Out of earshot of Dick Vitale, off the radar of the $11.95-a-month recruiting websites and beyond the range of the hypemongers at College GameDay, the small schools of NCAA Divisions II and III inhabit a parallel athletic universe. To the average fan college sports invariably mean Division I-A, with its huge brand-name universities that serve as farm clubs for the pros and its student-athletes who focus almost exclusively on the far side of the hyphen. Small-school sports are a completely different animal, and not just because the mascots are banana slugs or gorillas. In D-II and D-III the athletes often pay their own way and play for little more than love of the game--a quaint concept in an era in which March Madness TV rights run into the billions of dollars. ¬∂ Small-school athletes are often dismissed as short, slow, untalented kids toiling in front of empty bleachers. But the NCAA's nether regions have produced numerous players who have had monster pro careers, including gridiron stars Walter Payton (Jackson State), John Stallworth (Alabama A&M) and Larry Allen (Sonoma State), and roundball heroes Earl Monroe (Winston-Salem), Terry Porter (Wisconsin-Stevens Point) and Ben Wallace (Virginia Union). But such success stories are almost incidental to small-school sports, which are not an audition for the mythical next level so much as a celebration of the simple opportunity to compete.
There are remarkable athletes among the 212,561 kids, spread across 701 universities, who competed in D-II and D-III during the 2004-05 school year. Division I comprises 326 schools, though only 119 field football teams at the I-A level, which dominates the airwaves on Saturdays. During the last school year those 119 universities spent an estimated $4 billion on athletics, a significant chunk of which went to pay for head coaches, whose salaries routinely run into seven figures. At small schools, on the other hand, many coaches have second careers to help pay the bills.
The stories of these athletes and coaches say much about small-school sports, but away from the bright lights of Division I there is so little glory to go around that the team is ultimately all that matters. Nowhere is this truer than in a sleepy patch of the heartland where the traditions of Division II football bind together not only the players but also the community around them.
Pittsburg, Kansas, is a company town. It was a thriving coal center at the dawn of the 20th century, but now its largest employer is the local university, and on Saturdays in the fall Pittsburg State throws a heckuva company picnic. In a town of barely 19,000 people, the Gorillas' home football games regularly attract 8,000 or more fans, many of them showing up hours ahead of kickoff for a tailgating extravaganza that includes live bands and organized activities for kids. What of the 11,000 or so Pittsburg residents who don't go to the stadium on game day? "They listen to us on the radio," says Andy Majors, Pitt State's senior quarterback.
November 14, 2005
Pittsburg's love affair with its football team goes back half a century. The Gorillas won national championships in the NAIA--a lesser athletic association of some 280 U.S. and Canadian universities--in 1957 and '61 under legendary coach Carnie Smith, and over the last 20 years no other program at any level of college football has enjoyed more success. Pitt State alumnus Dennis Franchione, now the coach at Texas A&M, ran the Gorillas from 1985 to '89 and went 53-6, twice being named national coach of the year. In 1990, a year after the Gorillas moved up from the NAIA to the NCAA's Division II, another Pitt State grad, Chuck Broyles, took over the program. In 16 seasons Broyles has gone 162-33-2 (a winning percentage of .832), taking the D-II national championship in '91 and reaching the title game three other times. This fall Pitt State became the first Division II team to reach 600 victories. Last Saturday the Gorillas finished the regular season with a crushing 83-21 loss to Central Missouri State in Warrensburg, Mo., lowering their 2005 record to 8-3 but still reaching the playoffs for the 14th time under Broyles.
"God couldn't have designed a more perfect place than Pittsburg for Division II football," says Broyles. "A good wage here is $10 an hour. It's a simple life, a good home for the common man, and these people are just ate up with the Gorillas."
That pride of place was evident during Pitt State's homecoming weekend, in early October. On Friday morning Gorillas past and present converged at a greasy spoon on Broadway, the town's main artery. At Bob's Grill the walls are covered with Pitt State memorabilia, and a thick slice of nostalgia is served with every meal. Bleary-eyed undergrads stumbled in looking for a cure for their hangovers--the previous night's Yell Like Hell pep rally had filled half the football stadium despite frigid weather--and old-timers were bellied up to the counter, flirting with the waitress and flashing their championship rings.
On Friday night a gathering of former cheerleaders attracted a crowd of 100 for cocktails and dinner in a ballroom on campus. The air was heavy with perfume, and all the women wore Gorillas red and yellow. The peppiest person in the room was Jack Overman, 87, a "yell leader" in '36. Ruminating on the importance of the team, Overman said, "Of course, you have God and your family, but Gorilla football is right up there. It keeps me going. I look around at all these pretty cheerleaders, and it makes me feel young again."
The next morning Overman was one of the hundreds who turned out for a parade that ran down Broadway. The homecoming court rode in classic mid-century convertibles, and the king was none other than the apple-cheeked Majors. The star quarterback as homecoming king? "It's like a movie," said Majors. That would be American Graffiti, not American Pie.
Despite the grief his teammates gave him, Majors was honored to be in the parade. By the time he arrived at the stadium--around 10 a.m. for a 2 p.m. start--the pregame parties were raging. Students had gathered on one side of the parking lot, where beer was flowing and music was blaring from the cabs of various pickups. The other side of the lot was more sedate, crowded as it was with corporate tents and clusters of alumni. Nearby was GorillaFest, a tidy picnic area run by the university, where boys flicked Nerf footballs to their glowing dads, and ponytailed pixies in tiny Gorillas cheerleading outfits stood perfectly still while their faces were painted red and yellow.
A little more than an hour before kickoff the football team came together in a circle outside the locker room, which is across the parking lot from the stadium, and clasped hands for the pregame prayer, led by All-America defensive end Ryan Meredith. Then, with a whoop, the team fell into line and began one of Pitt State's grandest traditions: the long procession to the football field through the heart of the parking lot. Fans massed along the walkway, 10 deep in places. Little kids ran alongside the players, slapping high fives. Pitt State's 165-member band played, and the crowd filled the sky with rainbows of confetti. One middle-aged woman wore a number 11 jersey with I ‚ô• ANDY stitched on the back. Her shrill "Hey, Andy!" stopped Majors in his tracks, and the heartthrob quarterback couldn't help but laugh. Before he could take another step, two young girls ran out to give him a hug, each clamping onto a leg.
After so much buildup the game was almost a letdown, as visiting Panhandle State of Goodwell, Okla., offered little resistance. Junior tailback Germaine Race scored three first-quarter touchdowns for the Gorillas with barely a hand laid on him by the defense. In the second quarter the multitalented Majors got in on the fun, sprinting 41 yards for a touchdown and throwing for two others as Pitt State rolled to a 42-0 halftime lead. The final score, 70-0, was reminiscent of last season, when the 14-1 Gorillas scored 69 or more points six times, including a 91-27 squeaker at Missouri-Rolla.
For the Pitt State seniors, homecoming was the final regular-season game at Carnie Smith Stadium, and many lingered on the field in the embrace of friends and relatives. Majors knows there is no market at the next level for 194-pound option quarterbacks, but he has no regrets. "There are players on this team who could have played Division I, but it probably would have meant minimal playing time on a bad team," he says. "You come to Pitt State to win games, to be somebody, to have an experience you will always treasure. This place is like family. It never leaves you."
Being part of a family means passing along traditions to the next generation. Long after vanquishing Panhandle State, Majors was still on the field in his pads, throwing perfect spirals to young boys who were joyously diving into the end zone.
There are various criteria for competing in Division I, II or III, ranging from the number of teams a university must field to the minimum attendance its football team must attract. For student-athletes, the most salient difference from division to division is how scholarships are apportioned. In Division I athletes in the big-time sports enjoy a full ride. In Division II athletic scholarships exist but are capped at levels far below D-I's, meaning that few athletes get a free education but most get at least a little help. In D-III athletic scholarships are verboten, forcing students to cobble together tuition with the help of loans, grants, need-based financial aid and academic scholarships, to say nothing of Mom and Dad.
Few Division III jocks have been more successful at paying their bills than Cavan Sullivan, a 6'3", 240-pound backup defensive lineman at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Ill. How is he putting himself through a liberal arts school at which tuition is $15,500? By selling doe urine, of course. "Hey, whatever it takes," Sullivan says. "I love football so much, I wanted to keep playing. I knew I would have to find a way to pay for it."
To be fair Sullivan only dabbles in urine, which hunters use to attract bucks. His primary business is Sullivan Pheasant Farms, which he founded as a freshman with a $10,000 loan from his father. In four years Sullivan's operation has mushroomed into one of the largest pheasant farms in Illinois, with 75,000 square feet under net and three industrial-grade incubators. This year he will have raised 15,000 birds, selling Chinese ringneck pheasants for $1 apiece and bobwhite quail at 60 cents each. He also expects to sell 30,000 hatching eggs--50 cents each for pheasants, 25 for quail.
Seeking to diversify, last year Sullivan bought a local business named Buck's Deer Urine. He promptly changed the name to Timber Valley Fresh Scent, and the environmental-studies and biology major began experiments to more efficiently bottle his product. The 17 whitetail does in Sullivan's herd graze all day but return to pens at night. Sullivan designed a slatted fiberglass floor for each pen that collects the urine and channels it to a bottling facility. Two-ounce bottles sell for $6.50, four ounces for $7.75.
Sullivan rises every morning at 5:30 and puts in a couple of hours' work before heading off to an 8 a.m. class. Football practice and film sessions take up most of the afternoon, and after dinner he puts in another two or three hours tending to his businesses. To maintain his 3.3 GPA he studies until he collapses into bed around midnight. "It's a long day, but I can't complain," he says. "I've gotten to live my dream of playing college football, and when I graduate, I already have a couple of good businesses in place."
If wins and losses are the only things that matter in Division I, Sullivan is a reminder that at small schools there are many ways to measure success. Pheasants sold is one, to be sure.
For Tyler Yates, an indomitable Division III goalkeeper, success is measured in years--the 13 by which he has exceeded the death sentence of a medical diagnosis.
Yates's dorm room at the University of Redlands, in Redlands, Calif., looks like a set from a sequel to Old School. The floor is a riot of wayward clothes. There is a stash of junk food in the corner composed of orange cream soda, Cheez-Its and chocolate-covered Kudos. A stack of DVDs on Yates's desk includes such neoclassics as Dodgeball and Freddy Got Fingered. The only alien element in this postadolescent tableau is the tall, stainless steel IV pole peeking out of the closet.
Every 21 days the pole is rolled out to help keep Yates alive, as he takes an infusion of human antibodies. Yates has a rare bone disease, B-cell humoral immunodeficiency. His B-lymphocytes, white blood cells that should produce antibodies to fight the germs and bacteria that cause infections, are defective. Yates is so vulnerable to infection that even with a regular infusion of antibodies he can be ravaged by illness. Common colds often lead to abscesses in his respiratory tract. Simple sinus infections have required him to be hospitalized so the bacteria can be scraped out. "A mosquito bite could kill Tyler, because of West Nile," says his mother, Suzie, who has raised him on her own since he was 20 months old. "One tick bite could kill him, because of Lyme disease. Public restrooms are a nightmare, because of all the germs. So is a soccer field, because of the bacteria in the soil."
On a recent morning Tyler, a sophomore, glided across the lovely Redlands campus in flip-flops, sagging jeans and a Hurley T-shirt. He looked every bit the college kid, but subtle gestures betrayed his need to avoid bacteria. En route to class he didn't touch the railing of a steep staircase, and he waited for another student to open the door to the classroom. Once inside he jackknifed into his chair without putting his hands on the desktop. Of course, there are times to throw caution to the wind; in the cafeteria he was happy to accept a hug from a fetching coed.
"Tyler's like the boy in the bubble," says Redlands soccer coach Rob Becerra, "except that he's chosen to step out and experience the world despite the risks."
The infusion of antibodies helps make this possible. On Oct. 15 Yates was due for another IV. At 2 a.m. Suzie hopped in her downtrodden Chevy Cavalier and began the 10-hour drive from her home in Chico, Calif., to Redlands, which is 60 miles east of Los Angeles. She arrived at halftime of Redlands' 1-0 soccer win over Pomona-Pitzer. (The Bulldogs finished the regular season 16-2-2 and made the D-III playoffs for the fifth straight season.) As backup goalie Yates didn't see any action against Pomona-Pitzer, which was just as well because he would need all of his strength for the infusion back in his dorm room.
The antibodies are so viscous that it took a half hour for the first 10 milliliters to be absorbed by Yates's veins. Extracted from 5,200 pints of human blood, the 600-milliliter bag of antibodies costs $15,263.50, payable every three weeks. It's no wonder that despite working two and sometimes three jobs, and even with medical insurance, Suzie has twice declared bankruptcy.
As the IV released drop after drop, Yates spent much of the next eight hours studying for a big biology exam a couple of days away. Suzie did her son's laundry and methodically bleached every flat surface in the dorm room. It was nearly 2 a.m. when Yates finally took the last of the IV. Four hours later Suzie was back on the road for Chico--a surgical assistant for a dermatopathologist, she had to be at work early the next day--leaving Tyler alone as his body waged a war against itself. The absorption of the antibodies causes the protective lining around his brain and spinal cord to swell, leading to splitting headaches and killer back pain. As the marrow responds to so many foreign antibodies, his bones ache and joints throb, exacerbating his acute psoriatic arthritis. When he was a kid Tyler described the experience as "being eaten alive from the inside out."
Many people who undergo the same type of infusion don't get out of bed for days afterward. Yet the morning after his IV, Yates was hunched over his textbooks. "I don't have time to be tired," he says. In the days after Yates has had an infusion, Becerra tries to limit his reps in practice, over the protests of his goalie. "I don't like special treatment," Yates says. "Just let me play." Soccer is not just an escape, it's part of his healing process. "The best I ever feel is when I'm on the field," he says. "Maybe it's the endorphins and the adrenaline. Maybe it's just because I'm having so much fun."
Soccer has long been an important part of his life. Incessantly sick as a baby, Tyler was finally given an accurate diagnosis at 20 months of age. Doctors told Suzie that they expected her son to be dead by age five. Living sequestered in a sterile environment, Tyler made it to his fifth birthday but shortly thereafter fell into what his mom calls "a deep, deep depression. He would sit at the window all day watching other kids play." Suzie took Tyler to see his pediatrician, who finally set him free. The good doctor's prescription? Go play in the mud. Go get dirty.
"It was raining so hard that day," says Suzie. "We ran out of the doctor's office, found the biggest puddle and just rolled around in the mud. We threw it at each other, laughing and crying at the same time. From that day on things were O.K."
Tyler quickly moved from the mud to the green grass of a soccer field. Isolated between the pipes, goalkeeper was the perfect position for him: integral to the action but often removed from the fray. He played year round on club teams--he was always the captain--and as a sophomore and junior at Chico High he led his team to sectional championships.
On the way to becoming a strapping 6 feet, 225 pounds, Yates adopted an aggressive, physical style of play with an apparent disregard for his own safety. "People come into the box, I'm not gonna back down," he says. As a result he has suffered two concussions, a sprained Achilles tendon, several broken fingers and a hairline fracture of his left ankle. These and other injuries have all been treated without complication. To sterilize any nick, scratch, cut or abrasion Yates carries alcohol, peroxide and antibiotic ointment in his gym bag. Of course, he never worries about an injury until after practice or a game. "On the field all I think about is stopping the ball. I deal with the damage later."
Last season he appeared in only two games, as Redlands won its fourth-straight Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title. Though he's still stuck behind Andrew Roraff--who as a freshman in 2004 established a school record with an infinitesimal 0.316 goals-against average--Yates has played in four games so far this year, getting his first career start on Oct. 5, in an 8-0 win over Caltech. "He's making great strides," says Becerra. "He's always been a big boy with a big wingspan, but his footwork and quickness have improved dramatically. I believe that Tyler could start for five of the eight teams in our conference."
Yates chose Redlands for academic reasons. He is a molecular biology major on his way to becoming a pediatric immunologist. "I want to give other kids hope," he says. He already provides plenty of inspiration.
"The love affair Tyler has with soccer is just contagious," says Becerra. "His contributions to the team are tremendous, the way he motivates and inspires the guys. They see Tyler busting his butt in practice, and suddenly their little aches and pains aren't such a big deal."
There is nothing out of the ordinary about Molly McKesson, except perhaps her long blonde ponytail. It certainly looks funny popping out of her cap as she stands in the middle of a baseball diamond. Last spring, as a freshman relief pitcher at Division II Christian Brothers University in Memphis, she became one of the few women to have won an NCAA baseball game. The 5'8", 135-pound righthander entered a tie game against Bethel College of McKenzie, Tenn., at the start of the seventh inning and, mixing her 73-mph fastball with some nasty junk, threw two scoreless innings, striking out one batter and getting a clutch double-play grounder to end the eighth inning. After Christian Brothers rallied for the win, McKesson was presented with a game ball by her teammates, but the historic dimension of her victory went otherwise unacknowledged. Says fellow pitcher Brooks Meadows, "It was just another player getting a win. If you make a big deal, it turns her into a special case, which no one wants, especially Molly."
McKesson has been just one of the guys since her childhood, when she played catch in the backyard with her father, Robert, and older brother, Kevin. As she continued to pitch, in Little League and then at Gibbs High in St. Petersburg, she was perplexed by suggestions that she switch to softball. "I'm a baseball player," she says. "That's a different sport." As her solid high school career wound down, McKesson was "dead set on playing college ball," she says. "I wasn't ready for my career to end. I loved the game way too much."
So as a senior she attended a showcase for Florida high school talent. There were 175 players and 50 coaches at the camp, and she was the only woman. In an intrasquad game she threw two perfect innings, impressing Christian Brothers coach Phil Goodwin with her moxie and her circle change, which he calls "probably the best I've ever seen. It gets up to the plate and just vaporizes."
Sure that McKesson could be effective in relief, Goodwin offered her a partial scholarship. "I'm really proud of that," she says. "I'm not a walk-on, like some assume."
Her arrival at Christian Brothers evoked mixed reactions from her new teammates. Fellow pitcher Charlie Sockup told the St. Petersburg Times that McKesson's presence was a "publicity stunt" that made "a mockery of the game." It didn't take long for McKesson to start earning the acceptance of her teammates. "She won everybody over with her work ethic and her desire," says Meadows. She didn't expect special treatment, and she didn't receive any. McKesson's take is simple: "You earn respect by striking out guys in practice."
Most of her fellow pitchers have fastballs that top out in the mid- to high 80s. Lacking that kind of power, McKesson relies on precision and ball movement, with a repertoire of pitches that comprises that circle change, a splitter, a four-seam fastball that runs away from righthanded batters, a two-seamer that runs in and a 12-to-6 curveball--"what I call the great equalizer," says her private pitching coach, Tony Ferreira, who in 1985 had a cup of coffee with the Kansas City Royals as a lefty reliever.
Though McKesson had to endure typical freshman hazing such as having to carry equipment bags, she says she knew she belonged when her teammates stopped censoring their language around her. Still, there's no escaping the male-female dynamic when she's on the mound. In a preseason game last month against Crichton College of Memphis, McKesson took the ball in the fifth inning of a tie game, and the opposing dugout immediately began to buzz. McKesson has a smooth delivery with a very high leg kick that calls to mind Trevor Hoffman. Crichton rightfielder Chad Greenlee might have preferred to face the San Diego Padres' closer. "Everybody was saying, 'Just think of her as another dude up there and hit the ball,'" he says. "I was real nervous about having to face her. You strike out, and that goes down in history."
Greenlee is off the hook; he walked on four pitches with the bases loaded, forcing home one of the three unearned runs McKesson gave up in two thirds of an inning. She chalked up the loss as another learning experience. As a freshman she went 1-1 with a 4.50 ERA in only six appearances. "I hope I will have a bigger role this year," she says. "I want to contribute."
She already has. Says Goodwin, "I've got hundreds of former players out there in the business world. The best comment I've heard in all of this is, What better tool is there to prepare these young men for the real world? Because they're going to be competing against women in corporate America."
For now McKesson's goal is to keep wearing spikes, not heels. She says she would love to get a shot at pitching in the minor leagues or overseas. If that doesn't work out, she thinks it would be a blast to work for a major league team. Her applied-psychology major focuses on group dynamics in large corporations. What better training could there be for a job in the front office of the New York Yankees?
To see how exhausting and thankless the life of a Division III coach can be, you have to get up before the sun and travel to the hardscrabble East New York section of Brooklyn. There, on the first floor of an imposing building set in a row of warehouses and garages, are the offices of a New York City Police Department warrant squad, which tracks down perps with outstanding arrest and bench warrants. Tucked into a corner behind a thick blue metal door is the office of the commanding officer, Capt. Susan Cassidy, called Cap by the 66 investigators, eight sergeants and two lieutenants she oversees--and Coach by the two teams of college athletes she commands.
On this October day Cassidy, 40, has been at her desk since 6 a.m., having awakened in her home in Hicksville, N.Y., at 4:15. On her desk is a bag of potato chips. "Breakfast," she says. Cassidy's job involves a lot of paperwork, but when her squad has to "forcibly take down a door," as she puts it in a Long Island accent as thick as a good marinara, she hits the pavement to supervise, her .38 Smith and Wesson strapped to her belt.
She is a small woman (5'4", 115 pounds) with an amazing motor. At Division II Molloy College, in Rockville Centre, N.Y., she was a standout point guard and shortstop; her .462 batting average as a sophomore was almost as impressive as the 3.87 GPA with which she finished college at age 20. (Did we mention she also edited the school newspaper?) After graduating, she joined the NYPD, following in the footsteps of her father, Ray, a homicide detective for 10 of his 22 years on the force.
With the competitiveness of an elite athlete, Cassidy has moved effortlessly through the NYPD's macho culture. She made sergeant at 24 and lieutenant at 32, along the way earning a master's degree in criminal justice from John Jay College. By 36 she had reached captain. All of this would be impressive enough even if Cassidy hadn't held down two coaching jobs throughout most of her police career.
In 1991 she began coaching softball at Holy Trinity High in Hicksville, where she created a dynasty that would win 10 league titles with a 285-87 record. In '97 Cassidy began double-dipping, also coaching volleyball at Division II C.W. Post in Brookville, Long Island. This June, Cassidy left Holy Trinity to run the softball program at Molloy. She's paid $11,000 by each college.
After clocking out in Brooklyn at 3:30 p.m. Cassidy hops in her car and makes the drive to Brookville for C.W. Post's game against Mercy College. In bad traffic this journey can take up to two hours, but on this day Cassidy makes it in 45 minutes. "Thank God for the Jewish holidays," she says. At five she meets a visiting recruit and her parents. (C.W. Post gives her only 4.1 scholarships even though the D-II maximum is eight.)
When the 7 p.m. match begins, only three dozen spectators are on hand, but Cassidy watches with the intensity that might be expected from someone whose heroes are Pete Rose and Pat Riley. Her Pioneers lose a heartbreaker, falling 16-14 in the fifth set. For Cassidy there is no time to stew. The match ends at 8:50, and five minutes later she's back in her car, heading for the take-out lane at Wendy's. "I have very bad eating habits, because I always have to eat in the car," she says. "I should be, like, 900 pounds."
At 9:30 Cassidy screeches into the Molloy parking lot for softball practice in the gym. Soon she is hectoring her players mercilessly. Any drill not done with precision is repeated. And repeated. "I'm a perfectionist to a fault," she says. "I will drill these kids until they get it right." Unhappy with what she sees from the heavy-lidded students, Cassidy orders them to run two miles.
When practice ends, at 11:30, Cassidy finally heads for home. She greets her hubby, John Lyke, a retired police lieutenant, a little after midnight. After half an hour of chitchat she conks out. "Four hours of sleep are pretty good for me," Cassidy says, but she won't even get that. Her alarm will go off, as usual, at 4:15 a.m.
Small-school athletes are often dismissed as short, slow, untalented kids. But some of them have had MONSTER PRO CAREERS.
In D-III, athletes must cobble together tuition from loans, grants and academic scholarships, to say nothing of MOM AND DAD.
"Tyler's like the boy in the bubble," says his coach, "except that he's chosen to EXPERIENCE THE WORLD despite the risks."
McKesson didn't expect special treatment, and she didn't receive any. "You earn respect," she says, "by STRIKING OUT GUYS."
The life of a D-III coach can be EXHAUSTING AND THANKLESS. "I have to eat in the car," Cassidy says. "I should be 900 pounds."
Before the homecoming game Majors was escorted onto the field by the homecoming queen.
The Gorillas piled up points against overmatched Emporia State by just handing the ball to their star rusher, Race.
A future Pittsburg State cheerleader sneaks a peek at the action with a little help from the boys.
Sullivan raises pheasants to help pay for school--and football.
With help from Suzie and an IV, Tyler gets a sense of normalcy from soccer.
McKesson won over her male teammates with her work ethic and tough pitches.
Cassidy is a natural leader of both police officers and athletes.