By Allen Moff | Staff writer
I arrive at Dix Stadium at 10 a.m. Friday and find Kent State's defenders on the field conducting a walk-through that breaks up minutes later. The day had started about an hour earlier with a 9 a.m. team meeting. At 10:30, players begin grabbing their pizzas out of the training room and heading for the buses -- lunch comes early today as the Golden Flashes prepare to leave for Saturday's 3 p.m. game at Ball State.
I catch up with Director of Football Operations Zack Tilves, who informs me that the travel party includes 66 players plus coaches, trainers and support staff that bring the total to about 98 people on three buses. Four buses are typically used on road trips, so things will be a little tight for this long trek to central Indiana.
I later run into Golden Flashes head coach Paul Haynes, who gives me a quick breakdown of the trip, including a detailed itinerary that comes in very handy the next two days.
Haynes tells me that the Flashes will wear a sticker with the letters "HD" on their helmets to honor the late Helen Dix, a major contributor to Kent State University who died recently. Dix Stadium is named after Helen's husband, the late Robert C. Dix. I immediately pass this news on to sports editor Tom Nader.
I learn that the team will actually stay in Indianapolis on Friday night, then leave for Muncie at 11:50 a.m. on Saturday. Kickoff is scheduled 3:04 p.m. sharp.
THE ROAD TRIP
At 11:13 a.m., the team departs Dix Stadium for Indianapolis along with 110 Hungry Howie's pizzas for lunch No. 1 and 110 Jimmy John's subs that will be eaten during a 20-minute lunch break about three hours into the trip.
I avoid the crowded buses and ride in a car to Indianapolis, along with KSU Sports Information Director Aaron Chimenti and Video Coordinator Nick Kane. Coach Haynes assured me that I will miss nothing by not riding the bus.
We arrive at the hotel, Hilton Indianapolis North, at about 4:15 p.m. The team arrives at about 5 p.m., five minutes ahead of schedule. Players grab their bags and head to their rooms, where they'll spend some down time until dinner at 6:15.
I take a few minutes to survey the area around the hotel, and quickly realize that there are no party temptations for players to be found in this area of Indy. I walk in each direction around the hotel and find basically nothing -- a hospital, a Lowe's, a pharmacy, another hotel ... that's about it.
THE NIGHT BEFORE
At 6:15, players gather for dinner at the hotel, which includes chicken, mashed potatoes, corn, baked apples, pasta, soup, fruit and ice cream for dessert. I'm told the dinner menu never changes. The captains eat at the head table with Haynes. Seniors gather their dinner buffet-style first followed by juniors, sophomores and freshmen, then coaches and support staff. Dinner is followed by more down time until a team meeting at 9:15, although I do notice several players watching film in one of the team meeting rooms.
After the final player arrives for the Friday night team meeting just in time, safeties coach Jeff Burrow is called to the front to speak. He recites passages from the biblical story of David vs. Goliath and relates it to the current state of the Kent State football team (2-4, 1-2 MAC), how with so many young and new faces it would be easy to not accept the challenge of turning things around in the second half of the season.
Haynes adds later that David vs. Goliath is not about big vs. little, but about faith and trust. He says that David showed faith and trust in God, and that the Flashes have to show faith and trust in each other in order to win.
After Burrow leaves to loud applause, Haynes takes center stage and talks about the keys to beating Ball State: 1. Stopping the run -- even though they're a passing team, stopping the run is still a key, in order to make them one-dimensional; 2. Establishing the run; 3. Superior special teams.
"Usually if you win two of the three, you win the game," Haynes says.
He also talks about winning the turnover battle and the importance of scoring in the red zone.
The meeting ends with a highlight clip mostly from last week's game against Northern Illinois. The players then stroll down the hall to the indoor pool, where strength and conditioning coach Antoine Sharp leads them through a series of stretching exercise in cool water that makes several Flashes shiver when they first get wet. The players then grab a snack and head to their rooms. Lights are out at 11:15 and the Saturday morning wake-up call is set for 8 a.m.
THE GAME DAY
Players wake up at 8 a.m., then trickle into breakfast at 8:30 before heading outside for a 9 a.m. walk-through in the hotel parking lot under beautiful sunny skies. There's no football field around, and Muncie is about 50 minutes from Indianapolis, so they've gotta make due. Offensive line coach Shawn Clark says parking lot walk-throughs are a relatively normal procedure.
"Any time we can get them outside, fresh air, nice weather, we do it," said Clark, who spent the past four years as an assistant at Purdue.
At one point defensive coordinator Brian George has to move out of the way of an SUV taking a short-cut through the parking lot as his Flashes plow through their plays.
I then duck into an offensive meeting and nearly get thrown out by special teams coach Dave McMichael before others tell him it's OK for me to be in the room. I haven't interviewed McMichael yet this year; guess he forgot who I was, although he later remembers me and we have a nice chat in the hallway between meetings. McMichael tells be about some "spying" episodes he endured while coaching at some other schools during a career that spans 38 years, so his paranoia is certainly understandable.
Offensive coordinator Brian Rock starts the meeting with a motivational speech, then calls upon a representative from each position to discuss goals for the game: Tim Erjavec, tight ends; Anthony Meray, running backs; Tyshon Goode, wide receivers; Pat McShane, offensive line; and Colin Reardon, quarterbacks. Rock then praises his players for a great week of practice and assures them that they're prepared to succeed on Saturday.
Next are special teams meetings in the hallway just outside the meeting rooms/dining room. A different assistant coach goes over goals and plans for each separate unit, with McMichael and Haynes listening in and occasionally adding insight. Special teams play has been a team strength for the past two seasons, but was a slight disappointment overall last week against NIU. That fact is hammered home, and the statement "cover like your hair's on fire" is repeated over and over again. Meetings adjourn at about 9:30, and players are off until pregame meal at 11.
After the pregame meal, players get dressed in their sweater vests, ties and khakis -- attire Haynes selected to honor former boss and Ohio State mentor Jim Tressel. They pack up their belongings and load them on the buses, then gather for a "Clap Session" before departing for Muncie. During the offensive clap session, the Flashes go over key plays that will be used against the Cardinals, clapping together at the end of each one.
At 11:50, players board the buses for a police-escorted 50-minute drive to Muncie. This time, I'm on one of the three buses. The atmosphere is very quiet and focused, music seeps out of head phones, but barely a word is spoken. Haynes was right, not much happening on the bus.
Buses arrive at Scheumann Stadium in Muncie just before 1 p.m. Players head to the locker room; first scheduled to hit the field are the quarterbacks, centers and long snappers at 1:59, although several players are on the field warming up by 1:15. Kickoff is set for 3:04.
As the last players walk to the locker room, I head for my usual spot in the press box. Time for the Flashes and myself to do our thing.
I'd like to thank Haynes and Tilves for providing access and insight into the Kent State football team's trip to Muncie, and to the players, coaches and support staff for treating me just like everyone else -- even though I publicly picked them to lose this game by four touchdowns. Haynes and his staff deserve credit for producing a polite, courteous, respectful group of young men -- win or lose.
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