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SEVERAL HOURS before the NCAA Division I-AA football title game in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which was scheduled for 2 p.m. on Saturday, December 19, the Georgia Southern University party was in full swing. When you hear "Mustang Sally" blaring at that hour of the day, you might conclude that the party probably started the day before. This party was taking place in the Chasetel Pavilion, a modern, block-long structure of steel and glass open to the height of three stories. Approximately 13,000 GSU fans would show up for the game, and many of them were already celebrating what they took to be a foregone conclusion. After a 2-9 season last year, UMass's participation in the championship game was being touted as a Cinderella story, but this day was shaping up more like Rodney Dangerfield "We get no respect!" in cracked glass slippers.
The UMass alumni and team parents (counted in the dozens, rather than thousands) gathered in the pavilion's annex. A windowless, red brick, nineteenth-century warehouse, with gates of chain-link substituting for doors, the annex crouched, damp and dwarfed, behind the pavilion proper. A cold rain pelted down, and the roof above the dingy wooden rafters leaked copiously. A river of water ran across the floor where a silent sump pump lay, having given up or never been put to use. Perhaps they couldn't find an extension cord long enough to reach from the main building, for there was no electrical service in the annex.
None of this is to criticize the tournament's hosts. To create a stadium and football facilities that must be the best among Division I-AA teams, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga has carved out a site far from the campus in a decaying industrial area near Interstate 24. Some of the relics of bygone industry, like the annex, are in the midst of rehabilitation. The choicer facilities democratically went to the majority: GSU was bringing many fans, while UMass didn't sell out its allotted 1,000 tickets.
Despite the accommodations, a current of quiet confidence and happy anticipation ran through the crowd of UMass fans. They seemed as oblivious to the dismal surroundings as they were to the few GSU fans who came over to leer through the fencing and heckle, a sorry result of the collision of young men and beer.
The rain could have been interpreted as a sign of trouble for UMass's passing offense, but Mike Hodges of Leverett,
formerly the Minutemen's head football coach and here for the game, would hear none of it. Like a man withholding a wonderful secret, he could barely contain his joy. "They always say that about passing teams, but, let me tell you, this team will find a way to score. Each and every one of these boys believes he can win this game or he wouldn't be here."
Akin Ayi, father of starting outside linebacker Kole Ayi, was ebullient. "For a father to see his son in a championship game, it's unbelievable," said Akin, who was there with Kole's grandparents and mother Kristy. "I will enjoy this game win or lose. As far as I'm concerned, my son and his team are already winners."
Claudio Zullo, brother to freshman wide receiver Adrian Zullo, said, "This is the kind of game where Adrian steps up. You're going to see him make some big plays today." Claudio was there with Adrian's stepfather, Willy Glantz, his stepsister, Lila, and his stepbrother, Ary. The family had driven to this game from their home near Pompano Beach, Florida just as they had driven to all the playoff games, logging well over a thousand miles as they traveled to Louisiana to see UMass beat McNeese State, to Massachusetts for the win over Lehigh (see Around the Pond, page four), then back to Louisiana to catch the Minutemen's defeat of Northwestern State. This time, Adrian's mom, Stella, couldn't come along. Her father had died that week, and she was in Argentina with her family.
W HILE UMASS FANS from Ayi to Zullo and from New Hampshire to Florida were struggling to keep their feet dry, the party over at the pavilion was heating up. The GSU cheerleaders had arrived along with the marching band. The cheerleaders, stacked high in the air in their spacious arena, led chants of "Do it again, do it again!" while the band blared out fight songs.
The UMass marching band, winner of the Sudler Trophy, the top national honor for collegiate marching bands (see Fall '98 issue), did not appear for the pre-game party. There had been some hesitation about sending them at all, because of the cost and the timing: the Minutemen's Division I basketball team was taking on Detroit at home that night, and it was finals week. The band had finally been scheduled on an 11 p.m. flight, but had been delayed and hadn't arrived in town until 8 in the morning. They'd had only a few hours to rest before suiting up and getting to the stadium, peppy as ever.
UMass's only other appearance at the Division I-AA football championships was at the inaugural game in 1978, when it lost to Florida A&M. The GSU fans, by contrast, were clearly anticipating their fifth championship in their sixth appearance at the title game. After all, oddsmakers were giving UMass 17 and a half points; UMass was the eleventh seed in the tournament, facing the number one seed; UMass's star running back, Marcel Shipp, was compared unfavorably to GSU's All-American running back, Adrian Peterson; and so on. UMass had been dissed all week, with coaches and players subjected to talk from their opponents and hosts (who are part of the Southern Conference along with GSU) about how they didn't have a chance. To all this talk, the UMass team replied not a word.
Vendors did a brisk business with tee-shirts that read, "Georgia Southern NCAA Division I-AA Football Champions, 1998." As Mr. Rogers might comment, "Can you say, `hubris'?"
As game time approached, the rain slackened and finally quit, leaving the air damp and raw, yet much improved. Mike Hodges stood outside greeting alumni, his smile improbably wider. Apparently, the clearing weather was another secret he'd kept up his sleeve.
There was still one more inauspicious sign to endure. At game time, with the opposing teams lined up across the field for the kickoff, the start was delayed for an interminable three minutes as officials waited for the signal from ESPN. The sports channel was broadcasting a Tennessee South Florida college basketball game that was straggling toward overtime. Adrian Zullo, who was back deep to return, bounced like a pogo stick as the wait went on. Finally, the basketball game's regulation time ran out and the football game began, with live coverage of the kickoff. After that, ESPN, cut back to cover the basketball game, and only returned for full coverage of the football game late in the first quarter.
I T WAS A SHAME television viewers missed most of the first quarter because, although the game was far from over, the tone was set, and the first-quarter statistics told the story. The score was 21 to 7. Marcel Shipp had run for 61 yards and one touchdown for UMass, while the All-American Peterson of GSU was held to minus 25 yards. And the other two UMass touchdowns? One was provided by Kole Ayi on a fumble recoveries, and the other by Adrian Zullo. Apparently, Ayi wasn't going to settle for just being in the championship game, and Zullo seemed out to "step up" as his brother predicted.
The near-capacity crowd on the GSU side of the stands was quiet. Their team, 14 and 0 until this game, had never been behind all year. But they had never played a team with the intensity, talent, and desire of the Minutemen.
At halftime, the score was UMass 38, GSU 21. The small contingent of UMass fans was hoarse by the time the Minuteman Marching band took the field. "Now the game starts," croaked Willy Glantz, "Right now. In these two quarters, we will see who wins the game."
GSU made it interesting in the third quarter, battling back to within five points, but they just couldn't contain UMass and Marcel Shipp, who ended the day with a championship game record of 244 yards on a record 35 carries. Indeed, it was a day of lofty records. With a final score of 55-43, it was the highest total score in championship history, and the combined yards rushing and passing for both teams was another record total.
The greatest statistic of the day was that when the clock ticked off the final second, UMass had its second national athletic championship. (The first was won by the women's lacrosse team in 1981.) Most of the GSU fans had already left the stadium, while the UMass fans, the team, and the marching band joined in pandemonium on the field.
The striped-shirted game officials went up to the press box to enjoy the show. One of the referees, looking down on the celebration with delight, said, "This is what it's all about. There's got to be a winner." He peered through his bifocals at a Massachusetts press credential and asked the wearer, "Do you know anything about this team's schedule? Who was it that beat them?" When told that the team had three defeats in the season and who beat them (Delaware and Connecticut, twice), he was incredulous. He could not believe that any team had ever beaten the team he had just seen on the field below.
The GSU team was having its own disconnect from reality. They sat in the post-game press conference with glazed eyes. When asked by a Sports Illustrated reporter whether this game wasn't just one of those "magical moments" that sometimes occur in sports, Paul Johnson, the GSU coach, replied, "The only magic I know about is that we dropped the ball six times, and every time we dropped it, a UMass player picked it up." Quarterback Greg Hill similarly dismissed excuses. "Was the ball wet?" one reporter asked. "Was that a problem?" Hill said, "The ball wasn't a problem, we just didn't squeeze it hard enough."
C OACH MARK WHIPPLE showed up for the UMass portion of the press conference with quarterback Todd Bankhead, Ayi, Shipp, and Khari Samuel an All-American linebacker in his last season at UMass as well as his nine-year-old son, Austin. When Whipple came to UMass a year ago in December, he'd declared that his goal was a national championship. Asked about this prophecy now, he shrugged, "That's why you play. You want to be the best." Shipp was told he'd broken the rushing record, and a broad smile came over his face, but he quickly stifled it. The Minutemen were holding their joy in check for this conference. They'd been vindicated, but they hadn't come to gloat. They'd been coached not only to victory, but to victory with class.
At the annex, the team joined alumni and parents for a post-game reception. Adrian Zullo sported a white, national champions' cap. At 5' 7" and 150 pounds, Adrian is the smallest of the Minutemen, and out of uniform looks smaller than his reported size. He'd been credited with one touchdown, and had another called back. He shrugged off the referee's call. "It still counts as a win," he said with a smile.
The abandoned, brightly lit pavilion next door lent its light to the dark annex. In the glow, diffused by the damp air, the annex's red brick became a warm maroon, matching the uniforms of the marching band. The band drew near in close order, fanned out and formed ranks to face the UMass families their polished brass instruments gleaming in the dim light and presented a musical salute. Everyone had a bus or plane to catch. The everyday world beckoned. In that world, on that same day, while we were otherwise blissfully occupied, our president had been impeached and U.S. war planes had dropped bombs on Iraq. In Chattanooga, everyone lingered to listen to the music, to hug someone, to share a high-five, to bask in the dream, and celebrate something truly fine.
- Leslie Wolfe `80G