I was asked a few weeks ago if I would be interested in writing a story for Elon University’s alumni magazine about the magical season then unfolding for the Phoenix football team. As a former (or reformed) sports writer from my newspaper past and a sometime contributor to the Magazine of Elon I was a logical choice. Still I was flattered to be asked.
Without hesitation I jumped at the opportunity. It’s a great worst to (almost) first story.
I had monitored the football team’s progress almost since the day new coach Curt Cignetti was hired at Elon in January. His arrival roughly coincided with my own at Elon. In fact, Cignetti and many of his assistant coaches were in the same introduction to Elon culture orientation session with me. The head coach was in and out of the full morning program but I shared a table with Ryan Smith, someone I met at my first College Coffee on Jan. 31. Also at the orientation table were defensive coordinator Tony Trisciani and receivers coach Mike Shanahan. I remember Ryan, who arrived from Penn State to coach defensive backs, telling me at College Coffee that he was already showing recruits around Elon but was still very unfamiliar with the campus itself and could use more information. I advised him to sign up for the tour Elon’s Admissions Office offers to prospective students and their parents. I had just taken the tour myself and found it very helpful. I’m not sure if he took that advice, but I like to think he did.
So when the team had early success it got my attention. It helped confirm my suspicion in 2016 that Elon probably had more talent in the program than its 2-9 record that year indicated. And it wasn’t so much that they were now winning in 2017, but how they were winning. Starting with the Furman game in September — sealed with a late field goal by a freshman kicker — the Phoenix won a succession of close games determined by last-second heroics like blocked field goals or late touchdowns or clutch special teams play. It reminded me of the incredible 2006 season turned in by the Wake Forest football team en route to its 2006 ACC championship and Orange Bowl berth.
As Elon’s wins piled up, so did my interest. I attended a couple of games, followed my friend and former colleague Adam Smith’s coverage on Twitter and read his comprehensive stories about players, coaches and games in my former newspaper, t he Burlington Times-News. The team also began to generate conversation on campus — something that grew as the season progressed. The Parents Weekend and Homecoming Weekend crowds at Rhodes Stadium were the largest this side of the exciting series Elon had with Appalachian State before those budding rivals both left the Southern Conference. Eight straight wins and a top 10 national ranking for a previously struggling program grabs attention.
I was interested in the team and how it turned things around. I wanted to tell that story so the magazine assignment had great appeal. It had a few other things going for it, too. I was offered an all-access pass to the final regular season game with James Madison by Dan Anderson, the vice president for University Communications, Dan said this would allow me to walk the sidelines or visit the Rhodes Stadium press box. I liked both options but opted for the latter to watch Elon’s game with the No. 1 FCS ranked and unbeaten Dukes. One, I had never seen the inside of the Rhodes Stadium press box. When I was a sports writer, Elon still played home games in Burlington Memorial Stadium at Williams High School. And two, this would also be the first time I visited a college football press box of any kind since I volunteered to cover a Wake Forest-Virginia football game in what was then called Groves Stadium (now BB&T Field) in Winston-Salem. That was in 1990 when I was no longer working in sports but as a city editor for the Burlington Times-News. That particular Virginia team was ranked No. 1 in the nation with quarterback Shawn Moore. I figured it would be my last chance to see a No. 1 football team and write about it for a newspaper.
I figured correctly.
A working press box is not the kind of place I would just drop in for a visit. Sports writers are part of a club. Within North Carolina most either know or know of each other. They wind up in the same press boxes or rooms week after week. When teams are playing conference games the writers usually know the writers who cover the opposing teams in other states. They’re familiar with the athletic department officials for all the schools in the conference. The chat is friendly often escalating into jokes and witty banter. This back and forth can get competitive in person and on Twitter. It’s fun but still a working atmosphere, though. Cheering or jeering are both discouraged. Grazing on the gameday spread by non-working visitors is frowned upon. Members of the working press are expected to conduct themselves as professionals, not fans.
I made my return to a college football stadium press box after a 27-year absence on Nov. 18. Elon’s winning streak had ended the previous week at eight on the road at New Hampshire. The narrow loss came amid a flurry of missed touchdown opportunities and field goals. Everything that broke right for Elon in the previous eight games, broke wrong in windy and frosty New Hampshire.
Still, the Nov. 18 assignment against formidable James Madison was for the Colonial Athletic Association regular season title. The Dukes were the defending CAA champions, reigning FCS title-holders and unbeaten over the last two years. It was a problematic assignment for Elon. I settled in between Adam Smith and a student writer for Elon News to watch one of the biggest games in the 17-year history of Rhodes Stadium. Adam filled me in on small details about the season I might not be aware or colorfully amplified those I did. At one point he gestured to the field where the freshman placekicker was lining up for a field goal. Adam was quick to note that he had missed his share of field goals and extra points but made some big ones, too. “This encapsulates the whole season — always a Maalox moment,” he said. Before the game I asked the Elon student to my left the biggest difference between Elon this year and last. “They have a quarterback who can throw the ball,” he said. “Last year the offense held them back.”
On the field this day there was no holding back James Madison. While the Phoenix appeared to be a team on the rise, the Dukes were an experienced, strong, quick, big and imposing squad at the plateau Elon hopes to reach. The 31-3 outcome indicated the Phoenix have some rising still to do, but the difference is well within grasp. James Madison is a great small college football team. I believe if Elon stays on its current course set by Cignetti it can get to that level.
Elon’s season came to an end this past weekend with a heartbreaking 28-27 loss in the first round of the FCS playoffs to Furman, a team it defeated earlier this year on a last-second field goal. The margin of victory for the Paladins secured when it blocked an extra point by the kicker who defeated them in September. Irony.
I wasn’t able to make it to Rhodes Stadium for the game on Saturday. I had a family memorial to attend. We buried the ashes of my deceased aunt and uncle in the Taylor plot within the Danbury Cemetery. My aunt passed away in 2016 but my uncle never got around to having her ashes placed there before he left us in October. My cousins felt Thanksgiving weekend the best time to get all of our family members together. It was.
Even though Elon dropped its last three games, it was a miraculous comeback from the puzzling freefall of 2016. The turnaround is still a fascinating and interesting story I’ll be writing for the Magazine of Elon. I look forward to speaking with the coaches and players about the months of preparation it took to turn a 2-9 disaster into an 8-4 triumph. Football is like anything else, success is predicated on multiple things coming together, including talent, skill, preparation, luck and, well, irony.
And I’m glad to have one more chance to sit in a working college football press box. It was nice to be part of the club again — at least for one afternoon.