ORONO – Jamal Clay was a skinny teenager four years ago. A University of Maine freshman and a football player who tried on Media Day to appear nonchalant and all-knowing when he was not.
He was the high school star from suburban New Jersey. All the excitement of New York City’s Times Square was less than an hour away, a far different world than downtown Orono. During his freshman year, Clay thought about transferring from Maine.
“Oh, I remember,” he said, running between photo shoots at this year’s Media Day. “My parents gave me the ‘grass-isn’t-greener-somewhere-else’ talk. Every year I came back it got better. And I found out I didn’t want to quit on my teammates.”
Maine is the NCAA Division I university that struggles sometimes to keep the athletes who play for its teams with the highest profiles.
Yes, any comparison is pinecones to acorns and reasons for leaving a team are personal. Hockey players can jump-start their professional careers and start earning a paycheck. Basketball players looking for a better chance of playing in the NCAA tournament or more playing time or a change of scenery move on.
Football loses players before graduation, too. Lofa Tatupu, the former Seattle Seahawks linebacker, broke hearts when he left Maine after one season to transfer to the University of Southern California and an undefeated 2004 season.
Many more stay.
Coach Jack Cosgrove couldn’t say. Instead, he mentions that Maine had the highest APR (academic progress rate) among all Colonial Athletic Association teams this spring. The percentage of Maine players earning their degree helps determine APR.
Nearly 20 seniors are on this year’s Maine team of some 90 players. Cosgrove quickly adds still another perspective: His football program is the self-described island for misfit toys. Many times, Maine players had no other real options coming out of high school, Tatupu included. Cosgrove offered them a football scholarship when no other Division I coach would.
The payoff for Maine and Cosgrove is loyalty. That Maine football’s talent and position depth is uneven from season to season frustrates everyone. After reaching the NCAA playoffs in 2011 and winning its first game, Maine was 5-6 last year.
“We don’t expect to get overnight sensations,” said Cosgrove. “Those players have other options. Here, it’s a four-to-five year process.”
Clay was a redshirt defensive back in his freshman year, practicing with the team but not playing. Last season he had six tackles and a deflected pass in the opening-day loss to Boston College. He started each of the 11 games and became one of Maine’s most improved players.
Clay was at ease Friday. So was Justin Perillo, the senior tight end, and Michael Cole, the senior defensive end. Seniors Joseph Hook and Tyler Patterson relaxed with Maine’s other giants, the offensive linemen. Senior John Ebeling, once the hopeful to start at quarterback, is a confident wide receiver.
Same stories, same commitment. Same nervousness of the unknown when they arrived at this outpost. Same crash course adjusting to Division I football after being the stars of their high school programs. Same coming to grips with dawn wake-ups for preseason practice and the hours of classroom football until late at night.
Same questions over where they fit in the bigger picture. Same determination not to jump ship because brothers don’t walk away from brothers.
“Eight to 10 of us were all in a house here for the summer,” said Cole, who grew up in New Brunswick, N.J. “I was an early child. I found out what it was like to be part of a bigger family.”
During the summer, the campus and even Orono can seem like a ghost town. “You make it fun where ever you go,” said Perillo, who found amusement in posing for Media Day photos. He’s from Wilmington, Del., a city. He was 40 minutes away from downtown Philadelphia. He struggled, he said, like any freshman, with being away from home, the much longer hours dedicated to football.
“We had each other,” said Perillo. Lean on me. They’re still leaning on each other and that includes this year’s freshmen.
Dakota Tarbox, the freshman and Thornton Academy graduate, waited his turn to get his photo taken. He was among the last.
“This is different from high school,” he said, trying somewhat successfully not to look like a boy among men. “My goal is to the get on the field during a game. I want to help.”
He doesn’t yet know what he doesn’t know.
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: