Dec 10 / jmusport

Guest Post: The Prodigal Son Returns to the Fold

Matt Uliana won the prediction for the regular season finale. Here’s his fantastic guest post about his JMU fandom returning long after he played his last game for the Dukes.

The author taking down Georgia Southern QB Raymond Gross in pre-Bridgeforth JMU Stadium (1989)

I’ll start off my guest post by thanking Rob and Todd for giving me the opportunity to make this paltry contribution to their excellent blog. I was told that I could write about whatever I wanted (provided I play nice and don’t slag any players or coaches too bad), so I figured I’d write about the thing I like the most and know the most about…. me. Be advised – this post is long and completely self-indulgent, though I did my best to keep it relevant to the spirit of the blog. 

Like many of you reading this, I am not only a JMU sports fan, but also an alumnus. But unlike most of you, I’m also a former JMU football player – I was a member of Coach Joe Purzycki’s inaugural recruiting class, I played from 1985 through 1989 as a defensive lineman, and I started every game of the 1989 season at D-tackle. Oh, and I lead the team in quarterback sacks my final year (and if you don’t believe me, check out page 172 in the 2014 JMU Football Media Guide). 

Most college graduates I know look back fondly on their school years – it’s always about how it was the best time of their lives, how much fun everyone had, how they wish they could go back, etc. I have never once regretted my decision to go to JMU, but I don’t mind saying here that my undergraduate experience was, quite frankly, not all that great. Sure, I had lots of friends, there was quite a bit of alcohol and random debauchery, and I graduated with a good, marketable B.S. degree, but overall it really wasn’t fun. The main reason for that? Football. 

People occasionally ask about my playing experience, and they generally seem surprised when all I can say is that, in the end, I got more out of football than football got out of me. On the plus side? First of all, it paid for college – I graduated with a solid degree from a damn good school with zero debt. Second, it played a big role in my formative years and the experience made me a much stronger person in all aspects of my life. Finally, I had some truly memorable moments on the field my senior year, I ended my career knowing that I earned the respect of at least some of my opponents, and I was able to walk away from the game with a clear sense of closure.

So what was the downside? First of all, people don’t realize how much playing football at that level monopolizes your life. I won’t bore you with the details but trust me – playing college football takes a lot out of you and significantly limits your available time for scheduling classes, studying, and doing important things like beer slides with your friends in Shorts Hall or road-tripping to UVA on a Saturday to see Hüsker Dü’s final tour. That was all compounded for me by an injury in my freshman year that was initially mis-diagnosed, resulting in a string of setbacks that kept me on the sidelines for my first four seasons. On top of that, we were a perennially .500 team that was not terribly appreciated by the students – sure, people showed up for games, and they seemed to like it when we won, but nothing like the way it is today. The typical attitude other students had towards the football team in those days was generally somewhere between indifference and outright resentment because they thought we had it easy and got all sorts of free money and concessions just for playing a sport. 

Please don’t get me wrong and think that I’m whining or looking for sympathy here – as I said, I got more out of it than it got out of me and I don’t regret sticking with it to the end. But I didn’t have those feelings of gratitude at the end of my career, and when I was done at JMU I blew out of town as fast as I could and never looked back. I didn’t keep in contact with any of my teammates, coaches, friends, professors, anyone. Not only did I not follow JMU football, but I didn’t watch another football game on TV for well over a decade. To me, football and college were just a chapter in my life that no longer mattered, and I was onto bigger and better things. 

I ended up in Austin, got a couple of graduate degrees, met and married the love of my life, and started a career. I hardly thought about JMU at all in those years; in fact, I only found out about the 2004 national championship when I noticed JMU on ESPN playing Bill & Mary in the middle of December. Even after they won that first national championship, I still didn’t care enough to follow the team or even reach out to anyone from those days. 

Then around 2013 I heard that my nephew Andrew, at the time a senior in high school, was dead-set on going to JMU for college. Suddenly I had a direct connection back to the ‘Burg, and I started looking into the current state of my alma mater. What a surprise it was to find that

  1. JMU is a helluva lot bigger! More than twice as many students and extensive development on the other side of IH-81
  2. It’s still one of the best public universities in the state, if not in the country
  3. The football team knows how to win, has made regular playoff appearances since 2004, and – most surprising to me – has a rabid fan base that creates a hostile environment for visiting teams. 

Andrew introduced me to this blog and to jmusports.com, and he let me know about the first ESPN Gameday. Then he got a job with the team and spent his junior and senior years working as the videographer. Suddenly I was not only connected to, but legitimately interested in my old team. I started following the games, streaming video when available and, if not, following the ESPN gamecasts on my phone. I went on-line and bought official JMU Football t-shirts and wore them proudly. I followed the 2016 season religiously and told all my friends and coworkers about how JMU is now the Alabama of FCS. I watched the semifinals at the bar in my friend’s basement, shouting with delight as the mighty Bisons got taken down and as everyone else in the room tried their best to ignore me. Then, after the first of the year, I headed up IH-35 to Frisco, met up with some old friends, reveled in the drunken ocean of purple in the parking lot, and watched the Dukes do something that I once dreamed of doing, back when I was young and still loved the sport. And when it was over, I rushed the field along with everyone else, found my nephew, and managed to get the perfect shot:

Then as I stood on the field, watching those kids celebrate what may be the greatest moment in their lives, I had something of an epiphany. I realized that I am a part of the history of this team. Those years I spent on campus giving up a big part of my life (and my right knee) for this team has, in some small way, helped to lay the foundation for what has become a legendary sports program that is helping to create life-changing experiences for young men, guys that are not too different from the man I was 30 years ago. I’m really proud of that now, and I’ve come to realize that those days I spent on the Quad and on the field actually were some of the best of my life. 

So I’ll end this now by saying thank you to Andrew Uliana for reconnecting me to an important part of my past, to Rob & Todd for keeping me informed and entertained, to Joe Purzycki and all the my former teammates and coaches for playing such an important part in my formative years, and to all of you in the Duke Nation for building the best fan base any school could hope to have. I will see you all on the field in Frisco this January, either in person or in spirit, and I will keep rootin’ till the end!

12 Comments

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  1. Edgar G Dearth / Dec 10 2019

    Breeze sports editor from some of your playing days! Great column.

  2. Todd / Dec 10 2019

    Thanks Matt! For your contribution to the program and for this incredibly honest and thoughtful piece!
    Truly one of the best we’ve had in years and we sure hope to raise a beer with you in Frisco!

  3. John Connor / Dec 10 2019

    Nice job, Matt! Go Dukes!

  4. Steve Brown / Dec 11 2019

    What a great post and look into the life of a student athlete. I’m glad you are back in the fold.

  5. 2004 Duke / Dec 11 2019

    Wow… this is the post real post ever.
    Preach on, brother

  6. Dukes4 / Dec 11 2019

    Great post and insight. Only thing missing is a Texas hat.

  7. wexcelsior / Dec 11 2019

    Fantastic post, thank you so much for sharing your experience

  8. Andrew / Dec 11 2019

    Hey y’all, Matt’s nephew here. I was going through some of the old yearbooks in Carrier and found some pic of his glory days in purple and gold, including a colorized picture of him against Towson State. Hope y’all like them

    https://imgur.com/a/OfDxF6K

  9. Dr. U / Dec 11 2019

    Thank you all for your kind comments. It’s an honor to have the opportunity to post here, and writing this was a really good experience for me, so I’m glad that people actually liked it. Couple of direct comments:

    @Andrew: Thanks for posting the yearbook shots – I forgot about that ridiculous mohawk I had for the team picture lol!

    @Todd: I’m all about raising a beer in Frisco this year. I’ll be wearing a purple shirt with my last name and my jersey number (97) on the back; if we both end up there and you see me, don’t hesitate to introduce yourself so we can have that beer.

    @Edgar G Dearth: During my last year at JMU (after I was done with football) I dated a photographer who worked for the Breeze. She went back through the archive of negatives and found that B&W shot that’s at the top of my post. I think I may have know the photographer who took it (she was on the sidelines during most of the games), but i can’t remember her name. Other than the yearbook photos that the only action shot I have from college.

    Oh, and about that photo… It looks like a great play, but since I’m all about honesty in this post, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the moment after the photo was taken the QB threw the ball to their all-American RB Joe Ross, who then ran something like 25 yards for a first down. Georgia Southern was the ND State of FCS (then called Division 1-AA) back in the ’80s, and they won the national championship that year and like 3 other years during the ’80s.That still may have been the best game I ever played (10 tackles, forced a fumble).

    -Matt U.

  10. G Colvin / Dec 11 2019

    Great post Matt. Hope to see you in Frisco again. BTW…what’s with the black gloves in that photo?

  11. Zac / Dec 12 2019

    Matt, thanks for sharing your story. Glad to have you back on the JMU rootin train! A+ guest post!!!

  12. Mark McKinley / Dec 24 2019

    Matt – great post! I connected to a lot of what you wrote. Hope to see you at one of the football alumni gatherings back in Harrisonburg.

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