Ball State's place in popular culture had been established by its most famous alum, David Letterman, so it would stand to reason that for many, the mere mention of the school conjures up thoughts of Paul Shaffer, Stupid Pet and Human Tricks and Rupert Jee.
The Late Show host, a 1969 grad, has established a scholarship for average students, has a building named after him on the Muncie, Ind., campus and even joked on-air that the Cardinals football stadium should carry his name, though he wouldn't pay for its renovation because "each and every night, especially during football season, I'm giving them a million dollars in free exposure."
There's no matching the level of notoriety Letterman has given the school over the years, but the Ball State football team is making a name for itself, without the aid of the man behind the Top 10 lists and Great Moments in Presidential Speeches.
Two weeks ago, Ball State made its first appearance in the polls -- ever -- and at 7-0 and 3-0 in the Mid-American Conference's Western division, has climbed up to 20th in the latest AP and Coaches' polls. It's rarefied air for a program that has nine winning records in the past 20 years and hasn't won more than eight games since going 10-1 in 1978.
"It's flattering and believe me, it's been great attention for Ball State University," said coach Brady Hoke, who was also a linebacker on that 10-win team 30 years ago. "But we've got to get ready every week and we have to keep our routine as much as we can."
So far, that routine has included a remarkably balanced offense and a defense that bends but rarely breaks. Ball State is 15th nationally in total offense (21st in passing and 24th rushing) with the MAC's latest standout quarterback in Nate Davis (1,817 yards 13 touchdowns and four interceptions) and the conference's leading rusher in MiQuale Lewis, who has 914 yards and 13 scores behind an offensive line that returned all five starters. The defense has struggled against the run, giving up 169.5 yards per game (87th nationally), but the Cardinals have been strong against the pass (25th in pass defense and 19th in pass efficiency defense) and are largely keeping opponents out of the end zone, giving up 15.4 points per game (16th), including seven total points in their last eight quarters.
The schedule has also been the Cardinals' ally. It currently ranks 115th and includes just one victory over a team with a winning record, Navy. But that Midshipmen team did go on to beat nationally-ranked Wake Forest and the Cardinals earned their first win over a Big Ten team in topping Indiana. Ball State also whipped Toledo 31-0 a week before the Rockets stunned Michigan in Ann Arbor.
But Ball State's best start since 1965 hasn't completely been a fairytale. In the win over the Hoosiers, wide receiver Dante Love, who at the time was leading the nation with 144.3 receiving yards per game, suffered a cervical spine fracture and a spinal cord injury that likely ends his playing career. Love made a short catch in the first quarter and after a helmet-to-helmet hit by Indiana cornerback Chris Adkins, fell to the ground. He lay motionless for 15 minutes before he was strapped to a backboard and taken off the field and to Bloomington Hospital, where he underwent a five-hour surgery. Love was recently released from an Indianapolis rehabilitation center and returned to Ball State, where he will continue his therapy.
"What happened to Dante, man, words can't explain the hurt on our team," junior defensive end Brandon Crawford said. "Our thing is we just wanted to regroup as much as possible and just put all that energy that we were feeling, whether it be negative or whatever it may be, and just put it toward being that much more successful on the field."
The Cardinals now pay tribute to Love by wearing a sticker with his number 86 on their helmets. During pregame warmups against Kent State, they wore red T-shirts with 86 on the front. Some teammates write his number on their shoes or on the tape on their wrists.
"He's on our minds. He's on our body when we're out there on the field, just to put it into perspective just how lucky we are to be out there playing," Crawford said.
If there's anyone who truly understands that sentiment, it's Crawford, a 32-year-old former Marine who took the long road in becoming the Cardinals' defensive captain. When he was a senior at Fort Wayne South High in 1996, Crawford was being recruited by some smaller schools in the area and was in line to earn a 21st Century Scholarship. One night after a game he was sitting on his front porch when a car pulled up. "The guys that drove by, I knew them from the neighborhood but I didn't really know them," Crawford said. They told him to get in, and he jumped into the back seat, expecting they would join his teammates to celebrate as they usually did.
What Crawford didn't know was that the car was stolen. A few minutes later, police sirens blared and there was a chase. When the car finally pulled over, Crawford jumped out of the vehicle and ran a few blocks to his mother's house. Soon thereafter the police came knocking, looking for Brandon.
One of the stipulations of Crawford's scholarship was that he couldn't get into trouble with the law. He was placed on probation and forfeited his scholarship. Living in a single-mother household he was left with no way to go to college. After high school, Crawford worked with his brother in an auto factory for two years before he decided to join the Marines Corps in 1999.
Crawford spent four years in the Marines doing administrative work in Cherry Point, N.C., before receiving an honorary discharge in 2003. Already seven years removed from his last game, he talked with Ball State coaches about walking on, but his college plans would be delayed again as he spent a year helping his mother.
Then, in the fall of 2006, he finally became a college football player at the age of 30. "He was rusty," Hoke said. "That first spring he had a hard time getting into his stance and coming off the football and kind of understanding Division I college football."
Despite being more than a decade older than his fellow freshmen, Crawford said the age gap was never much of an issue, though he has become a big brother to many of his teammates.
"A lot of the guys, when I told them how old I was, they said, 'No way,' " Crawford said. "I don't know how you're supposed to act at that age. I just tried to be myself. I think that age factor is more of a factor for everybody else. It hasn't been that much of a factor to me."
Crawford can vividly remember his first play in a Cardinals uniform. It was on the road against Purdue and Crawford said he was so nervous that as he dropped into his stance, he told himself over and over, "Don't' jump offsides."
"I remember the coaches telling me when I got in, 'When the running back comes out of the backfield, let him free release and get a hit on him if you can,' " Crawford said. "I came to the sideline and I had hit him so hard that coach was like, 'Wow, you almost killed that kid.' I was like, 'I'm just trying to get in there and play.' "
Crawford has the ability to play every position on the defensive line as well as linebacker and last season he registered 60 tackles, eight sacks and 17 tackles for loss. So far this season, he has 20 tackles, six tackles for loss and two sacks. He has become the leader of the leader of the defense, and not just because he's the oldest member.
"He's earned the respect of his teammates, they voted him captain by a wide margin and they think the world of him," Hoke said. "At times maybe he's not the best player on the field, but he's the hardest-working player on the field."
Crawford continues to push because he understands, after the years of detours, after time spent a world away from college football while he served his country, after seeing a teammate with NFL potential have his career taken away, what this opportunity truly means.
"Being able to play college football right now for me is a blessing," Crawford said. "To be out here with my teammates and being able to help them any way I can, being 10 years removed, being named team captain, starting fourth string when I got here? It's been a big deal for me."