For the last 15 seasons, Salem, Virginia has played host to the two teams who have survived the gauntlet of the Division III playoffs. One could call it the D-III Super Bowl, but everyone uses its given name, the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl. For the third consecutive year, Mount Union faced off against the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater for the national championship. Predictions of freezing rain had clearly kept some folks from making the trek, but plenty of enthused fans and alumni arrived at the stadium parking lot early to celebrate making it this far.
Mount Union came in as prohibitive favorites, having only lost three games this century, and owning two straight victories over the Warhawks in Salem. To an impartial observer, the landscape of revelers could be a bit confusing. Both teams claim purple and black as their colors. Perhaps that was just as well. They say familiarity breeds contempt, but fans from both sides were friendly to one another, greeting their opposition with smiles and, quite frequently, beers. The celebratory air did much to cut through the freezing cold, and when that failed, purple people jumped in their cars to warm up. Those who made the drive down from Alliance, Ohio did so with supreme confidence that the Purple Raiders would win their tenth crown, flying banners that said, “Merry X-mas” and “Welcome to the Kehres Bowl” in honor of their coach, Larry Kehres. That the team had outscored opponents 605-55 over the course of the season only served to buoy that confidence. In a bold move, some Mount Union fans wore t-shirts listing their national championships, including 2007.
Just some of the confident Purple Raiders
However, the visitors were not limited to Purple Raiders and Warhawks. Alumni and current students from across the D-III landscape showed up to take part in the festivities. Representatives from Virginia’s Christopher Newport University, Wesley College in Delaware, University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Texas and countless others made the trip to meet some of their brethren and talk football all weekend. In an example of the minor clash of cultures on display, a man from Texas kidded another from Wisconsin, “You talk funny! I have a cousin from Ohio. He talks funny, too.” Despite some gentle ribbing, there is a clear kinship among everyone making the pilgrimage to Salem. Division III doesn’t garner the national attention of the big schools. When it does find the spotlight, derision is often not far behind. These fans are quick to complain when talking heads call their sport “High School Football.”
Fans came from all over America
A group from Virginia’s Bridgewater College has been coming down to Salem every year since their team lost to Mount Union in the 2001 Stagg Bowl. Stone Station, so called because they do their home tailgating in front the house of school president, Dr. Phil Stone, employs contributions from all of their constituents. The result is a buffet fit for a king bestowed on any hungry soul in the vicinity. Much to the delight of the entire parking lot, they served up pulled pork, deep fried turkey, crab soup, barbecued chicken, ham sandwiches, fried potatoes, various salads, and made-from-scratch brownies and cookies. Once the first person yelled “Dig in,” the line didn’t stop flowing until ten minutes before kickoff. When the Whitewater band arrived, they headed straight for the spread, with one member exclaiming, “We’ll find the Whitewater tailgate later. I’m getting in line.” More than simply an impressive display of generosity, the folks at Bridgewater look forward to this event all season. It’s just as fun for them to meet far flung D-III fans as it is for those fans to chow down on all the tasty grub. While folks sampled the group’s eats, they did their best to stay warm, huddling near wood-burning fire pits. Stone Station knows how to pamper.
By the time the game kicked off, the dreaded rain finally arrived. Outside of some of the ballcarriers, nobody seemed to mind. Most unaffiliated fans pulled for Whitewater to get the upset, hoping the third try would be the charm. The game featured big hits, shifts in momentum, and some huge plays. Through the strength of Gagliardi Trophy winner Justin Beaver’s legs and an impressive defensive performance, they managed to outplay Mount Union. In the game’s closing minutes, the Warhawk fans briefly dusted off the “Over-rated!” chant, but quickly switched to “U-Dub-Dub!” A much more appropriate cheer given the respect these two teams have for one another.
Being photographed with the lowest rung on the Sports Illustrated ladder was hardly the biggest thrill of the day for the Whitewater Dance Team
After players from both teams shook hands, the Warhawks collected their trophy and posed for a team picture. Once that was finished, they shouted in unison, “Miller Time!” When one of the neutral fans blurted out, “It’s a Wisconsin thing,” a Whitewater fan said, “That’s right! We don’t drink Budweiser.” The Whitewater players then ran over to celebrate with their fans. Within fifteen minutes after the games end, the skies opened up and doused the area with rain. That cut the post-game celebration short, sending people back to their hotels. It was just as well. The pinnacle of Division III football had delivered. The game was excellent, but perhaps more importantly, the game’s followers had gotten to know one another. They all have hopes of their team’s chances to play their way into the Stagg Bowl next season. But even if the team doesn’t bring them to Salem, they plan to come anyway. After comments about the thrilling game, the most frequently heard farewell was, “See you next year,” a promise sure to be fulfilled.