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It’s a little after seven o’clock. The temperature in the stadium has plummeted to just above freezing, and fans around me are huddled in small groups fighting to stay warm. Smoke from a nearby tailgate wafts over the field. Winter in New England is fast arriving, but on the field, one last vestige of fall is in its final stages.

 

Ask any college football historian about the sport’s best rivalries and Williams and Amherst is sure to make it into the top 5. The rivalry’s roots date back to 1821 when Williams’ President left the school, took a significant portion of the professors, students, and books with him, and founded Amherst just sixty miles down the road. To this day, some Williams faithful refer to Amherst as “The Defectors,” and during a football game a few years ago, Williams students offered the Amherst President a bill for over a billion dollars in library fees for the “stolen” books.

Since Amherst’s founding, the two schools have followed nearly identical paths, emerging as two of the most prestigious liberal arts schools in country. They attract similar students, offer similar coursework, and send graduates to similar companies. Outside of New England, many people view the schools as interchangeable and often define Williams and Amherst by their relationship to each other. “Oh, Williams and Amherst not William & Mary.”

On most days of the year, the rivalry is cordial. In 2011, Williams President Adam Falk even received an honorary degree from Amherst. But on the second Saturday of November, the football rivalry that first began in 1884 – six years before Army first played Navy and sixty-four years before Florida first played Florida State, is renewed.

In many ways the day is less about football and more an excuse for two schools who share so much to stake out their differentness. Most students and alums are modest football fans at best – a good portion of them will emerge from the tailgates that line the field just long enough to watch a play or two – but the pride these people feel in their school is as strong as you’ll find anywhere.

IMG_2809From my perch on the top row of the visiting team stands, I watch as Williams launches one more last-ditch effort to get back in the game and salvage what they can out of a disappointing season.

With a loss, Williams would finish the season 2-6 for the second year in a row. Worse, a loss would be the fourth straight to Amherst and would hand the Lord Jeffs their third undefeated season in the past six years.

Down 17-3, Williams faces a second and goal on the Amherst one-yard line.

The remaining Williams faithful are on their feet. Most are nervously clapping their mitted hands together. One man, the father of a freshman Defensive Linemen, is jogging back and forth in the stands in hopes of imparting some form of karmic energy on the players below. “Just score here and give us a chance,” an alum next to me whispers.

The quarterback takes the snap, drops back three steps, and hands the ball off to Williams’ fifth-year senior running back Alex Scyocurka. Scyocurka (pronounced Sa-kerk-a) secures the ball, sprints forward, and dives over the pile and into the endzone. Amherst 17, Williams 9. On the Williams sideline hope remains.

 

Alex Scyocurka never intended on participating in this rivalry. The 5’ 11” running back who grew up less than thirty minutes from the field where he just scored always had his sights set on “bigger” things. From the time he started playing the game in third grade, Scyocurka harbored ambitions of playing big-time division 1 football. He didn’t go to his first Williams-Amherst game until his senior year in high school. Instead, he spent his Saturdays watching the titans of the sport: Michigan and USC and Alabama.

Young Alex Scyocurka (Right in the Army Jersey) with his Dad and brother

Young Alex Scyocurka (Right in the Army Jersey) with his Dad and brother

In high school, Scyocurka’s dreams of playing for those teams began to look more and more attainable. Under the guidance of his father, a former division 2 Running Back, Scyocurka developed a rare blend of speed, vision, and power. In a rural area where high school football is more or less the thing to do on Friday nights, Scyocurka became a star. Coaches marveled at his potential. Young kids sought him out for autographs and pictures. Everyone was convinced that he was destined for college football glory.

When Scyocurka was in grade school, his family moved from Holyoke to Longmeadow so that he could play under his father’s old college school coach. In four years at Longmeadow, Scyocurka’s teams amassed a record of 47-1 and won four straight state titles. As a senior, Scyocurka rushed for 2,647 yards and 32 touchdowns, the second most yards in region history. He was named an Old Spice All American and his picture appeared in USA Today.

Despite his accomplishments, Scyocurka was passed on by most division 1 programs.

Ironically, it was on one of those failed recruiting trips that Scyocurka first discovered his future alma mater. During the fall of his senior year, Scyocurka was on a recruiting trip at UMass, when he began noticing roars coming from the Amherst-Williams crowd somewhere in the distance. At halftime of the UMass game, Scyocurka turned to his dad and told him that they had to leave – he had to check out what was happening at Amherst College.

“We got to (Amherst’s) Pratt Field in the third quarter, and the atmosphere was electric. I was blown away. There was more energy in this little division 3 game than there was in division 1. My goals were flipped upside down. I always associated division 1 with the higher level – more intensity, more perks, more of what college football is supposed to be about. I saw all that in this division 3 game. From that moment on, I wanted to be a part of it.”

In order to prepare academically for Williams, Scyocurka spent the next year at Exeter Academy where he scored 30 touchdowns and led his team to a 9-0 record and a New England Prep School championship.

Scyocurka entered Williams in the fall of 2010 as the big fish in the small pond – he was going to be the guy. “When Alex committed to Williams, I got a call from a coach who’d followed his prep career who told me to get ready to rewrite the record books,” sports information director Dick Quinn recalled.

Scyocurka scoring one of his 30 touchdowns at Exeter

Scyocurka scoring one of his 30 touchdowns at Exeter

Scyocurka’s first year went pretty much according to plan. He split time with senior running back Ryan Lupo and helped Williams go 8-0 for the sixth time in program history. In six years of football, Scyocurka had lost one game.

From there things went downhill. On the third offensive play of his sophomore year, Scyocurka tore a ligament in his ankle, ending his season just as it was set to begin. Williams escaped that first game, but lost the next two and finished the season with an ugly loss to Amherst. As a junior, a separated shoulder and a series of nagging injuries kept Scyocurka on the sidelines much of the season, and the Ephs limped to a 4-4 record. The next year, Williams lost their first four games and finished a disappointing 2-6.

This year, Scyocurka’s fifth at Williams after receiving a redshirt his sophomore season, hasn’t been much different. Williams opened the season with a 36-0 win, but were thumped a week later by Trinity and the losses began to pile up.

It’s easy to read Scyocurka’s journey as a sad tale of unfulfilled potential. Though he has started for four seasons and compiled over 1000 yards rushing in his career, Scyocurka has not rewritten the record books. Harder still, his Williams teams have gone from perennial favorites to finishing at the bottom of the conference standings.

But that’s not how Scyocurka views his own experience. “All in all I think that going to Williams is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. It’s changed me a lot as a person. It has brought out stuff in me that I don’t think would have been nurtured anywhere else. Despite the difficult time we’ve had in football the past three years, I really have no regrets.”

 

In a way, Scyocurka’s story epitomizes the difference between the football cultures at Williams and those of big schools I’ve been to. At big schools, football players are measured by their performance on the field. A top recruit like Scyocurka would be known around campus before his arrival. He would live in an all-athlete dorm, eat in all-athlete dining halls, and spend nearly every waking hour devoted to football. If his team went 2-6 two years in a row, the town would be in revolt and the coach would be prepping his resume.

Students enjoy Mountain Day

Students enjoy Mountain Day

But life in this corner of Massachusetts is different. On Saturday morning I ran into several students on the Williams campus. When I asked them whether they were going to the game, most responded excitedly: “Of course I’m going… To the women’s soccer game.”

At other schools, football is the central unifier on campus. Home games at schools like Notre Dame and Texas dominate campus for three full days. At Williams, the community unites around a myriad of events. Plays regularly attract sell-out crowds. A cappella soloists are recognizable figures on campus. The soccer and volleyball teams play in front of full bleachers.

And every fall on the first nice Friday of October the President cancels classes and the student body embarks on a three-mile hike up a mountain for no other reason than to enjoy a beautiful fall day. At the top, there are no t-shirt giveaways or TV cameras – the rewards of pep rallies at big schools. Students drink cider, sing songs, and take pictures that will end up adorning their mantel places and office desks for decades. More than the Amherst game, it is this day, known as Mountain Day, that serves as Williams’ equivalent to football at big schools. Mountain Day is the day that admissions officers highlight on tours, that freshmen circle on their calendar (or at least attempt to since the actual date depends on the weather), and that seniors mourn when it’s over.

To the student body, football is, in many ways, just another one of these events – another chance to unite in celebration of the community. To them, 2-6 does not qualify as a tragedy, and a loss to a rival in football does not necessitate existential soul searching.

There are some powerful members of the Williams family calling for change in the football program, but most of them are former players. For the average alum, Saturday’s game against Amherst was a chance to revisit the glory of their college years and to celebrate once more in the power of their Williams community.

Tailgating in style

Tailgating in style

As kickoff neared, groups of alums met in bars and living rooms around the country. People who never bothered to go to football games when they were in school put on their Williams apparel. Friends who have lost touch called each other to reminisce and revel in some old college memory. For one Saturday in the fall, the scattered masses of Williams alums became college football fans. They hoped their team would win, they cursed Amherst even as many of them have now befriended or even married Amherst alums, but deep down they did not really care whether Williams won or not. Pretending to obsess over football was fun for a day – like dressing up for Halloween or watching soccer during the World Cup. But a loss would not define the day much less the season. To the majority of Williams alums, the joy was in the event. Football, like life in general, would have ups and downs, but their pride in Williams would always remain. Maybe that’s why the rivalry has endured all these years. At other schools, excitement wanes during losing seasons, but here in Western Massachusetts it doesn’t matter if the teams are undefeated or winless – when Williams and Amherst meet, the alums turn their thoughts toward a distant home. Most are not really football fans – football did not define their student experience – but football, like skipping class to climb a mountain, offers a chance to come together and there’s a magic in that.

 

Alex Scyocurka’s one-yard touchdown run would be his last play in meaningful football. After a botched extra point, and failed onside kick, Amherst ran out the clock.

As the Amherst fans rushed the field in celebration of their perfect season, Scyocurka went to midfield, shook hands with the Amherst players, and turned to march off the field for the final time. Walking down the road towards the visiting locker room – despite spending $16 million on a new stadium, Amherst did not build a visiting locker room – Scyocurka’s football journey flashed before him. He finished the day with just 10 yards on 4 attempts, he has a pair of sprained shoulders and nagging injuries to his knees and ankles, but this is a moment he’ll never forget.

“With the losing, I think we’ve become more appreciative of other aspects of the game – it’s special just getting to go out and play everyday and be a part of a team.”

Williams players make the walk to the visiting locker room

Williams players make the walk to the visiting locker room

On Sunday, hundreds of students, professors, and townspeople flocked to Cole Field to watch the women’s soccer team play in the conference championship game. Most of the football team was on hand. They were subdued but not heartbroken. There were “bigger” things ahead. Life in Williamstown was returning to normal.

The next morning, as they do every weekday, a group of 15 old-timers will gather at the local coffee shop. They’ll sip their coffee and laugh at memories of events long ago. “It’s great because I can tell the same joke every other week and everyone still laughs because they don’t remember the last time I told it,” one member of the group told me. Many of these men played football at Williams in the 50s or 60s. The 2-6 season will be a source of sadness among the group but not anger – they know that there are larger lessons at work. They know that Scyocurka’s memories of competing and striving everyday with his teammates will be the ones that last. 95 year-old Wayne Wilkins, a man who helped found the emergency room at Mass General Hospital and served as the Boston Bruins team doctor for 15 years still lights up at the memories of his playing days. He lost his starting job as a junior because he took three lab classes, forcing him to show up at practice an hour late, but he has no regrets. Football is only part of life here.

In his office, Head Coach Aaron Kelton will sit back and reflect on the season. As fiery a competitor as I’ve ever met, it will be difficult for him to look past the losses; but if he can, he’ll see the greater good of his work. In five years, Kelton has become an ambassador for the school and a mentor for many. He is a regular at all measures of Williams events, and in the spring, can be found shagging fly balls at softball games and leading talks on diversity.

At a booster club lunch on the Wednesday before the game, Coach Kelton fought back tears when talking about the senior class. In four years they’ve compiled a record of 13-19, but that is only a part of their legacy. “This senior class is a great group of guys,” Kelton told me. “They’ve been through a rocky road in terms of their records as players but it’s not a reflection of who they are as people. They’re such great people who would give their right arm to make sure that Williams is successful.”

The daily ritual at the local coffee shop

The daily ritual at the local coffee shop

When the lunch came to a close, long-time Williams coach Renzie Lamb read a farewell poem to the assembled crowd: “If you want to be happy for a day, get drunk. If you want to be happy for three days, get married. If you want to be happy for eight days, kill your pig and eat it. If you want to be happy for life, beat Amherst.”

These seniors will graduate in June having never beaten Amherst. But with any luck, many of them will meet in a coffee shop somewhere sixty years from now and laugh about their days in Williamstown. Like the student body and the fans-for-a-day alumni, football did not define their experience like it would have at division 1 schools. Maybe that’s what this rivalry is all about – fierce and storied, but balanced.

 

Be sure to check back next week as I travel to Alabama to watch the Crimson Tide host top-ranked Mississippi State.

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