Former Montclair State University assistant football coach, Don MacKay, looked down at his left hand.
“I’ve been wearing this for fifty years: the national championship ring,” MacKay said. “The best part about it? This ring cost $42 and we had to raise the money ourselves with cake sales and car washes,” MacKay said.
It has been fifty years since the 1970 Montclair State football team found themselves inside the hot and humid Atlantic City Convention Hall, playing in the Knute Rockne Bowl Game. It was Thanksgiving weekend as they went up against Hampden Sydney, who ranked number one offensively in the country at the time.
The game gathered lots of press going in, with Montclair State being ranked number one defensively in the country that season.
As soon as the game began, everyone knew it was going to be intense. On the second possession, Montclair State scored on third down with an inside play, right up the middle. It would be the only time the team would score that game, but it still led them to a 7-6 victory over Hampden Sydney.
Montclair State would then go on to complete their season with an 8-1 record, their second New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) title and a bowl game trophy.
This year would have been time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of that memorable season, but the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has changed those celebratory plans and has also postponed the 2020 football season for Montclair State.
MacKay says this has been hard on many of the players, in terms of having to make a decision about whether or not they want to continue.
“This whole pandemic certainly is [creating] a whole different way of life,” MacKay said. “On a level like this, where some of your football players play lacrosse or baseball, you have [multi-sport athletes], you’re running into a conflict now where the athlete has to make a choice and that’s difficult.”
The 1970 team was supposed to be honored during the 2020 homecoming game, which was scheduled to take place Saturday, Oct.10. Since it was not able to happen this season, the team has changed its plans and has scheduled to celebrate the anniversary next year at the home opener.
John Brunelli, a 1970 Montclair State defensive back, sympathizes with the athletes who have been forced to give up the season, because of the pandemic.
“What they’re facing today, I could not have imagined. [It has to] be devastating,” Brunelli said. “Many of us at this level aren’t going to the pro-level. Montclair [State] guys were playing for the game; we loved it. To lose a season because of this COVID-19 is heartbreaking.”
Looking back at past years, it is hard to find any adversities that compare to what current collegiate athletes are dealing with today.
Bobby Jensen, a linebacker for the 1970 team, says that while their predecessors had to play during times of chaos and war, they never let that get in the way of the team’s morale.
“The only adversity we may have faced is we had people for the war and people that were against the war,” Jensen said. “Lucky for us that never encroached on our team. Fifty years from now you are gonna say what crazy time we grew up in. That was insane. This is not the way it’s supposed to be. It’s just not.”
Fortunately, the current Montclair State football team has been able to practice this fall, but the season has been rescheduled for the spring. A lot of colleges did not arrange for the fall season to be made up, but fall athletes are glad that Montclair State plans to.
This season was an important one for players like senior quarterback Ja’Quill Burch. He started all 10 games in each of the past two seasons and was looking forward to doing the same this season.
“I figured [out] what’s next for us old guys,” Burch said. “Are they [going to] just kick us out, let us graduate and have nothing? But then I saw all the people dying because of the virus, so I sat back and said, ‘alright, this is bigger than football. Let’s put [ourselves] on the back burner and take care of international health first. We’ll get back to football sometime soon.’”
There are many protocols and requirements that the team is currently required to follow. Even though they are different from anything they are used to, Burch insists they are ready to play whenever they get the green light. Burch’s positive mindset is something that the younger players and his teammates can look up to.
“You can look at the virus [and see how] it helped us and [how] it hurt us,” Burch said. “We didn’t have to throw young guys out there right away, but then again, they got all this time to learn all the plays. It helps me get to know them, teach them and learn it. I’d rather be in person, I’d rather be on the field, I’d rather be on the white board, but with the circumstances, we’re just taking care of business.”
This pandemic may have put a damper on what could have been a chance for history to repeat itself after fifty years, but it is inspiring to see how the 1970 and 2020 team have kept a similar, optimistic mindset, even when dealing with completely different situations.