On Saturday, September 14, the Fort Lewis College Football team will set foot on Dennison Field for their first home game of the 2013 season. It will be a new beginning for a team with many new players, as well as a new coach at the helm. It will also be a chance at turning the page for returning players coming off an 0-10 season last year.
“Obviously we all have a bad taste in our mouth from last season,” says senior offensive lineman Evan Wagstrom from Silt, CO. “Those that are coming back and those that are joining the team, we all have to work together to try to turn this thing around.”
The man in charge of turning the team around is first year head coach, John L. Smith. Coach Smith joins the team from the University of Arkansas last year. His coaching resume includes a Big Ten Coach of the Year honor from his time at Michigan State University. He’s had experience with taking over struggling teams in the past, and his philosophy is clear.
“I know those guys who are coming back, they have a bitter taste and we don’t talk about it a lot,” Coach Smith says, “because I don’t go back and look at the past. It’s a tear off the rearview mirror deal. We’d better start looking ahead.”
“I think everybody’s been revitalized with Coach Smith coming in and just a new opportunity, a new season to get underway here,” says Evan.
“I think he brings an extreme passion for the game and knowledge that is just insurmountable. He knows everything that you could ask for in a coach.”
“Well, he’s a player’s coach. He truly loves the players,” adds Defensive Coordinator Ed Rifilato. Coach Rifilato also played for Coach Smith in the past. “I never had a father when I was in college; I never had one. [Coach Smith] was always there. Not only would he kick you in the tail end and make you work hard, but if you did have an issue you never had a problem going to see him. He could change like that.”
Coach Smith will be leading a number of new players to Fort Lewis College onto the field along with the Skyhawk veterans. One player is Arthur Ray, Jr. Arthur was a member of the Michigan State Spartans football team from 2008-2011, but a cancer diagnosis severely limited his playing time. Though his cancer kept him mostly off the field at MSU, Arthur still hoped to play college football again and a ruling by the NCAA granting him two more years of eligibility gave him that chance at Fort Lewis College.
“I had a lot of good days, lot of bad days at MSU,” says Arthur, “lot of dark days, lot of days where you never know what’s going to happen, lot of people telling me that I should quit football and go do something in the real world and this and that. I always had a dream and always had a goal and to watch it come true, I was ecstatic.”
It was certainly an adjustment for Arthur coming from a huge university in a big city like East Lansing, Michigan. One of the biggest adjustments, though, was something felt by many first-timers to Durango.
“The air is real big for me. Coming from Chicago, it’s basically sea level,” he explains.
“I thought I was in shape until I got here and then the altitude definitely affected me, but after taking in a lot of fluids and after being up here for awhile, I’m really starting to feel a lot better now.”
Arthur and his new high altitude red blood cells will be right alongside Evan and the rest of his teammates for the Skyhawk Football home opener against Oklahoma Baptist University. For seniors like Evan, this first home game is a special time.
“I’ll be full of emotions,” he says. “Won’t know quite what to think stepping out for the first time, for the last time. Really I’m just going to make this season the best one I can have personally and as a team. I told the guys earlier in this camp that I’m already all in.”
Having his players be “all in” is exactly what Coach Smith needs. The Skyhawks face a tough climb to bring the program back to the winning ways of the past, but that’s a climb that Coach Smith believes is possible.
“We can beat everybody on our schedule, but it’s not going to happen easily,” he says. “It’s going to have to be: grind it out in the fourth quarter. So again, just work hard and the worker will be the winner.”