It's halftime at most of the noon games on this High Holy Day - the first Saturday of college football - and already wonderful things are afoot.
William and Mary, a I-AA program and the second-oldest school in the nation nestled in quaint brick picturesqueness in Williamsburg, Va., leads big BCS brother West Virginia 17-7 at halftime. And (until Johnny Heisman gets off the bench, anyway) Texas A&M is losing to perennial football giant ... Rice.
I covered W&M for several years (and the liberating feel of not having to write FCS instead of I-AA never wears off.) The school, founded in 1693, looks up in age only to Harvard and has a well-deserved reputation as a stellar academic institution.
The Tribe also has been one of the top teams in the Colonial Athletic Association, widely considered the best I-AA league in the country. I'd take the starting 11 of several CAA - and national - champions, such as Villanova in 2009, against most D-I programs.
The W&M team I covered in 2009 beat Virginia to open a magic carpet ride of a season that produced a conference crown and ended in a 14-13 loss in the national semifinals to eventual national champ Villanova. It featured, among other standout players, nightmare defensive end Adrian Tracy and behemoth nose tackle Sean Lissemore, now with the Dallas Cowboys. Soft-spoken running back Jonathan Grimes, now with the Jaguars, cemented a head-turning freshman year with a 1,294-yard sophomore effort on his way to rewriting school and conference record books.
That year was among the most fun I've personally had. The team was just good, the players liked each other, and there were compelling stories at every turn. On a December afternoon, I froze my assets off in the thinly insulated press box in Carbondale, Ill., as the Tribe beat traditional playoff powerhouse Southern Illinois in a national quarterfinal game, and a week later, my heart broke for the players I'd gotten to know and respect during that one-point loss at Nova in one of the best football games I've ever seen on any level, ever.
William and Mary is what's good and right about college football. The players are truly "student" athletes, sometimes having to reschedule interviews around exams and all boasting academic media bios capable of making mere sports scribes feel a little dull by comparison. They're not flashy or mouthy (well, except for a few safeties I remember) and they just get the job done, year in and year out.
(And they get to decide who's the best in the nation on the football field, with a playoff system that one of the most demanding academic schools in the nation somehow manages to make work, but that's a blog for another day.)
The Tribe is coached by Jimmye Laycock, who's been patrolling the sidelines of Zable Stadium (capacity 12,259) for roughly 112 years. (Oh, my bad. A quick glance at the school website reveals it's actually only 34.) Laycock can be as one-syllable ornery as they come, but he's a good man and a helluva coach and he cares, first and foremost, about his players and their success - on the field and off.
At W&M, I met Derek Cox, a cocksure cornerback whose selection in the third round of the NFL draft by Jacksonville brought howls of derision from the Experts. Cox, who made four interceptions for the Jags in 2012 before being traded to San Diego, is now in his fifth year as a pro. (Any wonder Grimes was on Jacksonville's radar?) I met D.J. McAulay, a baby-faced wide receiver who wasn't expecting to have an adorable fan in a onesie at his games but who embraced fatherhood with gratitude and joy.
I met Grimes, a ferocious player on the field who would barely say a word off it and who could play the piano like nobody's business. I met Mike Callahan, who waited five years for his chance to be the Tribe's starting quarterback, only to see a promising season derailed a few games in by a shoulder injury which he weathered with grace.
I don't know if this score will hold up, and in fact, the Mountaineers have tied it in the time it's taken to write this blog. But here's hoping it can. No offense to WVU or my alumni friends, but if it does, it would be a win, not just for the underdogs, but for the truly good guys.