#NECPride Plentiful at #NECFB Social Media Day
Media days usually signify one thing: football season is upon us. For one day, rivalries are set aside, hand shakes are extended, and players and coaches share a mutual love for the game.
On Wednesday, July 24th, the Northeast Conference (NEC) held their fifth annual Social Media Day at Metlife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ. For some players, who had never been to New Jersey, let alone an NFL stadium, this was a chance for them to take a moment and see first hand what they’ve been dreaming about probably since they were young boys in their pee-wee leagues. In true form, social media accounts for each school were alive and well for all the action.
There’s no shortage of love or pride for the small schools in the NEC. In his opening speech, Ralph Ventre, Director of Communications and Social Media, perfectly stated, “We are here and we are a force to be reckoned with. People don’t want to play us. They’re afraid to play us.”
Over the years, the visibility of small schools has been called into question around rosters for all-star games. While critics say the caliber of play between the FCS and FBS just doesn’t compare, players and coaches alike clap back and say that’s simply untrue. I had a chance to sit down with three members of the NEC to discuss how they feel about playing and coaching for a smaller FCS school, and came away with one overall message: every team has the same amount of men on that field, the same amount of time. Everyone gets four quarters. The fundamentals of the game don’t change. Their jobs are to block, tackle and score. A win is a win, regardless of where you play.
So what makes a player pick and stay at a smaller school? If given the opportunity, wouldn’t every young man who dreams of football beyond their college years want to play for a larger FBS school? I asked both Cam Gill, LB from Wagner College, and A.J. Hines, RB from Duquesne, if they had the opportunity to change schools at any time in their college career would they? I shouldn’t have been surprised, when both gave me an emphatic, “no.”
Gill expressed his loyalty to his coaches, most notably to 5th year head coach, Jason Houghtaling (a.k.a. coach Hoss to the Wagner community). He noted, “I never had a thought about leaving. I’m a big believer in loyalty. Coach Hoss gave me a chance, he has my loyalty. There’s no one else I’d rather play for. I’m all in on this team.”
Hines, probably one of, if not the most decorated player in the NEC, explained that saying no was easy. “After my freshman year, I had a few people approach me about leaving. I said no. I have a son, this is more than a game for me. I have someone that depends on me. I need to go out there and play not only for me and for my team, but for him as well.” Hines also stated that if it wasn’t for Duquesne, he may not have had the chance to play at all. He’s grateful for the opportunity and says sometimes things happen the way they are meant to. “You find out where you belong and you go with that.”
What makes the smaller schools so special? What is it about that ‘little school on the hill’ in Staten Island, NY that Gill loves so much? “I wanted to play for a D1 school. That was the only goal I set for myself. Wagner gave me the opportunity not only to be close to New York, but it allowed me to be part of a family. Everyone always talks about brotherhood in the NFL, especially coach Knighton.” He is referring to coach Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton, a 2nd year coach for the Seahawks, who played for seven years in the NFL.
Gill continues, “When we’re on that field, we’re playing for our brothers, more than for ourselves. This year, we’re playing for T.” Tyamonee Johnson, nicknamed “T,” was a 5th year player for the Seahawks, who was tragically killed in his home state of Maryland, in December 2018. Gill says losing one of their brothers was tough for the team overall, but in the end it has made them stronger and they have never been closer. “He’s always with us. He’s with us every day. We talk about him every day. Our job is to play for him. We want to play loose and fly around like T, and bring home that NEC Championship.” The team is still deciding on how they will honor him this season.
For Hines it’s simple. He gets to play a game he loves. “I get to come out every game and give it my all. My focus is the guys, my team and the season. We have another ring to get. After the game is over, we lit, but for those four quarters, it’s all about football.” I asked him about his NFL aspirations and where, if he was able to choose, would he love to play. “I believe I have the talent to play at any level. I don’t concern myself with the talk about us FCS guys not being able to play with those larger schools. My stats speak for themselves. If you’re good, if you’re talented, any coach, recruiter, or scout will see that. It’s all about the game tape. I’d be blessed to play anywhere, but if I have to pick, I’m gonna say the Steelers. I grew up an Eagles fan, because I liked [Michael] Vick, but my dad is a huge Steelers fan, that’s my team.” I noted that maybe he was meant for Duquesne before he even knew it. He laughed, “Yes, ma’am.”
Currently, one of of the hot topics surrounding the game is the NCAA transfer portal.
I asked Gill his thoughts about the new portal. “You can’t focus on those one or two players. If they want to go, let them go. I will always tell a guy, we want you to stay, we want you to be part of this team, but we don’t need you. There is a line of guys right behind you who will gladly fill your spot. Don’t think you’re not replaceable.” Hines had a similar sentiment. “Why would a guy take a chance on not being picked up and losing that time to play? I’d rather stay where I am and get to work. Guys use it as a way out to a potentially bigger school thinking that they will be seen. Trust me, if the league wants to find you, and you put in the work, they’ll come find you.”
As two of the bigger names in the NEC, you would think that they would be the go-to guys, the hype men, the loudest voices on the team. Both laughed and agreed that neither of them are those guys. Neither are the voices of their team. They described themselves as “chill, laid back guys.” They prefer to be the action guys, the lead by example guys, and if needed, the guy who takes the younger guys to the side for a one-on-one conversation, rather than embarrassing someone on the field.
I also had the opportunity to speak with Christopher Merritt, the newest coach at Bryant University. Merritt is the fourth coach is the 20-year history of Bryant football and he is excited about this new opportunity.
“I had sent kids to Bryant, so I knew about the school. I loved my job (Merritt held the head coaching position for 18 years at Christopher Columbus HS in Florida), and it was going to take a lot for me to leave. The minute I walked onto Bryant’s campus and saw the facilities and knew about the academics, that was it for me. I knew Bryant could be a winning team. I wanted a place that could be a launching pad for football; Bryant has that.”
As a student-athlete at Indiana University, Merritt is familiar with the larger school program, but says not to be confused by the size of a school. “Size doesn’t matter. Yes, larger schools have more money, larger schools may have more exposure, but as far as players, it’s the quality that matters. I’m looking for the depth. I’m looking for the guy that can go into the 3rd quarter of a game and win. It’s that simple.” He continues with school’s visibility. “We just had two kids signed in the last month. The visibility is there. I don’t care about stars, that’s fluff to me. I want to prepare my guys for their pro days, which I tell them is arguably one of the most important tryouts of your life. People are coming to Bryant to see our guys. We host pro day on our campus, so the surrounding schools have to come to us. Scouts have to come to us. We make sure we’re prepared.”
One thing Merritt is confident about is his ability to lead his team for the long haul. He looks at Bryant not as a stepping stone, but as a team where laying the ground work and changing the culture was his stop priority. He says he’s creating a ten plus year program, and he needs all this players, especially the seniors to be part of the new Bryant culture. “I told my seniors, this is your team. I’m committing to you. I’m investing in you. You are going to have to direct the success of this team.” He says creating the foundation for accountability was both fun and exciting to watch. “We made the players accountable to themselves and to each other. They needed to learn that it’s all part of the process. If you’re late to practice, you’re team is there ready to hold you accountable. Pretty soon, no one wants to be that guy who’s late.”
Predictions- while one can call them merely a list of maybes, are as much a part of football as Saturday tailgating. Most players and coaches pay them no mind, and both Gill and Hines, as well as Merritt and Hoss said the same.
When I asked Gill his prediction for the Seahawks (who finished 4th last year), he sat up a little taller and simply stated, “This is our year. We’re winning it all.” Hines, doubled down on Duquesne’s big win from last season. “We’re going for that ring, and every school here should be saying the same thing.” You’re right A.J. They should and they are. But neither Gill nor Hines puts any sort of predictions for their already impressive collections of stats.
Gill concludes, “My goal is to put my team in the best position to win. If you’re prepared and you play your game, the rest will come; the stats, the accolades, the awards, that all comes later. All I need to worry about is what’s in between those white lines.”
Coach Hoss on Wagner’s 4th place prediction. “I’ve never once paid attention to those. If you look at Wagner’s two championship seasons, we were picked to finish last. It’s all about how we prepare and how we respond to those early season games. We have to take it all day by day, and win, lose or draw, we can’t let any Saturday go farther than the 24 hours into Sunday. We need to learn from both wins and losses, and always be be correcting things.”
Coach Merritt on Bryant’s 5th place prediction. “Polls? I don’t put too much stock in polls or predictions. I agree Duquesne is the team to beat right now in the NEC after the way they performed in 2018. Our goal isn’t 5th, our goal is to compete for the NEC Championship every year. Anything less isn’t compatible with the culture we’re trying to establish here.”
Regardless of which NEC team you’re rooting for, one thing is clear. There is no shortage of talent or love for their school in the NEC. They are small but mighty, indeed. My prediction is: it’s going to be an incredible, hard-hitting season. Who comes out on top to get that ring, only time will tell.