A week with the original Monsters of the Midway.
by Benjamin Recchie, AB’03 | Photography by Jason Smith
WHEN YOU THINK COLLEGE FOOTBALL, the Chicago Maroons probably aren’t the team that first comes to mind. No network broadcasts their games; your local sporting goods store is unlikely to carry Maroons-branded merchandise. Even on campus, the players are mostly anonymous.
If fame and glory aren’t what motivate the 80 members of the football team to commit a sizable fraction of their collegiate life to the sport, then what does? To find out, I—who had never played football, ever—volunteered to spend a week with the University of Chicago Maroons football team.
RICHARD MALONEY IS A BEAR OF A MAN, bluff, friendly, and so quotable they ought to sell page-a-day calendars with his sayings. Also, he loves football. “I tell people I haven’t worked a day in my life,” he says cheerfully, although he’s coached at a slew of universities and in the Canadian Football League. Head coach of the Maroons since 1994, he has turned the team from an afterthought into genuine competitors. Today, he’s the winningest and longest-tenured coach in modern-era Maroons history, second in both categories only to Amos Alonzo Stagg, who coached the team from its inception in 1892 to 1932. In 2010, Chicago was the league champion of the University Athletic Association (UAA), and Maloney wanted to repeat in 2011.
Football is a serious commitment of time for the players, Maloney tells me. Besides the time they spend practicing—capped by the NCAA at no more than four hours per day and 20 hours per week—players show up six weeks ahead of their classmates to begin fall training. For the coaches, football season means spending long hours reviewing film of practices and games, dissecting each player’s performance. And the off-season? “There is no off-season,” Maloney says, “but I know what you’re getting at.” The coaches spend the rest of the year recruiting, trying to find high school seniors with the athletic talent to compete in the UAA and the academic chops to succeed in the Core curriculum.
I knew that I, as a nonstudent, wouldn’t be allowed to play in a game, but I proposed to Maloney that I spend the week practicing with the Maroons, not unlike George Plimpton with the Detroit Lions in 1963. The Department of Physical Education and Athletics liked the idea, but more conservative heads prevailed after checking with the NCAA. Perhaps that was all for the best; Maloney pointed out that it’s one thing to risk injuring yourself playing the sport, but another to risk injuring someone else through your inexperience (which I had in spades). He let me do the next best thing—embed myself with the team during the week leading up to the Maroons’ Homecoming game against Kenyon College, a non-UAA opponent. If I never got to be a football player, he would at least let me dress up like one.
Michael Wilson, the equipment and linebacker coach, eyes my unathletic frame. “You don’t look like a quarterback or a wide receiver,” he says. “You look like you should be on the offensive line.” He finds a linesman’s pads and plops them on top of my shirt. Next, he produces a girdle, pants, belt, kneepads, shoes with fresh cleats, a jersey, helmet, and chinstrap. Hurrying off to a meeting, he leaves me to suit up.
It takes a couple of tries to get the kneepads in their sleeves and get the jersey—number 55, which I later learn normally belongs to second-year Heath Gustafson—over the pads, which connect with a belt and a snap below each armpit. Thus armored, I walk down 56th Street to Stagg Field, cleats clacking on the concrete, feeling conspicuously large. To my embarrassment, I run into a real football player, fourth-year Francis Adarkwa, clad in gym clothes, on his way to the Gerald Ratner Athletics Center.
Maloney has apparently warned the team I’d be hanging around. “Are you playing with us today?” Adarkwa asks hopefully. No, I answer, just trying out the togs. (Over the next few days, several players asked if I was going to play; possibly they wanted me to experience the joy of football firsthand—or wanted someone new to tackle.)
Adarkwa nods and looks at me for a few seconds. “’Cause you’re wearing an offensive jersey but defensive pants.” For practice, offensive players wear a white jersey and black pants; defense, the opposite. Quarterbacks sport a special gold jersey, signifying “do not tackle”; they’re too important to knock down in any context except an actual game. Wilson has inadvertently given me a uniform neither here nor there. Now I feel doubly conspicuous.
On the field, I try to put myself through the motions of a game. I select a trash can on the sidelines and imagine it’s an opposing linebacker. I charge it—and come close to tackling it when I realize I can’t stop. Whether it’s the extra weight of the pads and helmet or the extra traction of the cleats, I don’t know, but I apparently need to learn to run all over again if I want to take up football.
Determined to avoid further embarrassment, I extricate myself from the uniform and return to Stagg to watch practice under gray, unfriendly, occasionally drizzling skies. I find Maloney on the field.
“How’re you doing, Coach?” I ask.
“Any better and I’d be in heaven.” I don’t think he’s joking.
Practice begins with stretching and agility drills, followed by “Chicago jacks”—jumping jacks performed while shouting “C! H! I! C! A! G! O!” The team breaks into its subteams working on particular skills, slowly coalescing into larger and larger groups, until, by the end of practice, a full offense is playing a full defense.
As daylight fades and Stagg Field’s lights start to glow, Maloney attempts to explain the plays to me. Each one, he says, is tailored to a specific down and yardage to go. He estimates there are 110 possible running plays and several hundred possible passing plays. Trying to absorb his knowledge of the sport is like drinking from a fire hose.
Maloney doesn’t seem worried about Saturday’s game; it’s presumably the projected confidence that athletic leadership requires. But he’s not overconfident, either, despite the fact (as I discover later) that their Homecoming opponent, Kenyon College, hasn’t won a game in two years.
“Field pony duck three,” narrates defensive line coach Derric Bath. “Field Pony Rooster Assassin. Field Raven Mike One.”
It’s a cold, wet, blustery day, and Bath is showing film of yesterday’s practice in Ratner’s Jay Berwanger Room, a conference room whose walls hold decades of athletics trophies and awards. (Berwanger’s Heisman Trophy has a place of honor in Ratner’s foyer.)
As he calls off plays—“Rip Pony Rooster. Steeler Three Low.”—Bath quizzes the players. “Rushers, what does a One mean for you?”
“Two-man coverage,” comes the reply.
One player gets up to leave for class. Although practices are scheduled for afternoons and evenings when few courses are held, if practice and a lab session coincide, the player is expected to choose lab.
Twenty hours a week eat up most of a student’s free time. Juggling it all can be a challenge, third-year offensive tackle and econ major John Tabash tells me. “It’s been difficult, going to practice and three or four hours of reading to do after practice.” But “school is job one, football is 1A,” says Maloney. “Notice I didn’t say ‘two.’”
Maloney and the kickoff team come in; the room’s population turns over in less than a minute. He shows his own film, Kenyon kicking off against its opponents. Kenyon keeps trying an onside kick; Maloney warns the team to be on the lookout for such a play Saturday. On another, he points to a Kenyon player who appeared to be out of bounds at the beginning of the play, which the refs missed. “Those Kenyon Lords,” he says with a smile, “you can’t trust ’em!”
Cold rain and strong wind force practice indoors. Everyone suits up and goes to the upper level of Henry Crown. The staff retracts the basketball nets so the quarterbacks can throw the football and players wear tennis shoes instead of cleats, but it’s the same drills as yesterday, just in a more constrained space.
I ask a couple of players—first-year linebacker and econ major Schuyler Montefalco and third-year center and public policy major Matthew Gallery—about the rivalry between offense and defense, what Maloney calls “two competing entities on the same team.” Montefalco describes it as a way to energize practices. “If you go out there and say, ‘We’re on the same team, let’s not go at each other,’ it’s like work. When you go out there, you get to hit somebody and have fun with it, run your mouth…that’s when we play our highest caliber football,” he says. “[Gallery] is the first one to start it every day.”
“The main reason we do it is so that practice is at a high level,” agrees the pillar-like Gallery. “I love those guys. I run my mouth at practice a lot to get people pumped up. It just makes it more fun.”
Offensive line coach John Lizak enters the Berwanger Room bearing reports for each of his players. “I graded last night’s practice based on technique. It was lacking,” he says somewhat sourly. He fires up the projector for Kenyon’s October 1 game against Wabash College. “They’re coached really well in their pass-rush move, but they’re robotic,” he says. “They telegraph.” Pointing to a gap in Kenyon’s defense downfield, he notes, “I hope we get Dee here.” (Star third-year wide receiver Dee Brizzolara, last year’s UAA Offensive MVP, holds a slew of Maroon offensive records.) “Good luck covering him.”
The weather has barely improved since Wednesday, but the team holds practice outside anyway. It isn’t much fun to stand there in the cold drizzle, even in a leather jacket. My fingers grow numb as I take notes. Maloney is wearing shorts.
“It sure is football weather today,” I say to him.
“Any weather is football weather,” he responds. “Some’s just better than others.”
Most Thursdays, the Maroons do what’s called a four-quarters practice, playing a simulated game and acting out likely situations, such as first and ten, or third and long. Because yesterday’s practice was curtailed due to weather, today’s turns more to rehearsing formations and skills.
Practice ends early—women’s soccer needs the field for a game. As always, Maloney concludes with a short pep talk. “Homecoming,” he says simply. Everyone understands that winning, even against a slumping opponent, is a matter of pride. “Bring your A game. Don’t leave this field without a victory.”
A light duty day—no sense in wearing the Maroons out before the season’s biggest game. In the Berwanger Room, Maloney shows the kickoff return team Kenyon’s plays. “I’d rather they just kick it to number 6 right here and take our chances,” he says, referring to Brizzolara. The players tend to call each other by number, a kind of nom de guerre. The coaches, on the other hand, refer to each other as “Coach,” even when the coach in question isn’t there. It’s like the coaching staff is one mind with nine bodies.
Maloney runs yesterday’s practice film. “Hey!” he calls out with mock anger. “Who’s that guy standing in the way?” A figure with red hair and a notebook—me, of course—has wandered into the camera’s field of view and is blocking the action. The players laugh. I hide my head beneath my notebook. “Sorry, Coach.”
Outside, the sun is shining and the air is warm. “What a difference between today and yesterday!” Ernest Moore, the defensive backs coach, calls to me during stretches. (Maloney is back in long pants.) The players wear jerseys and helmets but no pads; there will be no contact today. They look smaller.
The sound of Chicago jacks echoes off the glass wall of the West Campus Combined Utility Plant. Maloney calls the players together to practice their formations. It’s just enough to remind them of where everyone is supposed to be on different calls—“Let’s see Twelve Star Jack Swoosh”—more of a mental checklist, he says.
A player runs up. “Hey, coach, can I go to class?”
“Yeah! Go, learn something!” Maloney answers.
The coach runs through some less frequently used plays—Hail Mary passes and other acts of desperation. In one, the quarterback tosses the ball to a tight end, then runs downfield so the tight end can throw the ball back to him, having escaped the notice of the defense.
“That’s an unusual play, isn’t it?” I venture.
“The double reverse? Yeah, that’s kind of a trick play,” Maloney says nonchalantly.
In no time at all, practice is over.
Homecoming day dawns cool and bright. The worn practice jerseys are gone, the offense and defense now unified by their gleaming uniforms of maroon and white. After stretching and warming up, the players funnel into the team room adjacent to Stagg Field.
With 80 athletes crammed in, it reeks of sweat and dust; the coaches stay away as long as possible. Maloney finally enters: “Everybody take a minute for yourself, please.” Many players bow their heads; several cross themselves. Nobody speaks.
He begins a pregame pep talk that could have been lifted straight from the movies. “I believe in each and every one of you. If I didn’t I wouldn’t have recruited you; if I didn’t you wouldn’t be here.” Then he drops a bombshell: Kenyon College is considering doing away with their winless football program, an echo of the problems that bedeviled Chicago’s football team in the 1930s. A victory against the Maroons might convince Kenyon’s administration that football isn’t a completely lost cause. “They are a wounded animal. If they have pride, which I’m sure they do, they will come out fighting … Every play, earn it. Earn it! EARN IT!” he bellows.
What ensues is a highly charged offensive battle in front of an overflow crowd. The Maroons march methodically down the field and strike first: Brizzolara carries the ball into the end zone, giving him more touchdowns than any Maroon in modern-era history (37), as well as more total points (224).
There’s little conversation on the sideline. While Kenyon has the ball, the players scan the field for clues to the coming play. The instant it becomes apparent, they all shout as one to the defense: “Paaaaaaassssss! Puuuuulllll!”
By late in the fourth quarter, Chicago is comfortably ahead 34–17. The offense has driven down to—and stalled on—the one-yard line. Maloney motions for a time out. I sneak into the huddle to hear what he’ll call. A field goal is the safe choice, but a touchdown would seal Chicago’s victory—and possibly the fate of Kenyon football.
“Go out there and get a touchdown,” he commands. Maloney evidently doesn’t believe in the mercy rule.
They go for it on fourth and goal—and make it. Kenyon can’t score in the remaining time and that’s the game. The players run out on the field and sing—not well—“Wave the Flag,” a Chicago fight song that dates from the Maroons’ antediluvian past. I resist the urge to join them.
The players funnel back into the team room flush with victory. “Tomorrow, be on time,” says Maloney. “Next week, the real thing happens in Cleveland”—their first UAA game, against Case Western Reserve. “Three cheers for the offense!” They shout three hip-hip-hoorays. “Three cheers for special teams!” Another three. Maloney is less pleased with the defense, but they get their cheers, too. “What was [our score], 41?” he asks. “Okay, we’ll take a breath at 25.” The team loudly counts off—“One! Two! Three!”—up to 25, pauses, and continues to 41.
After a final cheer, the team slowly starts to disperse to their waiting families, friends, and admirers. “Thanks for winning this game for me, guys,” I joke. “It’s going to make writing this story a lot easier.”
“No problem,” says one brightly. “Come back next week; we don’t mind,” says another. I think he’s serious.
AFTER HOMECOMING, the Maroons’ season went downhill. Successive losses to Case Western Reserve, Carnegie Mellon, and Washington University in St. Louis—all three of the year’s scheduled UAA opponents—denied them a second straight UAA title.
So: why play football? “It’s not to put it on our resume,” says first-year Schuyler Montefalco, “and it’s not because of girls, I’ll tell you that. It’s because we love the game, and because we all have a passion to keep playing.”
“There’s nothing better than playing college football at Chicago,” says Gallery in his ebullient way. “I don’t know how someone says no to coming here.” Next fall—fame and glory, or the lack thereof notwithstanding—they’ll both be back on the field.