Nov. 28, 2012
Don't take all of this success in football for granted.
This is a story about The Little Engine That Could. Old Dominion University's football program wasn't supposed to be this good this fast. Believe me, I remember the people who told me just that as the Monarchs rose to fame.
And the Monarchs remember them too.
I remember very well when I took over the ODU football beat for The Virginian-Pilot back in the fall of 2008 how the haters were always grinding on those young Monarchs. There's no other way to describe them. I could call them detractors and I could even call them Doubting Thomases, which would be more appropriate since Thomas DeMarco was ODU's quarterback as the Monarchs took the field to face Chowan for Old Dominion's first-ever football game on Sept. 5, 2009.
That's only 1,181 days ago. So I have strong memories of each and every Doubting Thomas who sent me an email or called me asking if I was crazy or something to predict the Monarchs would finish their first season 6-5. So when DeMarco led the Monarchs to a 36-21 victory on way to a 9-2 record, the detractors changed their song, but only a little.
The detractors said things such as, "ODU is going to go 0-11. They wouldn't beat Oscar Smith. And they definitely wouldn't beat Phoebus."
They changed it a bit to, "Yeah, they won but they didn't play anybody."
I've never understood why people are so cynical, why they can't imagine that if you get the right coach together with the right players great things can happen.
Call them underdogs if you may. Throw them into a grouping with James J. "Cinderella Man" Braddock, Joe Namath's New York Jets and Miracle on Ice if you must.
Or realize this is a pretty good football program that's still on the steep climb.
So pardon me for a moment as I skip down memory lane. Here are the moments I have cherished in the mercurial rise to what could be a national title if things break the Monarchs' way.
Sept. 19, 2009 - ODU wasn't supposed to beat Jacksonville. They weren't supposed to go on the road and win immediately. Jacksonville was a step up and it was a road trip. The players, some of them flying for the first time, raised their arms when their plane took off from Norfolk International Airport as if they were on a rollercoaster.
They found a sauna in Jacksonville, with game-time temperatures in the mid-90s (I remember well because it was of 100 degrees in the press box when the AC conked out. The Monarchs won that day when they went 91 yards in a minutes and 23 seconds for a 28-27 victory. DeMarco hit Dorian Jackson for a 27-yard touchdown pass that became the game winner with 45 seconds remaining.
Nov. 21, 2009 - By this point, the Monarchs had a following and took about 2,000 fans with them to Lexington to take on Virginia Military Institute. It was a game against an established Football Championship Subdivision program, a team that played in the Big South Conference. The Monarchs weren't supposed to win this one.
But they did, 42-35.
Oct. 30, 2010 - Safe to say some Monarchs fans had become bored with the first two years of program play. It was a given that ODU wouldn't go to the playoffs. But there was that game across the water at Hampton University that piqued a lot of interest. As if turned out, there were more ODU fans on hand than Hampton Pirates fans.
And the Pirates' fans sat on their hands for much of the game. Deron Mayo, playing a lone season for the Monarchs after Hofstra disbanded its program, had a game to remember. Mayo, who hails from Hampton, blocked a punt to get the Monarchs going on way to a 28-14 victory. He also had five tackles on the afternoon.
Nov. 20, 2010 - ODU closed out its season with a 33-21 victory at North Carolina Central that was, by then, an afterthought outcome to many fans who were yearning for a championship team, one that played for titles and playoff berths. This was the last game ODU would play that held little significance.
DeMarco played it as if he was a soldier in the Scottish Army of Robert the Bruce. He played it like Braveheart himself, William Wallace. With two separated shoulders by game's end, DeMarco led the Monarchs to victory and an 8-3 record. And so far that's the worst record the Monarchs have posted. Just think about that for a second. The worst record.
Oct. 2, 2011 - Taylor Heinicke was special from the day he walked onto ODU's campus, the Georgia state player of the year who had landed on Hampton Boulevard because coaches in the Southeastern Conference thought him too short to play in the SEC.
Their loss. ODU doesn't measure its QBs with a ruler. It measures their QBs with victories.
Alas, to see Heinicke play in 2011 meant something went terribly wrong with the master plan, which was to have DeMarco be the quarterback. A debilitating ankle injury was that terrible wrong.
When told he'd start the second half against UMass after believing this really was a red-shirt season for him, Heinicke threw up. And the show was on.
Nov. 12, 2011 - The Monarchs needed some big plays down the stretch to hold off William and Mary. They got them from Eriq Lewis, who was playing on a bad ankle but somehow picked off two passes in the final minutes to salt away a 35-31 victory. At William and Mary, the school that ODU was hatched from so long ago.
I don't have to go over this season's games with you. They are fresh in your minds. They've led to a 10-1 record, a No. 4 seed in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, and a date Saturday against visiting Coastal Carolina at Foreman Field at 2 p.m.
But I thought you might need some reminding as to how the Monarchs got here.