment. Playing cornerback isn’t about being the physically toughest, but it demands mental toughness. Resilence. An acceptance that while you chase greatness, you’re always a play – or a misplay – away from getting embarrassed in front of the entire stadium. Linebackers clean up the defensive line’s mistakes. Safeties help where the linebackers miss. But cornerbacks? One false (or double) move, and it’s seven points.

I loved the uncertain feeling of seeing the pass coming to the player I was covering. Usually, I felt I could get to the ball and an interception was coming. Occasionally – and this is the worst feeling for a defensive back – I could tell the pass was perfect and my positioning wasn’t. A DB knows beforehand when he’s about to be beaten. Then he has to watch it happen.

I had one such moment as my team trailed Guilford, 28-21, on the road in the midst of what would end up an 8-2 1997 season. I remember seeing the pass in the air. I remember my mind doing the calculations: ‘Yup, that’s an interception.’ I even remember feeling the ball hit my hands. In those moments, there was plenty of time to think “I’m going to intercept this, we’re going to drive down and score, we’re going to win the game, and the conference title.”

And then over my back came Junior Lord. He ripped the ball out of my hands. I never saw him until I was upside down on the ground, watching him run for a touchdown.

A defensive back’s moment frozen in time is when the ball’s in the air. Carlson says DEs basically lick their chops when they get a free run. Maybe this moment for quarterbacks is seeing the perfect coverage pre-snap for the play that’s called. For an O-lineman, it could be pulling and seeing a scrawny little corner ahead. Fullbacks loved to get in the open field against guys like me. Linebackers loved to blitz the A-gap. I would have killed to just once lay out for a punt and catch it right in the chest. I love blocked punts like you wouldn’t believe.

Weller, a former Concordia-Moorhead wide receiver, shares a sentiment similar to the others, with two words none of us said: Be thankful.

At every game you play in, even the sparsely attended ones seemingly in the middle of nowhere, there’s someone who wishes he could be in your shoes. Maybe it’s your backup. Maybe it’s a player who got hurt, or whose eligibility is up. Maybe it’s someone in the stands who never had the athletic ability to play, or wasn’t brave enough, or wasn’t born the right gender. For as many Division III football players as there are – roughly 18,000 on 239 teams – there are that many more people who wish they could have played. Be thankful you’re one of the ones who can.

In short, I ramble not because my memories need to see the light of day, but because I want to conjure up yours. If you’re so young in the game that you haven’t made any, I suggest you re-read the above ex-players’ tweets and heed the advice.

The colors we wear

Take a look around on game day. Most of us identify who we’re with, and who we’re rooting for by what we wear. Along with mascots and field names, team colors can seem so arbitrary to the untrained eye. But to those close to the programs wear the colors, and only them, with pride.

Here’s some research I did over the summer to help me decide which color combinations to have made for the For the Love of the Game T-shirt series. It’s the kind of meaningless-yet-meaningful data that only has a home here in Around the Nation. What I found is that there are really only a handful of color combinations that work best – just about every school in Division III wears one of 20 choices, although we call them all sorts of silly things.

Hamilton wears "Buff and Blue," though it looks like royal blue and gold. Randolph-Macon wears black and lemon, though it would make a catchier song if we referred to it as black and yellow. Don’t you dare tell Hampden-Sydney it’s wearing maroon and silver. That’s Garnet and grey to you, newbie!

While there might be only forest and Kelly green, or Navy, royal and Columbia blue, we call our reds all sorts of things. There’s Garnet (Bates), Crimson (Oberlin), Burgundy (Hamline), Scarlet (Olivet), Maroon (Eureka), Cardinal (Benedictine), Magenta (Muskingum), Cherry (RPI) and Old Rose (Rose-Hulman).

Thankfully, some teams names dictate that we call colors what they are. Dickinson couldn’t really be the Magenta Devils instead of red, now could they? Cardinals works as both the color and bird mascot for North Central and Catholic; calling themselves the Garnets would leave them with January’s birthstone on their helmets. Not tough at all! Chicago has been called the Maroons since its days in the Big Ten. Good thing too; I’m not sure Amos Alonzo Stagg would have liked referring to his team as the Old Roses.

Using the data on D3football.com’s team pages, I boiled all the names down to the colors they appear to be to the naked eye. Thankfully, purple is always called purple … except when Cal Lutheran calls it violet. Here are D-III’s most popular color combinations, and who wears them. (If you steal my research for your own personal gain, I will have @Hollis Island tackle you).

18 schools wear red and white – Albright, Benedictine, Carthage, Central, Cortland State, Denison, Dickinson, Grove City, Hanover, Monmouth, Montclair State, North Central, Olivet, RPI, Shenandoah, St. John’s, Wabash, Wittenberg. Muhlenberg wears red and grey; King’s wears red and gold.

 15 wear navy blue and gold – Allegheny, Beloit, Bethel, East Texas Baptist, Gallaudet, John Carroll, Juniata, Mass. Maritime, Mount St. Joseph, North Carolina Wesleyan, TCNJ, Thiel, Trine, UW-Eau Claire and Western Conn.

 14 wear navy blue and yellow – Augustana, Averett, Buena Vista, Carleton, Franklin, Howard Payne, Lakeland, Lycoming, Maranatha Baptist, Mass.-Dartmouth, Mississippi College, Ithaca, Rochester, Wilkes.

 13 wear black and gold – Adrian, Birmingham-Southern, DePauw, Ferrum, Framingham State, Geneva, Gustavus Adolphus, Manchester, Pacific Lutheran, St. Olaf, Texas Lutheran, Ursinus and Wooster; Two more wear black and yellow (UW-Oshkosh and Randolph-Macon) and Bowdoin wears black and white.

 12 wear red and black – Anna Maria, Catholic, Frostburg State, La Grange, Lake Forest, Martin Luther, Ohio Wesleyan, Pacific, Rhodes, Ripon, UW-River Falls and Washington & Jefferson.

 12 wear orange and black – Anderson, Buffalo State, Carroll, Greenville, Heidelberg, Kalamazoo, Lewis & Clark, Occidental, Ohio Northern, Wartburg, Waynesburg and William Paterson.

 12 wear maroon and white – Bates, Bridgewater State, Carnegie Mellon, Chicago, Earlham, Puget Sound, Rose-Hulman, Springfield, Trinity (Texas), Union.

 11 wear green and white – Bethany, Castleton State, Greensboro, Illinois Wesleyan, Morrisville State, Mount Ida, Nichols, Plymouth State, Stevenson, Wilmington and Wisconsin Lutheran; Both Endicott and Salve Regina wear a combination of green, blue and white.

 10 wear maroon and grey – Augsburg, Chapman, Guilford, Hamline, Hampden-Sydney, Redlands, Sul Ross State, UW-La Crosse, WPI. Huntingdon wears scarlet (a brighter red) and grey.

 10 wear purple and white/black – Amherst, Bluffton, Capital, Cornell, Curry, Kenyon, Millsaps, Mount Union, Rockford and UW-Whitewater; Also, Linfield wears purple, white and red, and St. Thomas wears purple and grey.

 10 wear navy blue and white – Elmhurst, Franklin & Marshall, Illinois College, Lawrence, Lebanon Valley, Marietta, Wesley, Westfield State, Westminster (Mo.), Westminster (Pa.), UW-Stout. Two more (Kean, Moravian) wear navy and silver.

10 wear maroon and gold – Alma, Austin, Bridgewater (Va.), Coe, Eureka, Oberlin, Otterbein, Norwich, St. John Fisher, Willamette.

9 wear royal blue and white – Aurora, Becker, Case Western Reserve, Concordia (Wis.), Dubuque, Hartwick, Luther, Millikin, Washington & Lee. Three more wear royal blue and silver – Christopher Newport, Merchant Marine and Thomas More.

8 wear purple and gold – Albion, Crown, Defiance, Knox, Loras, Northwestern, Sewanee, Whittier.

7 wear orange and royal blue – Coast Guard, Gettysburg, Hobart, Hope, Louisiana College, Macalester and UW-Platteville. Two more wear orange and navy blue (Utica, Wheaton)

6 wear purple and yellow – Alfred, Cal Lutheran, Hardin-Simmons, Mary-Hardin Baylor, UW-Stevens Point and Williams.

6 wear maroon and yellow – Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, Concordia (Ill.), Concordia-Moorhead, Minn.-Morris, Salisbury and Simpson.

5 wear green and gold – Brockport State, Fitchburg State, Husson, McDaniel and St. Vincent.

5 wear maroon and black – Grinnell, MIT, McMurry, Wesleyan, Whitworth.

4 wear green and yellow – Delaware Valley, Methodist, Presentation and St. Norbert.

4 wear royal blue and yellow – Maine Maritime, St. Scholastica, Western New England and Widener. The latter once wore more of a baby blue, and has basically phased the yellow out of its game-day getup.

If that doesn’t seem like it adds up to 239, it’s because it doesn’t. There are unique color combinations featuring browns (Baldwin-Wallace, Centre, Rowan and St. Lawrence) and the hideous mashup of maroon and orange (Sorry Maryville and Susquehanna, it’s true). Johns Hopkins, Elmhurst and Wesley each seem to wear the Columbia/Carolina/Baby blue at times, while Tufts seems to mix that with brown for its main combo.

Hiram, Shenandoah, Hanover and St. John’s all wear red, white and blue, but differently. The Terriers wear navy and white with red facemasks. Shenandoah also goes navy and white, but plays up the red accents more prominently. St. John’s lists blue as one of its official colors, but there’s no sign of it on jerseys or among the red and white on game day at Clements stadium. Hanover used to wear its blue prominently, but it now almost exclusively featuring the red.

I took some liberties with the list to make some teams fit a category. I know Greensboro incorporates a silver, and Wash. U. uses a green along with its red and white. The list is imperfect, yet if you see something that looks wrong, e-mail a correction to keith.mcmillan@d3sports.com.

For an opportunity to wear those colors on game day, check out the shirts below. Send us a picture of you wearing one, and we’ll feature it in Around the Nation:

Rivalry watch

From Week 1’s Soup Bowl in North Carolina to the Backyard Brawl in Mississippi through all the great games in Week 11, D-III features some of the most heated and historic matchups anywhere. This season, ATN tracks those games:

Week 1 (Sept. 3):

Backyard Brawl, Mississippi College 33, Millsaps 27, OT: The Majors’ Beau Brady misses a 37-yard field goal attempt at the end of regulation, and the Choctaws’ Tommy Reyer scores from eight yards out in overtime.

Soup Bowl, Guilford 27, Greensboro 7: The Quakers win the first game of the Chris Rusiewicz era in grand fashion.

Week 2 (Sept. 10):

Secretaries’ Cup, Merchant Marine 35, Coast Guard 28: Kings Point’s Stephen Sasso finds Chase Dunn for a 40-yard TD pass with eight seconds left to win.

Week 3 (Sept. 17):

Courage Bowl, Rochester vs. St. John Fisher at Marina Auto Stadium

Week 5 (Oct. 1):

Holy Grail/Tommie-Johnnie Game, St. John’s at St. Thomas

Week 9 (Oct. 29):

Dutchman’s Shoes: RPI at Union

CBB, Part I: Bates at Colby

Week 10 (Nov. 5):

Little Brass Bell: Wheaton at North Central

Bronze Turkey game, Knox at Monmouth

Cranberry Bowl: Mass. Maritime at Bridgewater State

CBB, Part II: Bowdoin at Bates

Week 11 (Nov. 12):

Oldest rivalry in D-III: Amherst at Williams

Monon Bell: Wabash at DePauw

Cortaca Jug: Cortland State at Ithaca

The Game: Hampden-Sydney at Randolph-Macon

Victory Bell: Franklin at Hanover

Cornell at Coe

Wesleyan at Trinity

Moravian at Muhlenberg

CBB, Part III: Colby at Bowdoin

Bridge Bowl: Thomas More at Mount St. Joseph

Regents Cup: Frostburg State at Salisbury

Have rivalry games we should add to the list? E-mail keith.mcmillan@D3sports.com

Quick look ahead to Week 3

Friday morning’s Triple Take features a look a the weekly slate of games from three perspectives. This week we examine if there’s another top-5 upset brewing, which birds will soar, pick games of the week and put teams on our radars. Look for it on the Daily Dose.

Tweet your question, get an answer

Send specific inquiries during the week to @D3Keith on Twitter, and I’ll pick a handful of questions to answer in the column, if not sooner.

This week’s question comes from Nick Gustafson:

“Any thoughts on MHB leapfrogging UST this week?”

My first thought in explaining Mary Hardin-Baylor’s move past St. Thomas for No. 3 in the D3football.com poll was that the bounce probably came from the reputation of the Crusaders’ oppoent. UMHB beat UW-La Crosse of the mighty WIAC, 27-20. But St. Thomas beat UW-River Falls, 45-22, so that doesn’t hold much weight.

Perhaps there are those who feel one but not two MIAC teams should be in the top 5, and have switched their support to Bethel, which outscored its first two opponents, 103-3. Maybe it’s just a function of UMHB having played a game, starting a week later than the MIAC teams. I’m not quite sure why there was a flip, now that you’ve drawn attention to it, but it’s clear voters weren’t sure what to do with all those points they were giving to Wesley and North Central.

Five Ways to Saturday

Follow Around the Nation ...

• Throughout the week on Twitter. Follow @D3Keith. It’s a sporadic stream of short-form minutiae, most of it D-III related. It’s also the best way to directly converse with the column’s author.

• On Around the Nation’s Post Patterns thread, at the top of the General Football board. That’s the next best place to ask a question about a topic raised in the column, or continue a discussion unrelated to this week’s ATN.

• 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.

• When the column publishes on Thursdays.

• In Friday morning’s Triple Take, on The Daily Dose.

On Saturdays, The Daily Dose features a running game day thread and live chat, for real-time reactions from across the country.

The press box

• Tailgaters: ATN is seeking a title sponsor to help defray the costs of travel and buying food for its proposed Stone Station vs. Griz Zone vs. Stiftungsfest challenge. We need solid commitment from the tailgaters, plus anyone else who wants to join. Participants can decide if the money will be winner-take-all or split evenly, in the D-III spirit of community. We’ll also need official tasters to be judges.

E-mail your interest to keith.mcmillan@d3sports.com and put “tailgate” in the subject line.

• Alumni: Let’s put a new twist on the Stagg Bowl weekend alumni football game. If we can’t recruit enough ex-players from any school to show up in Salem and play, we can always do fans vs. alumni.

These ideas are only as good as the people who want to participate, so e-mail your thoughts. We’ll set up the format, decide flag or touch and draw up the rules once we have the interest. Fields and start time can all be decided later too.

• Readers: Around the Nation encourages your opinions, questions and insights. Readers can best get a response by posting on Around the Nation's running thread on Post Patterns (under general football). Send email to keith.mcmillan@D3sports.com or use our feedback form.

• Sports Information Directors: To contact Keith McMillan, use keith.mcmillan@d3sports.com, or mail to D3football.com, 12331 Midsummer Lane A102, 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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