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Oar in the Water

Michigan State vs. Western Michigan brought just north of 30,000 to Waldo Stadium on September 4, 2015. The game is only a small part of what P.J. Fleck is trying to build, not only for Kalamazoo, but his team.

Alex Alvarado

There was no way of really knowing how you'd walk away that night. When your team is entering its fifth season under Bill Cubit and you hear that Michigan State would eventually be coming to town, you think to yourself "six years might buy us enough time to get ready." MSU just finished 24th in the nation last year and avid college football fans in the state are starting to enjoy the product that this Mark Dantonio guy in East Lansing is giving their fans. In a state that's dominated by Wolverines of Ann Arbor, nobody cares about the Spartans coming to Waldo Stadium six years from now.

Well, not yet. If the program is stagnant and is still second to the much-hated rivals out in Mt. Pleasant, then it's likely that this would turn into just another cakewalk game for the visiting fans to travel 80 miles just to spend their money on a ticket, a parking spot, post-game beers at the Kalamazoo Beer Exchange and maybe fill up an in-state away venue with more green and white than the home fans in their own schools' colors. And that would be "average" at best.

WMU tailgate vs. MSU (Alex Alvarado)

An hour and a half before kickoff, I had a recent WMU alumnus tell me how he's surprised by the turnout of the tailgate. There's something about being a student at a Mid-American Conference affiliated school where no matter what, there will always be some students that will choose a more prestigious program to root for on game days than the one they plan on graduating from. In 2012, Michigan State played Central Michigan at Kelly-Shorts Stadium, but from the stories that I've been told, there were plenty of fair-weather Chippewa fans that elected to not wear their maroon and gold and wear MSU gear instead because they knew what the outcome of that game would be.

"I thought there would be more students wearing State stuff," the recent WMU grad, who traveled up from Cleveland, Ohio to see his team play in the biggest home game in decades, said. "Like, I'm really impressed with how many students are wearing Broncos shirts instead of Spartans shirts... This is really good to see."

Social media in the 21st century is full of trends, memes, tags, jokes and .gifs and videos that go viral depending on how many people can take a liking to its parody. This conference full of underdogs has benefited by it, making #MACtion more than a football game you'd serendipitously find yourself watching on a school night, but a household name. If we're talking about MAC sports, we're talking #MACtion whether the phrase is being spoken verbally or if it's with our thumbs on Twitter. If you'd walk around and try to dodge every sweaty college kid in lot 105 that's been pre-gaming since 2:00 p.m. in the 85-degree heat, you'd eventually realize that Phillip John Fleck hasn't been feeding the Kalamazoo community any gimmicks for the sake of him being more likable all along. Whether anybody bought into "Row the Boat" in 2013 or not, that mantra ended up being the battle cry for every Bronco fan around the nation. Even if it was just for one night, #RTB was bigger than #MACtion.


In P.J. Fleck's first season at the helm, the Broncos had to play on the road at Spartan Stadium. The Broncos lost 26-13, but Dantonio would still look back on and remember seeing a team that never seemed to quit and came to play. The impressive performance provided enough optimism and buzz around Kalamazoo for 24,163 to show up and give P.J. Fleck a deserving, warm welcome to football Saturdays at Waldo. On September 8, 2013, his team was the heavy favorites against Nicholls State, an FCS team that just came off of a pair of 1-10 seasons.

Unfortunately, the game didn't go exactly as planned. Instead of taking care of business, the FCS team that just lost to Oregon 66-3 the previous week executed their game plan and intercepted a Tyler Van Tubbergen pass, just 24 yards before the end zone. A 27-23 loss to an FCS team that would finish the season as the second-worst team in the Southland Conference wasn't exactly what fans were hoping for, but the youngest head coach at the FBS level knew that this was going to be the game where you'd have to look back on and keep rowing away from.

"One game is not going to define this football program, nor the direction we're going," Fleck said after the loss. "It's just going to make us stronger... I was hired to change a culture, change a program. And I know this isn't what everybody wanted, but maybe this is what had to happen for this program to go in the right direction."

Nobody's talking about the Nicholls State game two years later. In a heated MAC West, there are three teams that are the heavy favorites to win the division. There's Fleck's alma matter of Northern Illinois, the program that promotes themselves as doing things "The Hard Way" and not shy to the fact that it took a long time to get to where they are now and make it to the conference championship five years in a row. The other one is Toledo, where Matt Campbell is entering his fourth season as their head coach with a ton of talent on both sides of the ball. The Rockets hasn't been to the MAC Championship game since 2004 when Bruce Gradkowski was throwing to All-American receiver Lance Moore.

But the most fun pick of any is this Bronocs team. You've got one of the most efficient passers in the nation with Zach Terrell throwing to Corey Davis, a junior wide receiver that many are expecting to have a legitimate shot at making an NFL roster once 2017 rolls around (assuming he doesn't leave after this season). Jarvion Franklin is the first player in conference history to win MAC Freshman of the Year and MAC Offensive Player of the Year after being fourth in the nation with 24 rushing touchdowns. And that head coach of theirs, well, he's a character. The former wide receiver for the San Francisco 49ers is going to be turning 35 years young on the first Sunday after this coming Thanksgiving. He might be a little too young to be able to connect with all of the parents and guardians that are raising these aspirational high schoolers that want to play Division-I football, but he's exactly the kind of coach that players want to respond to.

"If there's one thing that I know about me is that I am me," Fleck told all of the reporters that were surrounding him with recorders and video cameras this past July at MAC Media Day. "I'm a real guy. I've had things in my life. I'm a single father, I've lost a child: not that that's why I think parents will relate to me, but whatever your son's going to go through in his life, I've pretty much been through it at somehow, someway."

Have you ever seen thirty-thousand, eighty five people more excited to see an opening kickoff at Waldo Stadium as electric as that? Maybe you might have. It's been a while, but it hasn't been forever since that stadium's attendance was at over capacity. The largest-attended game in the stadium's 76 years of existence was 36,361 when the Broncos blew out Indiana State 56-0 in 2000 where the team would capture its eighth perfect home record in Waldo history. The year before that, the fans set a stadium record for average attendance for 26,874. Sure that's not as big as the attendances at Michigan State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Alabama, Georgia, USC, Texas, Florida, Notre Dame, Virginia Tech, Oregon or any of the haut monde programs around the nation, but the overall intensity of that game on Friday night against Michigan State subjectively stands out as one of the most memorable crowds at a football game by a MAC team in this generation.

"That was an electric, special night. I know on our end, it didn't turn out the way we wanted it to, but that was electric and that's what potential is here in Kalamazoo," Fleck said after the game in his opening statements to the media. "That was fun. That was live: that's college football right there. That's college football and I was proud that was right here in Kalamazoo.

"That atmosphere fueled our players. I haven't seen much like that ever in the Mid-American Conference: ever. And I've played in some incredibly big Mid-American Conference school games." Fleck paused as he lost his breath for a moment. This might have been his most uncharacteristic moment of the night. "I'm very proud of our community and very proud to say I live in Kalamazoo and I'm the head football coach of Western Michigan because of our fans and the people who came to this football game."

I can't stop going back to the people with the videos that I'm recording on my Samsung Galaxy Note 5. I've never taken a course in photography and I've never purchased a camera with all the necessary goodies to go along with it, which would probably run me about the same amount as it would to buy nearly seventeen months worth of groceries and a new pair of Yeezy Boosts -- give or take. Had I been more well equipped, I maybe would've been able to get some shots of the youngest of 130 head football coaches in America sprint down the sidelines with Darius Phillips wearing a headset and a tie.

Two key players eventually found themselves sidelined with injuries tonight: Grant DePalma and Jarvion Franklin. While people at home are wondering how much cardio Fleck does just to get himself prepared for game days in moments like these, at some point you've got to wonder if at some point this guy is going to pull a hamstring.

I like to think of these moments as the honeymoon of the football game. This is special. There's still the rest of your life to go, but this moment is absolutely special. The most lovely way to level out the score this early in front of 30,000+ is to catch the kick from seven yards to the right of the right hash marks, cut at a 45 degree angle to the left after four paces forward with just enough blocks for you to find yourself in a foot race with the 34 year old coach that feels like he's got over 59 years worth of coaching experience and put everybody on their feet. You have no idea where you're headed after that, but this moment is all too lovely.

The fifth-ranked school is in your house that has bigger dreams than to win a regular season game against a MAC team. The Spartans were victorious in the 100th Rose Bowl over Stanford in 2014, then followed that up with another memorable New Years Day win over Baylor. Their best shot to crack the College Football Playoff, let alone the Big Ten, is to beat Ohio State this year. They'll probably have to win out too. Fleck knows that his team is going to have to defeat some of the toughest programs in the nation and even win out against the rest of the conference for that to happen and then do it all again the following season. Coming off of a woeful 1-win season as a rookie, I sat down with Fleck on the seventh floor of Ford Field last year for Media Day when everybody and their recording devices weren't surrounding him at all times. "If you go one season 12-0, you probably won't go to the national title as a MAC program, but you know what? You might go to the Cotton Bowl or the Fiesta Bowl: you're gonna go somewhere big.

"We don't ever compare ourselves to anyone... That goes against our philosophy."

Being down 20-7 isn't exactly how you want to end this first quarter. There's always an expiration for euphoria, it's simply one of the saddest truths of life. The endless possibilities and hypotheticals of having different results to make long-dated effects more satisfying to get to can keep you up at night, sweating, shifting into a more uncomfortable position than the one you were just laying in just to find comfort in something else. And if you could change just one thing from your personal history, what would it be? Why would you choose that? Because that one moment, that one event, that one thing that you'd want to tweak could have imaginable, life-altering, gains & those imaginable gains would've made the destination more complacent and luxurious to eventually find yourself at. But there's no telling what would be, could be, should be. There's something that happened, there's a timeline behind you and a future that needs to be unfolded.


The Broncos took over after an MSU fumble early in the second quarter. Being only 39 yards away from the end zone, Terrell takes the first snap. Corey Davis is lined up on the numbers to his right out of the shotgun formation. Everybody knows it's going to him, but it's a deep pass that probably could've had another yard or two of lead on the ball, but was also dropped as Davis tried to bring it down. Another opportunity on the very next play: play action to find Daniel Braverman, who led the MAC in total receptions in 2014, dropped a perfect pass from Terrell at the 13-yard line for what also should've been a score to make things a one-possession game. Instead, he's finding himself back onto the field in a 27-7 ball game with his heels flirting with the MSU goal line.

Zach Terrell (Alex Alvarado)

Coming into this game, all eyes were on Corey Davis. His older brother, Titus, played wide receiver for Central and was one of the MAC's biggest stars in recent memories. People considered the 6-foot-3 younger sibling to already be better than Titus back when they were entering their sophomore and senior seasons, respectfully. Titus was not selected in the 2015 NFL Draft like many had hoped for him to be a late-rounder. He joined the San Diego Chargers for mini-camp and preseason, but ultimately wasn't fit to make their 53-man roster. Corey, now a junior, people have big expectations for him. He's the best athlete on this Bronco offense and that's been a fact ever since he was a MAC Freshman of the Year honoree. On third and fifteen to go from the four, Corey caught this pass for 44-yards. There was some swing in momentum with the home fans getting to their feet after the playmaker moved the chains and the minds from "we can do this" to "we're going to do this."

People aren't having those expectations for his quarterback, and his goal is to be elite. It's not to reach his potential, it's not to be one percent better than he was yesterday, it's not to hush those who doubt him, it's not to change any of us into believers either. He's the most efficient quarterback in the conference, statistically one of the nation's most efficient passers too.

"I think it means everything," 22-year old Zach Terrell said after the game, where he found himself in essentially a pitching duel against Heisman hopeful Connor Cook, "once you can reach elite, we'll continue to change our best and keep making our elite even higher and higher. There's bad, there's good, there's average, there's great, and then tere's elite. And that's our goal: continue to change every day to reach that, and then change that again... There's no silver linings. There's no moral victories."


Fleck's a single father. He's only recently divorced, but is a loving father of three. Unfortunately, he lost his second child, Colton, because of a heart condition shortly after birth. In a three-part series that Fleck did with WMU shortly after he was hired in, he explains that this tragedy is the origin of "Row the Boat."

"We knew we were going to lose him, it was just a matter of how long he'd be with us," Fleck says. "But it was always something I had in the back of my mind to always say no matter what happens, no matter what we're going to do here, we're just going to keep rowing. Whatever turns out, however it turns out, we're just going to keep rowing. And then when it does turn out good or bad, we're just going to keep rowing. Keep rowing. Keep rowing."

What's done is history, and what's present will be the past. The future is always going to be there and it's hard to imagine what's in front of you. There are predictions, there are certainties, there are promises, but the future can never be told, only assumed. In the metaphor, you have your back facing the future and you're staring the past dead in its eye. It'll never flinch though.

A horrible turn of events could happen. Unfortunately, those are the easiest details in life to spot out because we allow them to stab and dig and sting the worst. We don't want harrowing events to define our lives, but there's another fact about life, which is that you -- somehow -- will experience pain harder than you'll ever ask for. There's going to be hurt and there's not a future in sight, but there's a future.

There's also going to be triumph. And when you finally get to the point where triumph and happiness is trickling through every cell in your body, you keep moving forward.

Because moments in life, good or bad, are nothing more than moments. These highlighted areas of our pasts aren't defining, they're bookmarks of our individual stories through life. We're defined by our journey, not by what's measured in "wins" or "losses."

Nature's first green is gold,

Her hardest hue to hold.

Her early leafs a flower;

But only so an hour.

Then leaf subsides to leaf.

So Eden sank to grief,

So dawn goes down to day.

Nothing gold can stay.

-Robert Lee Frost


Had he found this at the right time, we're talking about a 37-31 ball game with about 1:38 to go in regulation. Had we be talking about a 6-point game with under two minutes to go with one timeout left. We'd -- maybe -- be talking about a game on a national stage with a promising MAC team attempting an onside kick against the fifth-ranked team in the nation.

"That's all about the perception on the outside, right? 'They're the fifth-ranked team in the country.' It's a team over there that's elite with a green helmet and a team over here with a brown helmet. Because you figure three, four plays in there, maybe people are talking we're the fifth-ranked team in the country now," Fleck said after the game. "But that's football. You can't play coulda, shoulda, woulda and if."

The team continued to row. There wasn't a moment in this game where this team gave up. Even in a game where Terrell was sacked seven times, he kept persevering. Even in a game where they had an 18-year old right tackle lined up against All-Big Ten defensive end Silique Calhoun, he kept persevering. There was no quit in 2013 and there sure as hell wasn't going to be any quitting on a night light this.

"I never want our players to ever settle for people on the schedule," Fleck continued. "That's a lesson in life. If you want high reward, you've got to take high risk... I think if you teach your young players it doesn't matter who in life or who in football you play or compete against, or you compete against somebody for a job one day, you shoot for the stars. And that's what I want them to leave with tonight."