In the book of John Gagliardi, great-play anecdotes don't do a
great player justice. So on the subject of his top receiver, St.
John's 77-year-old philosopher-coach describes a simple,
off-field gesture. "It was after a late practice over
Thanksgiving, and there were no employees around to shovel snow
off the bleachers," says Gagliardi. "So Blake Elliott grabs a
shovel and gets to work. Soon the whole team was shoveling. I've
said that my best players are the nicest people. With Blake,
you've got the nicest ever. And maybe the best ever."
Welcome to lower-division football at its finest. If you want to
watch phenomenally gifted collegians audition for the NFL, you
can pay $900 to score a ticket to the Sugar Bowl. But if you
appreciate the spectacle of honest-to-goodness student-athletes
playing for pride and each other, you might have been one of the
5,073 fans in Salem (Va.) High Stadium for the Amos Alonzo Stagg
Bowl, the Division III national championship game, last Saturday.
And you would have gotten your $10 worth. In 30° temperatures and
18-mph winds, St. John's, of Collegeville, Minn., upset Mount
Union, of Alliance, Ohio, 24-6, snapping the Raiders' NCAA-record
55-game winning streak.
For the Johnnies the improbable outcome was a fitting end to a
Cinderella season. Mount Union came to Salem with an offensive
line that outweighed Ohio State's and the cool confidence of a
team that had not been touched this millennium. St. John's had
Gagliardi, who last month passed Eddie Robinson to become college
football's winningest coach (Saturday's was the 414th victory of
his 55-year career), and 56 players who had made the team without
tryouts (the unorthodox Gagliardi doesn't believe in them). Last
week some of those players logged onto Mount Union's website to
scroll through head shots. "We wanted to remind ourselves that
they were human," says Elliott. "They've been kings of the hill
for a while, but someone was bound to get the better of them at
Spurred by straightforward play-calling ("You're not going to see
any double reverse passes from us," says Elliott) and
straightforward fan support (posters in the crowd included such
frank gems as WE HATE PURPLE and MOUNT THIS), the Johnnies jumped
to a 7-6 lead at the close of the first half and never looked
back. Their undersized defense surprised the Raiders with three
sacks and four interceptions, but most impressive of all was
Elliott, a fifth-year senior biochemistry major who chose St.
John's over several Ivy League schools so his parents, who live
18 miles from campus, could watch him play. Despite a nagging
hamstring strain that forced him to limp between plays, the
winner of this year's Division III top-player award--the
Gagliardi Trophy, named for his coach--earned Stagg Bowl MVP
honors with 110 rushing yards on 11 carries (he often lines up in
the backfield), five catches for 51 yards and a 27-yard kickoff
December 29, 2003
As Elliott was handed the title plaque after the game, he pulled
his teammates onto the rickety winner's podium to help hoist it.
"At St. John's no player is bigger than the team," he says. And
despite the size of the stage, no win was bigger than this.