To those names, add Rogria Lewis, Swade Hutchinson and Turner Skehan.
What do they all have in common? They’re senior walk-ons who played in or were honored in last year’s Mercer game. That game also saw a true freshman Dylan Moses earn his first start, and a total of 13 freshmen see the field.
The game itself was uneventful to most Alabama fans — a 56-0 affair against a middle-of-the-road FCS team. But if you’re Swade’s mom or Joseph’s dad, that game meant the absolute world to you. If you were Austin Johnson, working at scout team quarterback for three years, those two carries for 8 yards earned you a letter. And, with that letter, you became as much a member of the A Club as Calvin Ridley. Hunter’s years of debt, of physical and emotional sacrifice, of punishing thankless work, of getting massacred on the scout team to help prepare the starters, finally paid off for himself and for all the Austins and Bos and Vohns of major college football.
Hugging your parents in your uniform on the sideline, running out on to the hallowed Bryant Denny Stadium grass before 100,000 people — those are memories and experience that were earned, are to be cherished, and at least ought not be denigrated by those with zero skin in the game.
For a middle-American family, living paycheck to paycheck, the FCS game is often the only affordable or cost-conscious way to attend a game. When I began writing this on Labor Day, this Saturday’s Missouri game had two available tickets at the cheapest face value of $55 — two out of 101,821. There were a few dozen in the $60-$76 range. The vast majority were $79 and up. There are no hotels with available capacity within Tuscaloosa County, nor are there available Air BnB rentals. The cheapest hotel I have found is located one hour and fifteen minutes away, in Gardendale — well North of Birmingham. Parking anywhere near the stadium being advertised between $30-$50 — with some spots going for $100.
By contrast, this year’s Citadel contest has a $35 flash sale price. There are hundreds available on the resale market going for less than $15. There are 28 Air BnB’s available, with sizes ranging from couch-space for one to a rental house for a family of 8 — the median is $306, and it costs just $460 for a family of four to rent a two-bedroom house for an entire weekend. There are two hotels within the county with available rooms, and neither is more than $89 per night.
In a sport where viewership is down, where attendance is plummeting, where costs have spiked to an exorbitant degree, it is still possible for a family of limited means to take in a game, to grow the sport, to nurture young fans, to share memories of that opening kickoff, and to do so all while not breaking the bank.
But, it’s going to take the FCS game for many to do so.
Yet, for every one of those memories earned and moments grown, comes the yearly refrain from sports media to cease playing “paycheck games;” that it is a shameful practice, one especially prevalent in the SEC; that it dilutes the schedule. And the criticism comes from diverse quarters: ESPN to Forbes to Sporting News to gambling sites to traditional print media to message board shit posters to hack blog sites. Seemingly everyone with access to WordPress or a camera decries the practice.
But, ask Bo and Austin what that game meant. Ask their parents. Ask those who but-for the FCS game would never have been able to see their favorite team or cheer their favorite player or beam with joy at their loved ones on the field.
Ask Mercer running back Tee Mitchell to describe the pride he has by earning respect from an Alabama defense: In a year where the Tide surrendered 2.1 yards per rush, Mitchell had 17 totes for 57 yards, for a solid 3.3 YPC average. Leonard Fournette didn’t do that, not even over a career.
Ask Mercer Senior TE Sam Walker what it felt like to play on national television and have his family be able to make the short drive from Cumming, Georgia.
Ask the Bears athletic director Jim Cole what a $600,00 check meant to his 256 student athletes across 17 sports.
I can tell you what it means from this vantage point: It means enabling 256 lives to be enriched, to help put food on their training tables, to help pay for their academic assistance, to help wrap up their sprains and treat their depression and offset their MRIs. It means directly aiding 256 young men and women in having a little bit of an easier path towards earning their degrees and getting a solid start to their lives.
Now, multiply that by the thousands and tens of thousands of lives impacted for the better every year by the 86.7% of major college programs who will host an FCS opponent.
Fairly or otherwise, sports media criticisms of the FCS game come off with an appallingly cavalier laziness at best. And, at worst, belie a lot of entitled, I-got-mine indifference.
It is easy to look down from on high when you are the Howards and Herbstreits and Greens of the world, physically gifted enough to never worry about toiling on the scout team or how to pay for college or whether you may finally see your name on the television. It is a convenient cheap shot to take at struggling families, one you can conveniently broadcast from a stadium that you entered into for free, or hammered out on an expensed laptop while sitting in an expensed hotel after taking an expensed flight after enjoying a meal on per diem.
To lazily toss around cliches about strength of schedules, with no actual thought of what lies behind those games? To opine with a hack zealotry that FCS scheduling ought to change? To beat the drum to remove those experiences from others so as to make your weekend more exciting or your job a bit easier or the schedule more meaningful?
How dare you — the FCS game is meaningful enough already.
And never stop playing them.