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Another season is in the record books for the McDaniel College Green Terror Football Team. It was not the record that we were all hoping for, and I was not able to travel to the last game, which was away. But I watched it on the livestream, and once again I marveled at the grit, resilience, and indefatigable spirit of the players, the coaches, and the fans - parents - who I knew were in the stands. I've come to love all aspects of the culture of this game, but it's the people who make it the best.

First, appreciation must go to the coaches, chief among them Head Coach Michael Dailey, who said yes from the start when approached to have a female art history professor as the first faculty mentor to the team. We reminisce now often about how we were going to "figure it out," and we have. I'm grateful for his patience, his answering of my thousands of questions (I am an academic!), and his embrace of just about every one of my ideas. I have made it a point to get to know the other coaches a bit better this year, though I could have done more on that score. Yet, I know how busy they are.

Second, the parents have been fun to get to know, too. What a hardy bunch! And these people know how to party! I can't name names, but I have been gifted with more sausage, sweets, and alcoholic shots than I have ever in my life. At first, it was overwhelming and I did not know what to say or do, which makes professors as a rule uncomfortable. But as I try to tell my students: lean into what makes you uneasy and take a risk. I am glad that I did so because interacting with the parents has been a joy I did not anticipate when I took on this role.

And finally, but certainly not last, is my appreciation for the students. Among the graduating bunch this year are some of the first players who sought me out when I did not know what I was doing. I don't know why they trusted me, as I hardly think I gave off an attitude of confidence about my role. All I can think is that my desire to help and to support somehow came through. And I listened. By listening I learned so much. Because many people read this blog and because it's public, I will not name their names. However, they will always be among the most important students in my twenty-year teaching career in higher ed. They (hopefully) know who they are. They made me a better professor, by helping me see how they came alive in debates, games, and other active learning in the classroom. Several of them taught me about what it is like to be a black young man navigating today's society and some first-generation students shared with me the angst at the costs they were incurring. They taught me about grit and resilience, which I have blogged about here before. They taught me collectively about teamwork and why that is important.

In the end they have offered me a new way to express my creativity as a professor, a (sometimes) administrator, and a speaker on student athletes and teaching and learning. I've been given a new outlet for the next few years to help guide and shape higher education, specifically on how institutions can better support student athletes holistically at the (NCAA) Division III level. I've spoken at a few institutions, have a book proposal in about my experiences, and will be speaking at the NCAA's Annual Convention in January.

To the entire McDaniel College Football Team: a huge thank you from the faculty mentor. Thanks for making me a member of the team. And when is Spring Ball?!?!

The 2018 Team (photo: Katie Ogorzalek)

To my faculty colleagues: do you remember what it was like when you really did not understand something? Because we have mastered so much to be able to teach in higher education and to produce new scholarly contributions to our disciplines, it may be a long time - in some cases a very long time - since we were literally bewildered by an experience.

I had that experience last week. I went to the preparation meetings for our college football team's planning for their opponent today, Ursinus College. And I was pretty much bewildered. Because I am sick in bed with congestion and cough, I am posting this tribute to what the coaches and players do when readying for a game.

I remember reading a book called How Learning Works and how important it is to ground new information with students' previous experience or content knowledge. Well, now I know how it must feel to come into a class  - a new discipline - with very little previous content knowledge. I mean, I do watch football games. I know the basic rules. But that is nothing like the preparation meetings, where film is analyzed, new plays are created, and old plays modified. While in these meetings, I realized that I really did not have anything concrete, any specific previous experience, on which to "hang" this current information. I don't know the names of the plays or the formations. I could not tell a right hash from a left, without really thinking about it.

Another realization I had from attending that meeting is this: we have great coaches. And coaches teach. I consistently learn a lot from the coaches, even when I am limping along with hardly any background information on which to hang the new material. But the coaches know that the players know the plays. The students know the formations, and so the coaches take them, step by step, building on that previous knowledge, getting them to see the new areas that they need to see and understand. And then, after those meetings, they go out onto the field and practice, combining the physical to the mental images that they just saw on film and in diagrams.

My hat is off to the coaches and the players for all that they do for their sport. It is a lot. And I want every student on our team to know: if you ever go into a class and feel bewildered, that was me today. I'm not too proud to say it or admit it. But it is in not knowing that we learn. And you know I'm gonna be asking questions of the coaches because like I tell the players, "Talk to your professors when you do not understand!" I am living that truth!

Now go out there and beat the Bears!

 

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How did I get from professor, teaching art history, to a consultant, speaking about supporting student athletes? This fall in particular I have been looking back over the steps that got me here. I'm trying to figure out what it is that links them together. And I think I know what it is: curiosity.

I wanted to engage the five football players that I had in my class in Roman Art in the fall of 2015 after I saw them play in a home game. I was curious and wanted to know: what made them tick? What would engage them in my course material in the classroom? I did research, asked questions, took a few risks in the classroom and followed up a year later with them to assess what they learned and what had "stuck." That led to a conference presentation and a published chapter in a book on active learning. All because I was curious.

In the fall of 2016, I went to an away game of the football team in Gettysburg. I had a few more students in my classes and I wanted to see them play after winning at home the week before. So I went. And the next Monday, I was invited to be the faculty mentor to the team. I had no idea what that would entail, but I was curious. So, I said yes. And I had an eager and willing Head Coach, who said he'd figure it out with me.

That was two years ago. I have figured out some of it. What I have figured out so far has led to a book proposal about how faculty and institutions can support student athletes better. Student athletes make up about 40% of our study body, so finding ways to engage them and support them only makes financial sense, if no other reason (like simply wanting to support them because they are our students) comes to mind. And it has led to workshops on supporting student athletes, like my conversations at the Maine Maritime Academy this past March (2018). And later this fall I will consult with Barton College in Wilson, NC, where they plan to add a football team next year.

Most of all, I'm remaining curious. I think that the true mark of intelligence is to realize what you do not know and to be brave enough to ask questions to learn. Right now my curiosity centers around how *exactly* a game plan for the opponent is constructed. I know as I write this on a Sunday morning that the coaches are watching tape. I know from asking players that they will watch and analyze film throughout the week. I know that the game this past Saturday will be analyzed for what went well (shut-out!) and what did not (penalties!).

I hope that the coaches, the players, and the parents (yes, I'm coming at you next!) are ready for my questions. As the students (and coaches) likely know, I ask a lot of questions. As I told the students at one of their summer camp meetings, your curiosity has to be bigger than your fear of looking dumb. And my desire to know outweighs that fear, even if it might be there. So I will keep on asking questions, and keep being curious. Because there is so much more to know!

 

Among the issues I hear from both students and faculty across institutions, including my own, is a statement faculty often make to student athletes who take their classes: “You are not here to play football” (or fill in whatever sport). Faculty say it when players have to miss their class for sports games. Students say they hear it from faculty often. But the truth is, to say they are “not here to play [insert sport here]” is not fully true.

Coaches play an important role in recruiting every incoming class. I knew that intellectually, but I really did not understand how the coaches play an integral role in the recruitment of an incoming class. Until I began to mentor the football team and took a front row seat to the academic cycle of the team and a coach’s life, I did not realize how vital they are to the admissions enterprise. For a college like mine, which is dependent on tuition revenue, student recruitment is key. While we have lots of outreach and marketing, it is often through a coach that a student first learns about an institution and has his or her “first touch.” Coaches want talent for their teams, and they spend a lot of time in high schools recruiting top students. Thus, many times the student’s first interaction with a college institution is through the coach.

In a focus group a few months ago, football players at my institution from a range of years and ethnicity, were asked about why they are at college. They all emphasized that they wanted to get an education. That was the first answer to the question, “Why are you here/Why did you come to college?” Yes, they were first recruited to play their sport by the coaching staff. But they understand what is at stake. They emphasized that they very much love their sport, and to play, but they also want an education.

"Playing football" was not among the answers. Not one single student answered the question “Why are you here/Why did you come to college?” with “to play football” as their first answer. While football may be the reason they looked at this particular college, and while the sport may offer them opportunities through alumni connections, each of these students had their eyes on a larger prize: a college education and a pathway to a job and career. A follow up question about where they might be in five years, students answered by saying “I want to be a spokesman for a company” or “have a steady income.” Other students answered, “having independence financially,” and “finding a career and maybe starting a family.”

Thus, by their own answers, football was not the primary reason that they were in school, and yet, as the book I am currently writing will hopefully demonstrate, playing football is an important identity marker for them, and it is often their ticket to college. Without the team in high school, a coach’s interest, they may not have found a path to college as easily as they did through their sport.

Faculty, perhaps we should be a bit more reflective and interested in our students' sports identity and be more willing to help them make the most out of their four years, in the classroom and on the field.

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