It’s just a football game, one might say about Friday’s 1-AA title match between the Montana Grizzlies and the Furman Paladins in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Just another piece of hype in a culture that celebrates athletic achievement over humanistic endeavors, another occasion for glorifying big, fast men who spend three hours every weekend beating the tar out of one another–and who get disproportionately compensated for their efforts.
Lord knows, those who hold disdain for the deification of athletes in our society are justified on all counts. But before this clash of would-be champions is written off as the folderol of a misguided age, there are two factors surrounding this particular game that are worth noting.
Both operate under the assumption that sporting events, in their purest forms, illuminate and inform us of certain core aspects of the human condition. Through participation in sports we learn the value of discipline, the machinery of cooperation, the practical ability to accept success and failure. Furthermore, observers of sporting events–in particular, those with communal ties to its participants–vicariously share in the hard-won (and hard-lost) experiences of their team.
Although division 1-AA football is not entirely removed from the commercial bastardization of sports–as revenue generators, Grizzly football players are showered with benefits largely unavailable to other students, such as scholarships and state-of-the-art facilities–the level of competition is muted enough to deny all but a select few the advancement of their athletic careers to professional sports, where the achievement-to-payoff ratio becomes truly absurd.
The overwhelming majority of these Grizzly football players have reached the pinnacle of their athletic careers. Consequently, the strength of their individual performances has been stripped of all meaning, save for how those performances fit together with the effort to achieve a team victory. The old adage that “there is no ‘I’ in ‘team’” rings especially true for this group, buttressed by the cold reality that for most of them, there is no “I” in “NFL” either.
The second factor worth considering here is the makeup of this Grizzly team, a decidedly different group than the one that won it all in 1995. This team, in fact, differs greatly from the unit that challenged Georgia Southern for the crown last year before coming up heartbreakingly short in a Chattanooga monsoon.
The ’95 team hung their hat on the arm and wiles of quarterback Dave Dickenson, arguably the greatest football player ever to don the Griz colors. Though not blessed with the physical stature nor arm strength perceived as necessary to become a dominant player in a sport ruled by giants, Dickenson parlayed a combination of sheer moxie and grace under pressure into a college career that defined greatness at this level. Then-coach Don Read ably recognized Dickenson’s ability to raise his team’s level of play, and tailored the starting lineup and play selection to suit his wunderkind’s strengths.
The 2000 squad, under first-year coach Joe Glenn, originally looked to repeat the ’95 accomplishments, with BYU transfer Drew Miller playing Dickenson’s role. Gifted passer though he was, however, Miller could not stay healthy enough over the course of the season to shoulder the burden of his team’s identity. That task fell to running back Yohance Humphrey and the defense, who rode a series of increasingly gutsy performances to become the top unit in the Big Sky Conference. The team’s bread-and-butter of rushing and defense was the chief reason they nearly pulled off a stunning comeback in the title game after losing Miller to a first-quarter injury.
The 2001 team entered the season as the first Grizzly squad in at least a decade without a clear-cut stud at quarterback, with neither de-facto starter John Edwards nor frequently-used backup Brandon Neill displaying enough dominance to lay permanent claim to the position. This situation paved the way for Humphrey to take charge of an offense that for years had made aerial attacks its modus operandi, an opportunity that the senior running back responded to with a jaw-dropping year (2,300 total yards, 23 TDs). The defense, led by safety Vince Hunstberger and defensive end Ciche Pitcher, again made huge contributions.
The result: a Griz team that is more multi-dimensional that any in recent years, allowing coach Glenn and his assistants to tailor their game plan to the weaknesses of opposing teams rather than the single strength of their own. That flexibility was a huge factor in each of this year’s playoff games. Game one saw a scrappy Northwestern State squad nearly humble the top-ranked Griz, who were saved by Humphrey’s steady production, Neill’s inspired play in relief of an ineffective Edwards, and a couple of standout punt returns by freshman Levander Segars.
Game two witnessed the resurgence of Edwards, who rode the brilliant, screen-pass heavy game plan to a huge first half in a trouncing of Sam Houston State. And in the semifinals, both Edwards and Humphrey brutalized Northern Iowa on the ground, with the defense rising to the occasion with an ever-so-rare shutout.
This is a team that’s riding into the playoffs on a roll, with a recent history of winning whatever aspect of the game needs to be won. They have nothing to lose on Friday, which makes them one hell of an emotional investment.