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Rain slaps against my face, and I claw at the hood of my jacket, struggling to pull it lower over my exposed forehead. The pothole-ridden sidewalk is filled with pools of water, and I leap from ridge to ridge in an attempt to avoid completely drenching my already-wet sneakers. There’s no one else walking these streets, and those in the cars that speed by are probably too empathetic to laugh at my dance-like movements. December has arrived, and with it, the Midwest has turned a dreary grey.

As I move further from campus, the collection of fast-food joints and big box stores gives way to the remnants of a once-vibrant city center. Large homes line the street, but their exteriors are dilapidated and their lawns are unkempt, suggesting that much has changed since their construction. Long blades of grass are fighting their way through cracks in several of the driveways. It’s been years since families called these buildings home.

I crest a small hill and dart across the road onto Main Street. Multi-story buildings line each side of the street. Squint hard enough, and I can imagine a bustling downtown complete with movie theatres, department stores, and happening bars. But that was years ago. Now the dark buildings seem to blend into the grey sky around them. I slow to a walk as I head up the street.

A few restaurants and a delightful-looking cheesecake shop stand in contrast to the decay around me. Most of the buildings are at least partially vacant. The painted store-signs tell visitors more about what used to be there than any current enterprises. It must have been at least two decades since “SEARS” actually occupied the place that still bears the company’s name. The majority of the stores are antique shops, selling tangible reminders of the city’s once-prosperous past. To the north, I can see the outline of industrial buildings – a mill or factory maybe. Places that at one time employed thousands. On an overpass at the far end of the street, near the point where the road dead ends into a railroad station that transported hundreds of soldiers a day during the World War II years, a banner of Martin Luther King Jr. from the March on Washington proclaims: “I have a dream.” Life here may have changed when the last mill left town, but it did not stop.

IMG_3221I’m in Alliance – a Northeast Ohio steel town eighty miles south of Cleveland and eighty miles west of Pittsburgh in the heart of the Rustbelt. The town got its start in the 1850s as the intersection of two major railways in a community that became known as “The Crossing.” During its height in the 50s and 60s, Alliance was a thriving metropolis of 30-40,000. The industrial jobs were solid, middle class jobs that served as the backbone for the post-war American economic boom. Old-timers told me that downtown used to be the place to be – it was home to three movie theatres, dozens of restaurants, and more than one brothel.

In most respects, Alliance’s story is similar to that of the other Rustbelt towns in the Midwest. As industrial production moved overseas in the later half of the century, the mills and factories gradually left town. With nothing to take their place, many of the long-time residents were forced to leave as well. After four decades of steady decline, the 2010 census pegged the town’s population at 22,322. Many of the people who stayed were those who grew up in the heyday – people who were fortunate to have retired with stable pensions before the economic malaise set in. One of these people, an eighty-year-old social worker named Barbara, described the impact of the flight of young people as “a wool shirt in hot water – the town just shrinks right up. It’s really tough. You feel the desolation. We just wait because something’s got to come along.”

In the midst of the town’s economic decline, however, a bright spot has emerged, and it’s come from a familiar place: the gridiron. Football in this region of the country is as big as it gets. The working-class towns in Northeast Ohio and Western Pennsylvania have traditionally served as recruiting hotbeds for the nation’s top programs. Forty graduates from Canton McKinley High School, a fifteen-minute drive from Alliance, have played in the NFL. Nearby Massillon was known for decades as one of the best high school programs in the state, routinely outclassing the larger schools in Cleveland and Columbus. “If aliens landed in Massillon on a Friday night, they could just go to the stadium and abduct the whole town,” Barbara told me. While high school football has declined with the population, college football has risen to fill its place. In the last twenty years, The University of Mount Union, located just two miles from downtown Alliance, has dominated Division 3 football.

The numbers associated with Mount Union’s prowess are mind-boggling. Since 1991, the Purple Raiders have advanced to the National Quarterfinals every year, played in 17 championship games, and won 11 national championships. They’ve won 93 straight regular season games and 84 straight home games. They own the two longest win streaks in college football history – 54 wins and 55 wins, which were only separated by a loss in the 1999 national semifinal game. Six Mount Union players have won the Gagliardi Trophy as the top player in Division 3 football, and two – Pierre Garcon and Cecil Shorts III – are currently active on NFL rosters. The coach who put Mount Union on the football map, Larry Kehres grew up a short drive from Alliance and played quarterback for the Purple Raiders in the late 60s. Kehres, whose son has succeeded him as head coach, owns the college football record for winning percentage at 0.929.

IMG_3202It’s difficult to overstate the importance of the football team’s success on Mount Union and the town of Alliance. The fall following the first national championship in 1993, Mount Union welcomed its largest freshmen class in school history. The school has broken that record every year since, growing from 984 when Kehres took over to over 2,300 today. Though Kehres modestly refused to take credit for the enrollment growth, others in town were more candid. “The school’s growth is basically all because of football,” one man told me. “The current President came from Monmouth where he used the same strategy. Football is a really effective method for getting your school on the map.”

“In the 70s and 80s, when the team was a middling program, there wasn’t much interest in Mount Union football,” another local told me. “All of this – the sellouts and traditions – started after Coach Kehres got here and started winning championships.” One man even went so far as to suggest that Mount Union could not have survived without the success of the football team.

In many ways, it’s the same strategy used by Notre Dame in the 40s, Penn State in the 80s, and Alabama today – start with a winning football team and build a school around it. For better or worse, there is nothing quite like sports to bring people together, and nothing quite like winning to get people excited.

As the football team began emerging as a national power in the mid-90s, the school’s recruiting base expanded substantially. The team appeared on ESPN and was featured in national newspapers. Around the country when I mentioned that I was going to Mount Union, many football fans responded: “oh, that’s the Division 3 powerhouse right?”

In addition to the increased exposure, football gave alumni a rallying point and became a central feature of fundraising campaigns. Alumni began returning for games and following the team on the road.

For its efforts, the football program was rewarded with first-rate facilities – brand new locker rooms, an indoor training center, and a modern press box.

IMG_3252But football was not the only area of campus to benefit. In the past decade, there has been over $100 million in construction on campus, including a new performance arts center, a nursing and physical therapy building, and a state-of-the-art student rec center. “Pretty much every building feels new – most of them have been built or renovated in the last twenty years,” my tour guide told me. The school has also added numerous majors, diversifying the range of opportunities for students on campus. The student body has in turn diversified, expanding beyond the traditional Northeast Ohio recruiting area to take on a more national feel. Mount Union was founded specifically as a college open to all students regardless of denomination or race. Now, with competitive academic programs and increased access to financial aid, the school is working to attract a truly diverse student body. The school even officially transformed from a college to a university in 2010.

With the football team as the catalyst, the other teams also began to improve – recruiting more aggressively and increasing their national footprint. “Larry Kehres’ leadership as athletic director has had a direct impact on teams in the athletic department striving to compete at the level that the football team has been able to.  He has led the effort to grow staff, facilities and sports in his time as athletic director,” Lenny Reich, the Sports Information Director told me. Sports teams became a central component to the school’s growth, with over 40% of students participating in varsity athletics and another 25+% active in club sports or intramurals.

Despite its athletic make-up, life on campus feels much like life at any small college, and the student body views football like students elsewhere. To them, football is an excuse to celebrate and take pride their school, but most are not diehard fans. The pep rally Friday night attracted only a handful of students, and just a few hundred students braved the cold on Saturday to watch the game. Many of those who went left at halftime and did not return.

Instead, the diehard Mount Union fans are a combination of alums and older Alliance residents. During my breakfasts at Heggy’s Diner, an old-fashioned diner close to campus, I encountered a group of old-timers who meet everyday for coffee, eggs, and a healthy dose of Mount Union football talk. When I asked one member of the group if he was going to the game, he replied simply: “Do bears shit in the woods?”

To these retired folks, football is a highlight of the week – a source of constant gossip and expectation. People joke that the average age of Mount Union fans is 60 – brought down from 80 by the presence of the student body. The covered bleachers that line the home-side of the field are packed week in and week out with the same collection of long-time residents and older alums. Season tickets in prime locations are coveted items around town. “When people with good tickets die or move away, I get calls from all kinds of people,” Michelle McCallum, the Secretary of the Athletic Department told me. On Friday before the game, McCallum waited in the entrance to the gym and passed out tickets to townspeople who had reserved seats. For two hours on the rainy afternoon, there was a steady stream of people coming in – retired professors, judges, factory workers all brought together by their excitement for the game.

IMG_3259Once a small, confined campus, Mount Union has emerged as a central fixture in the town. The school is now one of the largest employers in town and has become instrumental to revitalization efforts. A few years back, in an effort to show how important the town was to the local economy, Mount Union ordered an armored car from Cleveland, loaded it with $2 bills, and paid all its employees with the cash. “It was pretty inconvenient,” a long-time professor told me. “But it did get the point across.”

While this incident may suggest an underlying tension between the school and the town, most people I met were supportive of Mount Union and saw the presence of the school as a vital cog in the local economy. Many Alliance kids end up going to Mount Union, including the current head football coach Vince Kehres.

For many of the townspeople, the Purple Raiders are more than just a talking point – they’re a source of pride and reason for hope. “Football offers people a chance to escape for a few hours – to pay five or six bucks and leave the real world troubles behind,” Jeff Zupanic, an Alliance native and the current beat writer for the football team told me. The powers that be can relocate factories. They can take away jobs and repossess property. But no one can take away the championships – the knowledge that your football team is as good as any out there.

That enduring sense of optimism is critical to survival in Alliance and central to the town’s character. Beneath the decay, Alliance is a friendly, welcoming town. When people learned that I was a visitor, I was met with open arms. At the local bar next to campus, a couple picked up my dinner tab. The same thing happened at Heggy’s. On Saturday at the tailgates, I was invited from tent to tent and offered shots, beer, beef sticks, and even Alaskan Cod. After the game, a sportscaster agreed to give me, a total stranger, a ride to nearby Youngstown so I could catch my bus. He began the ride with a simple request: “please don’t kill me.”

While I was at the game, I met the man who first started the tailgating festivities at Mount Union. “Before the 90s no one tailgated. Friday night before one game, a buddy and I decided to organize a little get together the next day. We got hay bails and some food and beers. Now, on nice days the whole parking lot is packed.” Like tailgates elsewhere, football has become a gathering spot for longtime friends. In the parking lot, over a few beers, people who rarely meet during the rest of the year, come together. In some ways, the football culture that has emerged around Mount Union is modern-day Alliance’s recreation of the old downtown.

 

On Saturday, the Purple Raiders notched their 84th straight home win. The game was close – a back and forth battle with conference rival John Carroll, but in the end, it concluded just as it had each of the last twenty-three years. After a high scoring first half, the defense went into lockdown mode and held on to secure a 36-28 win. After the game, a John Carroll senior offered up a dejected bit of optimism: “At least we can be happy that we’re one of the only teams that sticks with those guys.” Last week, Mount Union won 67-0.

 

IMG_3280Normally, I’d root against teams like Mount Union. The fans usually don’t stay for the second half of games because they’re so used to winning by 50 points. Many people plan their vacations in advance around the Division 3 Championship Game in Salem, VA and complain early in the season if it looks like Mount Union might not get to host a semifinal game. In some respects, Mount Union is the small school Alabama where fans are so accustomed to success that anything less than a championship is considered a failure.

But as I left Alliance on Saturday, I couldn’t help but feel drawn to the town. There’s a raw spirit there that the bleak economy and dreary weather cannot overcome – a spirit that seems to strike at the core of the American experiment. Across the country there are thousands of towns like Alliance – places where the once-thriving middle class is being pushed into poverty, where bustling downtowns are being boarded up and replaced with suburban strip malls. It’s easy to think of these places in the past tense – to walk their rutted streets and imagine what used to be. But if you look hard enough, you can see that people here have not given up on imagining Alliance’s future.

I remember back to my walk to town on Friday night. As darkness crept in, headlights began appearing on Main Street. A food truck set up shop in front of city hall, and a shopkeeper stopped to offer me hot chocolate. Despite the rain and cold, people crammed into the lobby of the main administration building to sing carols, share some laughs, and ceremonially light the Town Christmas Tree. The next morning most of these people would wake up and head to the stadium to watch their beloved Raiders win yet again. Even in the gloom of the present, the town has found reason to celebrate.

 

Be sure to check back next week as I travel to Baltimore to watch Army take on Navy.

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