Courtesy of The New York Times
A College Started a Tackle Football Team. For Little Guys.
At St. Thomas Aquinas College, administrators see sprint football as an answer to its struggle to attract male students and as a safer alternative to conventional college football.
The St. Thomas Aquinas College football team includes players from Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Rhode Island and New York. Michael Owens for The New York Times
By Kevin Armstrong
Nov. 8, 2018
SPARKILL, N.Y. — In much of the United States, this is an era of disappearing tackle football programs.
Tightening budgets and concerns about safety and liability have combined to spell the end of football at colleges like Hofstra in Hempstead, N.Y., and St. Mary's College of California.
Then there is St. Thomas Aquinas, a 65-year-old college founded by Dominican nuns, which is currently running a counter play. It started a football program this season instead of ending one. The move, part of a strategy to increase male enrollment, not really one to compete for gridiron glory, came with a wrinkle: At St. Thomas Aquinas, students would compete in sprint football, in which the players cannot weigh more than 178 pounds.
There is blocking and tackling, and players wear helmets and shoulder pads, and the game has plenty of opportunity for injury. But in sprint football, punishing collisions between 300-pound linemen and 190-pound tailbacks cannot occur. The game is more about speed and swing plays out wide than about pounding runs into the line and passes over the middle.
Given that, administrators at St. Thomas Aquinas, a private liberal arts college of roughly 2,200 students 15 miles north of New York City, said the benefits of fielding a squad outweighed the costs. They also saw sprint football as a safer alternative to conventional football, amid worries about brain injuries from repeated blows to the head. As insurance, the college's athletic director, Gerry Oswald, also bought helmets equipped with sensors to alert trainers on the sideline when a player absorbed a big blow.
"So far, knock on wood, we haven't had any really serious injuries," Oswald said in a recent interview. "It's a very competitive game, but within a reasonable weight limit on the field."
That weight limit carries its own requirements and regimens.
Kyle Flanagan performed squats at practice last month. Michael Owens for The New York Times
One morning in August, Lori Rahaim, the head athletic trainer, walked into the college library, set up equipment and addressed 63 members of the team. It was training camp, and Rahaim had to explain what she expected from them regarding everything from hygiene to hydration. When done, she issued an order.
"I need you to strip down to as little clothing as possible," she said. "Sneakers, shoes come off; socks stay on, and some kind of short apparel stays on."
"In the library?" wideout James Hanigan said.
"We have three already-calibrated digital scales," she said. "We're not messing around."
The weigh-ins happen twice per week in season.
"Mama's cooking, mama's cooking," the team's head coach, Matt Barry, said that day. "You got to stay off it if you want to make it. We've got starters at 150 pounds. There are no hogs here."
The Spartans finished their first season with a 2-4 record. It was capped by a 33-12 loss to Mansfield University of Pennsylvania last Friday. It was a long way from four years ago, when Oswald raised the idea of bringing football to the college, where 54 percent of the students are female.
Administrators considered the proposal, then set it aside. Margaret Fitzpatrick, the college's president, later conferred with her colleagues at Chestnut Hill College, in Philadelphia, and Caldwell University, in New Jersey. Like St. Thomas, they compete at the Division II level in other sports. Fitzpatrick learned about their experiences with sprint football, and then gave Oswald the green light last year.
"I had a program before I even had a football," Oswald said.
Coach Matt Barry led drills in October. He had never watched a sprint football game before taking the job. Michael Owens for The New York Times
The Spartans gained admission to the Collegiate Sprint Football League, which governs the sport, in January. Barry, who was hired a few months earlier, hit the recruiting trail. His sprint football practices were conducted in nearby Tallman Mountain State Park while land was cleared on college property to make way for a 60-yard practice field across the street from a convent. Only one goal post was raised because if balls were kicked on the other end of the field, they would fly into electrical wires. Barry adjusted to the role of building from rock bottom.
"My own mother called this spring football," he said. "She's 91. She goes, 'Tell me why again you're playing in the spring?' I said, 'Mom, it's sprint!' My sister made a big sign: SPRINT FOOTBALL. My buddies ask, 'Is it flag?'"
Barry, who had coached conventional football at several high schools, never watched a sprint game before taking the job. Games can be hard to find. There are only 10 teams that play sprint football at the college level. The College Sprint Football League traces its roots to the Eastern 150-Pound Football League, which was founded in 1938 in response to the increasing size of college football players at the time. Army, Navy, Cornell, Penn and Princeton were the original members, but the league, which doubled in size over the last decade, has gradually increased the allowable weight.
It took one college dropping out for St. Thomas to enter the fraternity. In 2016, Princeton, which continues to play conventional football in the Ivy League, ended its sprint football program after 106 consecutive losses. University officials announced that a committee "concluded that maintaining the program in its current form creates an unacceptably high risk of injury and does not permit the team to aspire to the level of success that Princeton expects."
Scratches on a Spartans football helmet. Michael Owens for The New York Times
In stepped the Spartans. Players came from Texas, Florida, North Carolina and Rhode Island to join teammates mostly from New York. Over the course of a few months, Joe Frias, a 6-foot lineman from Washington Heights, dropped from 260 pounds to 183 pounds and finally reached the required goal before the third game.
Rahaim and Barry implored players to be healthy. To guard against players trying to sweat off extra pounds or purging, urine samples are taken and body fat percentages are examined. When Barry walked through the cafeteria during a recent lunch hour, players held up plates with chicken and broccoli.
"I used to use a Lombardi saying: 'You've got to pay the price,'" he said. "Now it is: 'You've got to lose the weight!'"
At St. Thomas Aquinas, students compete in sprint football, in which players cannot weigh more than 178 pounds. Michael Owens for The New York Times
Some of the players said they came to the college specifically for the chance to play football, so one might say the program has already improved enrollment.
"We've seen an immediate effect," said Michael DiBartolomeo, the university's vice president for enrollment. "Overall numbers are up. More males on campus and in residence halls."
Barry's Spartans proved to be quick learners, or else they were simply good at football despite their size. In the opening game, at a home field 19 miles from campus, they rushed out to a 30-0 lead over Post University, of Waterbury, Conn., and won, 30-7, in front of 1,300 fans. Afterward, bagpipers from the Emerald Society serenaded Barry in the parking lot as his players stripped off gear inside a practice bubble that doubled as a locker room.
The director of football operations ordered 90 pizzas to celebrate. When the pizza arrived, players debated whether to eat it. They knew they would have to weigh in again three days later.
"Is there a healthier option?" quarterback Luke Sullivan said.