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A Former Earlham Quaker on the End of Football

A former Earlham College football player laments the school’s recent decision suspend the program.

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I’m sure you’ve heard by now that Earlham College has canceled the football team’s 2019 season.  Interim president Avis Stewart said, “Our board of trustees has been looking at football with concern for several years, and we agree that it is time to consider whether or not success on the football field is a goal we should pursue.”

Where to start?  Earlham has had 38 winning seasons in 130 years, and that’s counting the 1892 and 1894 seasons when they went 2-1.  Since when has “success on the football field” ever been a make or break goal at Earlham? If he really means, “We’ve gone 0-50 in the last five years, so we’ve decided to give up,” then he should just say that, but he won’t.  Neither will he admit that the losing streak is an excuse to zero out an item in the budget because Earlham is in financial trouble.

Frustratingly, I’m not sure a huge infusion of cash would change anything as long as Avis Stewart and the board are still in charge.  They are responsible for the current state of the program, after all. Stewart was there when the board decided to switch conferences.  They knew that football was much more competitive in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference (HCAC) than it was in the North Coast Athletic Conference.  When the team went 0-10 its first two seasons in the HCAC, Stewart and the board’s solution was to run off long-time football stalwarts Frank Carr and Gerry Keesling.  Think of Indiana University running off Bill Mallory and the dysfunction that followed. What happened at Earlham was similar, except Earlham’s situation was meaner in every sense of the word, smaller in scale but with extra back-stabbing.

After Earlham’s version of Cam Cameron failed to turn things around, they eventually ended up with Coach Nick Johnson, who just resigned to take a different position at the college. If you aren’t familiar with his story, it was featured on ESPN’s College GameDay two years ago.  The short version is that Coach Johnson’s wife is ill, and he has had to simultaneously juggle being her full-time caregiver while raising their kids and being a college head coach.  When the ESPN video aired, I was proud of my school, his staff, and his players for supporting him. I believed this was proof that Earlham was a different kind of place, the kind of place where some things are more important than winning.

And I was right.  Money is now more important than anything else at Earlham.  The football program costs money, and the football team no longer has a big-time donor in their corner.  Alumnus Darrell Beane died in 2004, and the list of bad decisions detailed above all started soon after his passing.  He was Earlham football’s most influential friend. Without him, the program is now about to die.

Mark B

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Like every other football player at Earlham, I knew the program didn’t have many friends, but I didn’t think it would get this bad.  There has always been friction between the blue-collar, Mid-Western football team and the rest of the college. My Spanish professor once referred to the players in the back of her room—all them wearing their team jackets—as the “maroon wall.”  Other professors were aware of the football presence in their classrooms, too, but were less affectionate.

Tension also existed between the team and the rest of the student body.  One day, I was trying to stuff some cafeteria spaghetti down my gullet before my next class and catch up with friends around the table when we were interrupted by a fusillade coming from the balcony.  A couple dozen students were shouting, “We’re here! We’re queer! We’re fabulous, get used to it!” Then they kissed one another. Well, it might be a more accurate to say they attempted to lick each other’s uvulas.  The intent was to shock, I guess. Who were they yelling at, anyway? Nobody at the college persecuted them, although some of my conservative teammates were, visibly uncomfortable. If the demonstrators were yelling at my teammates, who rolled their eyes and jeered and shook their heads while this was going on, well, let’s just say neither side built any bridges during the demonstration.  If the goal of the demonstrators was to win over some of those conservative football players, it failed.

Experiences like the cafeteria demonstration eventually drove some players out of the school.  Sometimes, it was obvious when a teammate wasn’t going to last. I’ll never forget standing outside our classroom in Carpenter Hall, listening to a teammate announce that no, he didn’t “go home every weekend.”  Rather, he still lived at home and “came here during the week.” He was gone after the first grading period. He had come to the school to play football, and the cultural challenge was unexpected, unwanted, and he rejected it and the school.  He wasn’t the only one, either. But some of us stayed. Earlham changed me. I’d like to think it made me a better person.

I arrived at Earlham for football camp in the fall of 1989, two weeks before classes started.  Back then our college preseason wasn’t very different from high school two-a-days. In fact, it was a little too much like high school two-a-days:  a miserably hot, physically grueling crucible that started at 6:30 a.m. each day and lasted until 10:00 p.m.  The days were full of sweat and shin-splints, and the evenings were full of meetings, card games, and tall-tales until curfew.  I met each morning with a silent vow: “If things don’t start getting easier, I’m going to quit because I can’t take much more of this.”  Things never got easier, but I didn’t quit. I found out I could take a lot more than I imagined.

It wasn’t until the rest of the student body arrived that I discovered Earlham was a different kind of place.  The school’s Quaker heritage manifested itself in ways that seemed peculiarly intimate. Convocations, and some classes, started with moments of silence.  Everyone was on a first name basis. My professors were addressed as, “Bob, Liffey, Steve, Barb, Randy,” and so on. There were no “Mister Doctor Professor Patrick’s” on campus.  My Senior Seminar professor, Paul Lacey, was a PhD from Harvard, which I only found out because I read it in an old yearbook or something. The man never once mentioned his credentials.  We called him, “Paul.” It was the kind of place where a group of students would encounter the college president on the sidewalk and say, “Hey, Dick!” and he’d reply, “Hi, guys!”

It was the first place where I ever saw two women holding hands just for the hell of it.  They weren’t lesbians, and nobody thought it was weird. A classmate once came to class wearing a colander like a hat.  No one said anything. Compared to home, it felt like Earlham had no rules, and I had gotten way out of my comfort zone.

Earlham was also the place where I was the only white person in the room for the first time.  Every black freshman football player, about half the total number of people of color in the entire freshman class, would come to my dorm room to play cards with my roommate, Scott Salone, a quarterback from Dayton.  During one of those games, I was at my desk at the back of the room (actually studying!) when James Holmes declared, “If the party’s at Big Blue this weekend, I’m not going unless I can get a ride. It’s too cold to walk that far, and you know brothers can’t take the cold the way white people can.”  I froze, mid pen-stroke. Then I turned slowly to face them. They had a good laugh. “I bet you never heard that before!” Scott said to me. No. No, I had not.

If college football had pushed me beyond what I thought my mental and physical limits were, campus life did the same for me culturally.  It was uncomfortable at first, but soon it felt liberating. Former Earlham and N.F.L. punter Sam Hogenauer used to tell recruits, “Don’t think about what you want to do for the next four years of your life.  Think about what you want to do for the next forty!” It was a great line and in my case, absolutely true.

Coach Gerry Keesling with the Quakers, circa 1992. Photo Courtesy of Mark Wheeler.
Coach Gerry Keesling with the Quakers, circa 1992.
Photo Courtesy of Mark Wheeler.

My freshman year Earlham hosted a club football team from Japan, the Doshisha Hamburgers.  I’m not making that up. It was covered by the New York Times.  Meeting and making friends with Japanese football players was a first for everybody.  They stayed for a week. We scrimmaged them on a Saturday afternoon and joined them at a banquet that night.  Richard J. Wood, our president who was fluent in Japanese, was not just the emcee of the event. He was the one who made the whole thing happen.  Considering the level of administrative support, I suppose it’s disappointing we won only one game that season.

My sophomore year we were 2-8.  As juniors, we went 1-8. That was the year Coach Carr hired Gerry Keesling as offensive coordinator.  They recruited heavily, and my senior season we had over fifty players on the team. It was the first time our roster wasn’t in the thirties.  We went 5-5. A couple of years later, they went 7-3. I thought the program had turned the corner, and I was proud to have been there when it did.  I felt like the football program and the college both had lofty aspirations and were moving toward reaching them.

It made me sad when the team started racking up losses in recent years, but not as sad as I was to read Avis Stewart’s rationale for ending football.  When your team has had 92 losing seasons in the last 130 years, using “success on the football field” as your criteria for ending the team is pathetic and transparently false.  If Earlham really was the kind of place that cared about nothing except winning and losing, I would have quit or transferred. I was such a bad player that I could have sat the bench anywhere.  Why settle for sitting the bench on a 1-8 team when I could have sat the bench for a winning team? I was accepted to DePauw, after all.

But I didn’t go anywhere else.  I went to Earlham. Why? Imagine you’re in a room.  I’m there, and so is a guy from that DePauw team. He says, “We were 6-2-2 my freshman year, but we should have been 10-0!”

Then I say, “Well, we were only 1-8, but we played a club team from Japan.”

At Earlham it felt like I got to see the world without leaving Indiana.  I never would have known the place existed, either, if Frank Carr hadn’t sent one of his players on a recruiting trip.

There won’t be any recruiters working for Earlham next year, and it’s a damned shame.

About Mark Wheeler

A native of Spencer, Indiana and an alumnus of Earlham College, Wheeler currently teaches middle school English in Cloverdale, Indiana.

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