By Harry Minium
MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — Those pompous sports pundits who insist there are “too many bowl games” didn’t see the joy in the eyes of Old Dominion’s football players when the Monarchs exited a caravan of buses and into a posh Marriott hotel on the Atlantic Ocean on December 17th.
Too many bowl games? Ask the players at Virginia, North Carolina State and East Carolina and others denied the chance to play in the postseason because of COVID.
The Cavaliers, Wolfpack and Pirates didn’t get to check out the meeting rooms set up for their pleasure with video games, TV’s, snacks and comfortable chairs, standard fare for bowl participants.
They didn’t get the swag, such as watches, footballs, luggage, bags, etc., from which the Monarchs got to choose, as do players at every bowl game.
They weren’t able to spend days in a city where many of them have never been and to do it with their teammates, the guys they’ve spent most of their time with as long as they’ve been in college.
“These are the guys who are going to be in your wedding, who you will still be close with 20 years from now,” said senior linebacker Jordan Young.
“It was our last chance to be together as a team.”
And when you add the facts that most bowls break even or make money, and draw a ton of TV viewers, the cries of “meaningless” bowl games becomes, well, meaningless.
Myrtle Beach doesn’t have a Disney World or Bourbon Street, and yes, Tidewater has plenty of beaches. But few ODU players have stayed in an Oceanfront hotel for four days and nights. They ran onto the sugar-white sand in Myrtle Beach and yelled with joy. A few hardy souls went swimming in the chilled water.
“I’ve been to a number of bowl games in the Big 12, and I’ve never stayed in a hotel this nice,” defensive coordinator Blake Seiler said a day into the bowl trip.
“The kids are having a blast.”
Over the next few days, they practiced hard to prepare for their Myrtle Beach Bowl game with Tulsa.
They also played hard. They had a night out bowling, they toured the Pro Football Hall of Fame (the only one outside of Canton, Ohio), played video games at Dave and Busters and romped on the beach in 70-degree weather.
They had some free time to wander around downtown Myrtle Beach and they also spent time with family and/or friends. Hundreds of family members and ODU fans jammed the Marriott.
And although the Monarchs lost to Tulsa, 30-17, in Coastal Carolina’s Brooks Stadium, they had the thrill of being cheered by nearly 5,000 fans who made the trip to root for their team.
Following is a series of vignettes from their time in Myrtle Beach, including the story of a keepsake cow bell, a successful wedding proposal, and a special graduation ceremony.
Now that the season is over, we can tell the story of Cory Jackson, who suited up against Tulsa with a cast and two steel plates protecting three injuries that would have kept a lesser player on the sidelines.
Cory Jackson is a Profile in Courage
Senior Cory Jackson wasn’t a star for ODU but I’m not sure anyone in college football played with more courage and heart than the Jackson, Mississippi native.
He played on the defensive line against Tulsa with a cast protecting his right wrist, which was broken; a steel plate in one foot to protect a turf toe injury and a steel plate on the other foot to protect a broken bone.
“I called him RoboCop,” said assistant coach Kevin Smith. “But he didn’t get the reference.”
It was a reference to the 1987 movie “RoboCop” in which a murdered police officer who comes to life again as a cyborg after being rebuilt.
Jackson is no cyborg, but clearly, his pain threshold rivals that of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
I didn’t write about his numerous ailments earlier this season because, frankly, ODU didn’t want opponents to know all of his injuries for safety reasons. I vowed to do so once the season ended.
“He obviously has so much grit and a lot of courage,” said Smith, who coaches special teams and outside linebackers.
“Every time something happened to him, he kind of shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘I’m going to be fine.'”
He suffered the turf toe injury in spring practice. He eventually had surgery and injections to reduce the swelling and played with a steel plate to protect him.
He was injured again in ODU’s 23-20 victory over Louisiana Tech, when he was on the receiving end of a cut a block from a running back. Smith said he was told early in the game that Jackson was done for the game. But trainers put a cast on his right wrist at halftime and he went back on the field.
He broke a bone in his foot in the second half.
“He was told he was done,” Smith said. “But he said, ‘I’m fine.’ I told him, ‘You’re not fine.’ He said, ‘yes, I’m fine. What are you so upset about?'”
Somehow, someway he returned two weeks later when the Monarchs won at Middle Tennessee, which set up a winner-takes-all game with Charlotte, with the winner going to a bowl and the loser playing for the last time in 2021.
ODU won, 56-34, and Jackson played a key role. He tied a career high with seven tackles, including one tackle for a loss when a stripped the ball away from a Charlotte player that set up a touchdown that put the Monarchs ahead by two scores.
Jackson came to ODU from Pearl River Junior College in Mississippi. When head coach Ricky Rahne and his staff were hired in 2019, it was Jackson’s third coaching staff in three years. Yet his attitude never changed.
“The way he’s carried himself says so much about his character,” Smith said. “He never balked at anything we asked him to do.
“Even when it was something to do with class or something else off the field, he just did what we asked him to do. His ability to buy in and trust us was a big part of his success.
“It was unbelievable how he took things in stride. At the tail end of the year, we asked him to learn a second position, defensive end. He didn’t say anything other than, ‘what do you need me to learn?’
“You can tell he comes from good people, from a good family. He always wanted to do everything the right way.”
Even if it meant playing in pain.
Long Traveled Cow Bell
Leila Young loved football almost as much as her son, Anthony, who played in the NFL. She was the team mom for his youth league team in Hawaii and in 1968, the team bought her a cow bell to show their appreciation.
She loved the bell, and she took that it to hundreds of events in which Antony and later, her three grandsons experienced.
Aaron, Donaldatta, Avery and Anthony Young with the cowbell. Aaron and Avery play at Rutgers.
“She rang that bell at every game, every assembly, every graduation, every event you can think of,” said Jordan Young, one of her grandsons who became the University’s all-time tackling leader against Tulsa.
A few years after his mom got the bell, Anthony’s father left the family.
“She became a single mom,” Anthony Young said. “It was hard on her, but she always found a way to give us what we needed. And she always found a way to have the money for us to play football.”
Even if it meant putting off needed car repair bills.
“She would sometimes walk to my games,” Anthony said. “People would tell me they picked her up on the way to our games.
“She was the baddest football mom on the block.”
All through his career, from high school, to Temple University and the Indianapolis Colts, she rang the bell.
“When I scored a touchdown, sometimes she would be chasing me down the sidelines, ringing that bell,” he said.
“I used to get embarrassed.”
After his first season in the NFL, he bought his mom a house in New Jersey. “That was the happiest day of my life,” Anthony said. “She cried when she saw it. She worked her whole life to make sure we had what we needed.
“That was very gratifying.”
When Anthony’s sons began to play – Jordan at ODU and Avery and Aaron at Rutgers – their grandmother took the bell with her to their games.
“You could hear her ringing it up in the stands,” Jordan said. “You always knew she was there.”
Alas, Ms. Young passed away on Dec. 8, 2020, from COVID. She was 79.
Although Ms. Young is no longer around, the bell continues to journey around the country.
“We dedicated this year to Momma,” Anthony Young said. “It was the first time she wasn’t with us.”
He and his sisters, Donaldnatta and Katrina, carried the bell from Miami, Florida to Piscataway, New Jersey to Myrtle Beach.
The bell also followed Avery and Aaron to Friday’s Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida.
Jordan Young with his grandmother, Leila Young
“She was the matriarch of our family,” Anthony said. “She is with us at every game. She instilled the love of the game in all of us. I remember when I was a kid, she said, ‘son, you’re going to play in the NFL.’ And she was right.”
She also had a hand in raising his three sons.
“She often kept the boys,” he said. “They learned so much from her.”
When Anthony Young home returned to Coatesville, Pa., in late December, he put the bell in a glass case on the mantle of the family home’s fireplace.
It will stay there for safe keeping until the next time it’s needed, be it next season at Rutgers or in the NFL with Jordan.
Bowl Game Marriage Proposal
Dr. Bradley Butkovich is one of my favorite people associated with the ODU football program, and not just because he’s an outstanding orthopedic surgeon.
It’s also because he did surgery on my bicep two years ago and treated me like I was his only patient. Amazing how docs with terribly busy schedules manage to do that.
I tore my bicep away from my elbow when I fell out of my attic (it’s a long story). Once torn away, the bicep moved up my arm almost to my shoulder. And yes, that was gross.
Simple surgery, he said, until afterwards when he told me he drilled through some bone. Oh, and did I tell you that he texted me photos of my arm sliced open from the operating room?
But I digress.
Dr. Brad, as I call him, drove to the bowl game with Stacey Schellhammer, whom he has been dating for nearly a year. Stacey is a critical care nurse who works for the VCU Health System as a flight nurse.
Dr. Bradley Butkovich
She does God’s work. She flies on a helicopter and takes care of some of the most extreme cases of injured people as they are flown back to the downtown Richmond hospital. Many times when she goes in the air, it’s a life-or-death situation.
On the way to Myrtle Beach, Dr. Brad took a little surprise detour and stopped in Kinston, N.C., where they had dinner at the Chef & Farmer restaurant, a pretty cool place that uses only locally grown vegetables and meat.
While there, Dr. Brad got down on his knee and asked Stacey to marry him. She said yes and the place erupted into cheers.
And Dr. Brad was goo goo-eyed the rest of the week.
Cousins Just Hanging Out
It’s been a tough year for true freshman Isiah Paige. The 5-foot-8 wide receiver from Varina High School in suburban Richmond lost his sister, Carlene Taylor, in a car accident a few months ago, a horrible blow that he managed to absorb while playing for the Monarchs.
He then tore the ACL in his knee against Middle Tennessee, an injury that required surgery.
Dr. Brad performed the surgery and he said the former Richmond area, Class 5 regional player of the year will recover in time to play next season.
He was on crutches and attended the bowl game and took part in all team activities except practice.
“I’m doing OK,” he said. “It’s been hard but I’m going to be fine.”
He roomed with wide receiver Ali Jennings III, his first cousin who played at archrival Highland Springs High.
Isiah Paige was the nation’s tenth-leading punt returner
Ali did a really cool thing during ODU’s regular-season finale against Charlotte. He donned No. 10, Isiah’s number, and then had the best game of his career, catching nine passes for a career-high 252 yards and three touchdowns.
He returned to his usual No. 0 in the bowl game.
He also took care of his cousin during the bowl game. Yes, when ODU says family, that means family.
Paige was a Conference USA All-Freshman pick who was third in the league and 10th in the country in punt returns, with 14 returns for 153 yards, an average of 10.93 yards. He was also ODU’s third-leading receiver, with 23 catches for 174 yards and a touchdown.
Yet he’s only shown a fraction of his potential. Expect big things from both cousins next season.
A Special Graduation Ceremony
ODU’s December graduation was held on Saturday, Dec. 18, at Chartway Arena. Because the football team was in Myrtle Beach preparing to play Tulsa, 14 players and student videographer Kayim Jamison missed their graduation.
Not to worry. Rahne worked with Dr. Ron Moses, ODU’s executive senior athletic director who manages the athletic academic advising team, and University academic officials to bring a graduation ceremony to Myrtle Beach on Sunday, Dec. 19th.
Dr. Augustine Agho, ODU’s Provost, handed out degrees and first-bumped more than 1,000 students at Chartway Arena on Saturday. He flew to Myrtle Beach to handle the same duty. Caps and gowns were procured for the players and there was even a boom box playing “Pomp and Circumstance,” the song played at nearly every graduation ceremony.
More than 100 coaches, family members and teammates jammed into a meeting room at the Marriott, and listened to short speeches from Rahne, Agho and Athletic Director Wood Selig.
Sister McKenzie and parents Sandy and Brian Rice after son Nick graduated.
“Every student who works as hard as you have deserves to have a graduation ceremony,” Dr. Selig said. “But I want you to know that not every university goes to this kind of effort to celebrate their students.”
Agho told the group that he had fist-bumped 1,842 students the day before at the regular graduation ceremony and to take it easy on him, because his hand was sore.
Rahne said he hopes to hold graduation ceremonies at a bowl game site every season from now on.
“Our goal is to do this every year because our goal is to be playing in a bowl game every year,” he said.
That is, until the Monarchs earn a bid to a New Year’s Day Six bowl, such as the Orange and Sugar bowls, which are played long after graduation. Winning a league title, and getting to a major bowl game, are two of Rahne’s major goals for this program.
“If we do that, it will be because of the foundation these guys created,” he said, referring to the 14 seniors.
Even though the ceremony was held in a hotel, it was like any other graduation. There were tears of both joy and sadness. Players realized they were college graduates but also knew it signaled the end of their college football careers.
In all, 12 received undergraduate degrees in seven different majors, and three earned master’s degrees.
“I do not have my master’s degree, so they are more educated than I am,” Rahne said.
The undergraduate degrees: Tyre Bibby, criminal justice; Harrell Blackmon, sport management; Will Brocchini, communication; Estefano Feliciano Jr., business management; Matt Geiger, cybercrime; Marcus Haynes, communication; Ryan Henry, sport management; Cory Jackson, sport management; Kayim Jamison, exercise science; Carson Ramos, business management; Nick Rice, business management; and Stone Smartt, finance.
TV Ratings Up For Myrtle Beach Bowl
The ODU-Tulsa game was the only bowl game played on Dec. 20 and drew high ratings. According to the sportsmediamatch.com website, viewership jumped 44 percent over last season, when Appalachian State and North Texas met.
The game was seen in 918,000 TV homes, meaning it was seen by far more than one million people. How many people are watching at home isn’t measured, nor do TV ratings take into account the tens of thousands of viewers who caught parts or all of the game in bars, airports and other public venues.
Suffice it to say the game was seen by a lot of people.
And again, in spite of those naysayers who love to insist there are too many bowl games, sportsmediawatch.com reported recently that TV ratings for nine of the first 12 bowl games played this season were up significantly from 2020.
Looking Ahead to Next Season
When asked to speculate about how good his team will be next season, Rahne said there was no way of knowing yet.
The process of figuring things out begins when players return to campus for the beginning of classes, and beginning of winter workouts, on January 8th.
“Hopefully, our players understand what it will take” to return to a bowl game, he said.
“I think everyone wants to do it all the time. I hope the returning players are able to grasp what it takes, the hard work it takes in January, the meetings in February when we’re doing the install, when we’re completely rebuilding the team again.
“I hope that’s something the team understands. This doesn’t happen because you want it to. It happens because you will it to.”
Certainly, the Monarchs may have difficulty equaling the drama of the 2021 season, when they lost six of their first seven games, including three that went down to the wire, then won five in a row to qualify for a bowl.
As the 14 seniors indicate, the Monarchs don’t lost a lot of key players. Four or five starters return on the offensive line, as well as all the quarterbacks, receivers and running backs who played significant time this season. So does most of ODU’s defense.
ODU signed 10 high school players in December and will announce any players coming to ODU this spring from the transfer portal in a week or so.
ODU will sign as many as 10 more players during the first week of February and likely will add more transfers in the spring.
ODU’s first 10 recruits marked a remarkable start for Rahne and his staff – they signed four of the top 17 players in Hampton Roads and the first four-star recruit in school history.
But the Monarchs take on a challenging schedule next season, likely their most challenging ever. They are scheduled to play in Conference USA but an early exit to the Sun Belt Conference remains possible. If so, that strengthens the league schedule considerably.
Regardless, the non-conference schedule will be among the most challenging in the Group of 5. ODU hosts Virginia Tech and Liberty and plays at Virginia and East Carolina.
ODU football coach Ricky Rahne
All four earned bowl bids in 2021.
New Virginia Tech coach Brent Pry makes his head coaching debut at ODU, possibly on a Friday night in front of a national TV audience. The game is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 4, but Dr. Selig recently said officials are exploring options for moving the game to Friday night.
Pry and Rahne worked together at Penn State, where Rahne was the offensive coordinator and Pry the defensive coordinator.
“Brent Pry is a great football coach and a great motivator of men,” Rahne said. “I’m excited to be able to compete against him like I did in practice.
“Hopefully it’s a packed house when they come here.”
ODU sold out 20,500 tickets in 2019 on Tech’s last visit to Norfolk at old Foreman Field without putting tickets on sale to the general public. Every ticket was claimed by season ticket holders and donors and Virginia Tech fans who purchased tickets through the Blacksburg school.
I’d be surprised if every ticket isn’t sold weeks in advance next season again in 2022. Tech fans are going to take this game seriously. The last time the Hokies came to Norfolk, ODU upset Tech, 49-35, on national TV.
Jeremy Cox running for he game’s final touchdown against Virginia Tech in 2018
A rematch of that game with two former Penn State coordinators coaching on either sideline surely will end up in prime time on some network.
ODU fans have been clamoring on social media for ODU to put football season tickets on sale. That likely will happen in late January or early February.
There will be some changes to season ticket packages and while I can’t yet say what they are, my take is that the vast majority of fans will like the options ODU offers.
This year’s non-conference home schedule – Hampton and Buffalo – wasn’t the most attractive in ODU history, but it will be very attractive the next three seasons.
In addition to Virginia Tech and Liberty in 2022, Wake Forest and Buffalo (the Monarchs will be gunning for revenge for the 35-34 loss to the Bulls in 2021) play at S.B. Ballard Stadium in 2023 and Virginia Tech and East Carolina come to Norfolk in 2024.
It’s eight months until ODU football opens against the Hokies, and, yes, that’s a long time. But there will be a lot of news to come in the meantime.
Visit www.odusports.com daily for the latest offseason news on ODU football and all other Monarch athletic teams.
Minium worked 39 years at The Virginian-Pilot before coming to ODU in 2018. He covers all ODU athletic teams for odusports.com Follow him on Twitter @Harry_MiniumODU, Instagram @hbminium1 or email firstname.lastname@example.org