Football players attending Marist College must endure the challenges of taking on the role of a student-athlete, but their sacrifice to dedicate time to the field has a larger meaning. Despite the school having 23 Division I varsity sports, the football team consists of upwards of 100 student-athletes, and zero receiving athletic scholarships.
Following the conclusion of the 2007 regular season, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) disbanded for football, leaving Marist without a league to compete in. In turn, they joined the Pioneer Football League (PFL), one of the few Division I FCS conferences to ban athletic scholarships.
With no guaranteed financial assistance, recruiting athletes to come play for a school such as Marist College is challenging for the athletic department. What would make an athlete choose Marist over a school that may offer them an athletic scholarship?
“The big thing is we’re going to be upfront about it with all the families and recruits,” recruiting coordinator and defensive line coach James Groce said.
Being open about the inability to provide athletic scholarships allows the recruiting team to focus on other aspects of the program and school. When both sides have a full understanding of the situation, negotiating with the recruits and their families becomes a much easier process with each party knowing what Marist College can offer to football athletes.
“If you don’t bring it up in the beginning, it’s going to eventually get there and for most families, it’s a big piece of the decision process,” head coach Jim Parady said.
College is an expensive investment, therefore any athlete committing to a school without major financial support needs to know they are going to be in good hands. This is what the Marist football program prides itself on –– not only playing football, but what these student-athletes will do after. Immersing themselves with the full collegiate experience at Marist is what hinders the interest of football players to the college.
“For me, academics, and just the location of Marist was a huge role in coming here. I just wanted an opportunity to excel in the classroom, just as much as on the field,” freshman linebacker John Testa said.
Marist’s academic prowess is well renowned among the region and beyond. While some athletes initially only plan to attend Marist for football, the education aspect plays a crucial role in these players’ decisions.
A football program such as Marist doesn’t scout four and five-star recruits, however, they have an established program that still plays at a high collegiate level. The competition is another major draw to the institution, as it shows the recruits they will be playing hard-fought games during their four-year tenure.
“I was actually in between Bentley and Union College because I was going to be able to play quarterback there, but for Marist, I would have to transition to tight end,” freshman Jackson Willette said. “I had to pick and I liked Marist more because it was also Division I.”
There are multiple outside factors besides scholarships that entice athletes to Marist. The coaching staff does their best to take advantage of all the college has to offer. The school is a private institution with academic standards to maintain, therefore it is vital for the recruiting team to mainly target those with strong academics to succeed at Marist.
“As we get our initial pool of players, we look at their high school transcript, really before we even get to a lot of the film on them,” coach Parady said.
About 16,000 potential recruits are scouted every year. However, grade-point average, transcripts, location and more are accounted for to narrow down the pool of students. The athletic department is allowed 56 campus visits for each class, making it critical they do their research and find the athletes who will commit to the school.
Testa and Willette both dealt with the repercussions of committing during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Consequently, the inability to travel far, along with predominantly virtual tours led them to stay within a certain distance to schools near their hometowns. Their options were limited because they could not visit the campus or meet the current players, as most of their interactions with the coaches were through Zoom.
“With COVID-19 going on the coaches were very responsive and answered a lot of questions. We could ask them anything any time of day and they’d get back to us,” Testa said.
COVID-19 handicapped the recruiting team’s abilities to scout, but also the athletes’ potential to show their talents. With the struggle of battling a global crisis, the program still needed players and the athletes needed a school, which is where communication comes into play. The coaches may not be able to offer scholarships, but their door is always open to talk, they help prepare their athletes for the workforce and will do their best to provide a true division I football experience.
Every family wants their child to have the best college experience they can to set them up for the future. For Willette, playing football at a competitive level took precedence over finances, but the inability to receive an athletic scholarship still looms over him.
“It does kind of get to you because you do wake up, you do put in as much work, maybe even more than some of these kids on scholarships,” Willette said. However, while the tight end explained how the lack of financial aid will make him feel uneasy at times, there is a silver lining.
“It is nice to know that the money that you’re not getting might be going to someone else who may need it way more, someone who is paying for college out of their own pocket,” Willette does not love the financial situation, but looking at it from an alternative perspective helps to put his mind at ease.
Recruitment can be a long and grueling process, but finding the players that fit the Red Fox mold has turned the football program into a highly competitive group of student-athletes. Athletic scholarship or not, there is a place for every athlete, which is why the coaching staff does their best to find the talent they are looking for.
“There are a lot more great players out there than available athletic scholarships,” Parady said. “Now you have to go out and find those kids and you’re going to be able to get great players to come here that have just been missed by other people.”
Edited by Dan Aulbach and Mackenzie Meaney
Photo by Jonathan Kinane