As November comes into full swing, college football schedules start fragmenting into every conceivable day of the week in an effort to boost television ratings and exposure. The MAC conference, specifically, pencils in an extensive menu of Tuesday and Wednesday night games in November to satisfy the football fanatic. While some may lament the expansion of the game into random weekday time slots, I, for one, embrace it. It enables me to catch a handful of extra games during the season, in some locations that may not otherwise merit a full weekend.
With a Wednesday night matchup scheduled against Ball State, The University of Massachusetts Amherst presented one such opportunity for me this fall. As newcomers to the MAC conference and FBS at large, the Minutemen are still feeling their way into big time college football. As a successful and prideful Division 1-AA team, the promotion to FBS has come with a considerable amount of controversy from the local populous. Alumni and sportswriters alike have have grumbled at the initial foibles as the Minutemen struggle to find an identity in their new environs and have suffered more than a handful of boneheaded defeats. These struggles, coupled with the fact that they have played their first season and a half of games at Gillette Stadium, the New England Patriots NFL monolith located nearly two hours away from the Amherst campus, and supporters were getting restless in Amherst.
Despite growing up in the shadow of the Amherst campus, a stone’s throw across the Connecticut River, I had never been to a football game at UMass before. We had season tickets to UMass basketball growing up, watching the team emerge from an obscure program in the tiny Curry Hicks Cage gymnasium to a brief stint as a final four juggernaut during the heyday of the John Calipari era. But despite driving by the beige concrete grandstands of McGuirk Alumni Stadium along highway 116 hundreds of times during the past three decades, I had never seen a down of football there. Having chased football all over the country for the past six seasons, tonight would be a “homecoming” of sorts for me.
A short drive from New Hampshire, I poke my way down to Amherst after work on Wednesday night, through the winding county highways of Western Massachusetts. The last few glints of fall foliage hang loosely from the mixed hardwood forests as I press over the final few miles of Route 202 – the Daniel Shays Highway. Named for the leader of the Shay’s Rebellion, an uprising by rural farmers in the area in 1786, the movement was a revolt against the harsh taxes levied by the heavily indebted State (and Federal) governments shortly following the Revolutionary War.
Although the rebellion, which numbered some 4,000 strong, was ultimately crushed, they succeeded in eliminating some of the burdensome taxes. Shay’s Rebellion would later influence lasting changes in the U.S. Constitution regarding the powers of State and Federal governments. Most famously, the insurrection would inspire Thomas Jefferson’s penned line – “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”
History lesson complete, I connect with my mother in the parking lot of a local pub, and we leave vehicles for the short walk over to McGuirk Stadium. Along for her annual adventure on the Pigskin Pursuit, Mom had braved the six minute drive from here office right in Amherst, and had even scored a pair of free tickets from a generous coworker. Bundled up for the brisk night ahead in multiple layers of fleece, she gently prods me that next year she’d prefer to meet in Texas for a game and some proper barbecue to go with it.
Approaching McGuirk, the “stadium” is little more than a pair of concrete bleachers that would be dwarfed by a few of the high school games I’ve witnessed. While I have come to appreciate the charm of smaller programs in the MAC, the UMass facilities are woefully inadequate compared to their conference brethren. There are no concession stands to speak of, no souvenir shops, nor even plumbing for that matter. The only restroom facilities are a row of port-o-pottys crammed beneath the bleachers, quite a disgusting adventure in the daytime, never mind after dark. Further, the student sections are poorly demarcated, so groups of wandering students end up mingling into the general seating area which inevitably lead to grumbles from the “down in front” crowd. If the program wants to be taken seriously in the FBS, these glaring facility shortcomings will need to be addressed.
Shortly after the opening whistle, the Minutemen take to the skies under the high flying offense of head coach Mark Whipple. Quarterback Blake Frohnapfel zips the ball down the field, and in three quick plays the Minutemen take exactly 1:02 to score their first touchdown. While the game would slow to a more relaxed pace from there, the hapless Ball State Cardinal defense could do nothing to stop the relentless UMass attack, which racks up nearly 569 yards on the day. Frohnapfel, demonstrating some nice touch on a few deep balls, would account for 424 of those yards while connecting with his favorite target – wide receiver Tajae Sharp. Sharpe, a 6-4”, 200lb behemoth with a body ready for the NFL, would catch 13 passes in all, totaling 269 yards on the day. While the “Zoo” has had their struggles for the year, including a handful of last minute defeats on bone headed coaching decisions, the squad on this Tuesday night thoroughly trounce Ball State. In the end, the Minutemen run away with a more dominating win than the final score of 24-10 would belie.
Thanks to Bob and his wife for making an appearance at the UMass game, and hope you enjoyed your brief visit to Western Massachusetts! I look forward to crossing paths a few more times next year!
Thanks Mom, for coming along with me for yet another year on this crazy adventure! I promise next year we’ll try to find something a bit warmer for you this time around, with some fully approved barbecue options…
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