Feature

Go Bears!

For football fans a game at Brown is the best deal in town

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On an unseasonably warm Friday, the Brown University mascot, along with the school’s Ivy League football team, suffered a smackdown by Harvard, whose crimson-clad followers deigned to depart their cloistered campus in Cambridge to deliver a smug message of superiority on and off the field.

The result between the lines was a 31-17 Harvard victory, but what really stung was the satirical halftime show by the Harvard band, snubbing Providence as a “small town outside of Boston” and mocking Bruno the Bear for being blue — an unmissable slap at the 23-foot Urs Fischer stuffed-bear sculpture residing on the Brown campus.

For dyed-in-the-brown fans, it seemed unbearable. In another era, you could imagine Brunonians in lettermen sweaters shouting pithy insults through megaphones in reply, but tonight the response is largely indifference or confusion. (To be fair, the skit, which featured a dancer wearing a fuzzy blue Cookie Monster head in the role of Bruno, was nigh unto incomprehensible.)

Like much about the Brown-Harvard game, however, the interscholastic teasing was a throwback to a more innocent age of college sports, played out at venerable Brown Stadium, built in 1925 and more or less untouched since. The game is played on a real grass field, and mostly on Saturday afternoons. The Ivy League champion is whoever has the most wins at the conclusion of the 10-game season. There are no playoffs, mostly because the schools want the season wrapped up before Thanksgiving break.

Far from the bright lights and big money of major college football, Brown athletes play for the love of the game, not scholarships or the dream of someday competing professionally – although some have gone on to play in the National Football League.

James Develin, a star defensive end on Brown’s 2008 Ivy League championship team, currently stars at fullback for the New England Patriots, while former Brown linebacker Zak DeOssie is a long snapper for the New York Giants. Sean Morey, who set Ivy League records for pass receiving and touchdowns, was drafted by the Patriots and had a decade-long NFL career. All three have Super Bowl rings.

“Ivy football is a little looked down upon,” says Develin. “People don’t think it’s very competitive, but it is.” Develin chose to come to Brown when he didn’t get recruited out of high school in Boyertown, Pennsylvania, jumping at the opportunity for an Ivy League education while holding out hope of standing out enough to attract the attention of NFL scouts. “I always felt that there was a chance,” said Develin.

Yet the halftime honorees during the game weren’t Develin and his 2007 teammates (that took place during an ESPN commercial break) but rather a longtime Brown professor Barrett Hazeltine, who, unlike the football players, received a heartfelt testimonial from head football coach Phil Estes on the stadium video screen as well as an extended ovation from the crowd. (“I was in your class 40 years ago,” one fanboy said as he approached the legendary engineering lecturer after the ceremony; we didn’t linger to see if Hazeltine signed his T-square).
Your $20 ticket ($10 for students and alums) gets you general seating on cold metal bleachers, and the concessions in the windswept concourse under the stands are limited to classics like burgers, hot dogs, popcorn, and pretzels.

Nonetheless, “It’s a wonderful place to watch a game,” asserts Brown sports historian Peter Mackey. “It was built so that every seat has great sight lines, and it’s a great atmosphere,” such as the tradition of cheerleaders ringing the stadium’s victory bell three times when the team scores a touchdown and the costumed Bruno mascot revving up the crowd. (Alas, the tradition of bringing live bears to the game was ended in 1967).

Finding a seat to view the game from whatever angle you wish was easy, despite the fact that the Harvard matchup is one of the team’s biggest rivalry games of the year (Brown-URI for the Governor’s Cup is another) and that the matchup was being televised nationally on ESPN. Estes’ team has struggled in recent years: It’s been a decade since that last league championship, and the team has been slipping into hibernation the last three seasons, going from 5-5 to 4-6 and 2-8, in addition to starting the 2018 campaign with two straight losses. Even worse, the losing streak to Harvard now stands at eight straight games.

Brown’s fan base also isn’t a natural fit: The school’s 9,700 students come from countries all over the world, most of which don’t have a football tradition. “This is a slow, stupid game,” remarks one student with an Eastern European accent a row behind us, while another from East Asia attempts to explain what’s happening on the field. “I don’t have any ability playing this game, I only know what I’ve watched,” the latter admits. A third student, a rugby player, expresses bewilderment at the concept of the forward pass.

Yet there’s a timeless appeal to a Brown football game that should not be discounted. The corny traditions. The high quality of play on the field. The fact that, to the players, these games really are a big deal, even if played before crowds the size of the concession and bathroom lines at Alabama or Georgia.

“We never really had huge crowds in high school, so five or 10,000 fans was awesome to me,” said Develin. “I still get down there whenever I can, because they were like family to me for four years.”

Develin’s story is just one chapter in the long history of Brown football, which predates the Ivy League and reaches back to 1875, when the school team played its first game against Amherst and the team manager had to hock his watch to buy uniforms.

Paul Heisman, the namesake of college football’s top individual award, the Heisman Trophy, played at Brown in 1887 and 1888. Fritz Pollard, the first black man to coach a National Football League team, starred on Brown’s 1916 Rose Bowl team. The first touchdown in Ivy League history was scored by Brown wide receiver Dick Bence in a game versus Columbia in 1956. Former Rhode Island governors Don Carcieri and Phil Noel both lettered in football at Brown, as well.

Today’s stars include two-time All Ivy offensive lineman Christian Montano, wideout Jakob Prall, who had 587 yards receiving in 2017, and sophomore quarterback Michael McGovern. Mackey, who admits to a “disconnect” between the average Rhode Islander and Brown football, has high hopes that a turnaround of the program will help spike interest.

A glimmer of hope came in the second half of the Harvard game, when the Bears climbed out of a 24-3 halftime hole to ring the victory bell twice, clawing to within a touchdown before giving up a late score that sealed the win for Harvard. McGovern ended up passing for nearly 300 yards, with Prall on the receiving end of 120.

“It’s good football with a lot of tradition behind every game,” says Mackey. “There are good players, and inventive offenses. I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else than Brown Stadium on a Saturday afternoon.”