On Friday, Maine Maritime Academy announced it was suspended the football program over financial concerns. 207 Photo/Courtesy of Maine Maritime Athletics

It was news the players didn’t see coming. And it hit with the force of a blitzing linebacker.

When it was announced Friday that Maine Maritime Academy was suspending its football program indefinitely because of the financial impact the institution will face due to the coronavirus pandemic, the news came as a surprise to players. They found out the same way as the rest of the institution – in an emailed statement from Dr. William J. Brennan, the school’s president.

“The football program is our most expensive non-academic program,” Brennan said in the statement. “As the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are already mounting and with the prospect of a 10% curtailment in state funding, we need to review the program’s overall impact – and the impact of all programs – on our ability to continue to operate the institution.”

“I didn’t really have a heads up,” sophomore wide receiver and Cony High graduate Reed Hopkins said. “I was on my way home from work when a buddy of mine and a couple of us on a group chat messaged me and said ‘Hey, sorry for the bad news, fellas, hate to see it.’ He just wished us the best of luck, because he’s graduating this year. That was the first I saw of it and was like, ‘Huh, wonder what that was all about.’ So I checked my email and saw the president of the academy sent an email out to the student body, and I read it was like, ‘Wow, that’s quite a bummer.'”

Hopkins said Coach Chris McKenney plans to address the team Sunday in a Zoom conference call.

Another sophomore wide receiver, Nokomis alum Tyler Pelletier, said he was floored by the news.

“I just had a loss for words,” Pelletier said. “It almost didn’t feel real, it felt like I was almost in denial about it. It just didn’t feel right, it didn’t feel real. It felt very sudden and more of a sporadic decision than giving a lot of thought about it.”

The school had already announced in July that it was canceling fall sports, including the first interruption in play for a football program that dates back to 1946 (Maine Maritime was founded in 1941). Along with the suspension of football, the statement said the school will also review the status of rugby and wrestling, which are club sports. The school has six other varsity sports offered for both men and women – basketball, cross country, lacrosse, sailing, soccer and swimming – along with men’s golf and women’s volleyball.

“I was a college football player myself; I understand it’s a part of your identity,” Maine Maritime Athletic Director Steve Peed said. “It’s hard enough when that goes away with graduation. To first have your season yanked away by a pandemic and then, on top of that, to find out the program’s suspended and you don’t know if it’s coming back, when it’s coming back, that cuts to the core of who a young person is.

“Most people who play college football have been playing since they were a kid. This is the pinnacle of that journey, and that’s yanked away. So obviously that’s going to be painful. In my conversations and emails with athletes, they’ve expressed the full range of emotions you would expect – sadness, anger, disappointment. It’s all of those things, and it hurts for us as a department, it hurts for us as a staff. We love the camaraderie and experience that football brings to the campus.”

Maine Maritime has won nine New England Football Conference titles, most recently in 2009, when it qualified for the NCAA Division III playoffs. The Mariners have also made four East Coast Athletic Conference bowl appearances.

But over the last decade, the program has fallen on hard times. The Mariners have an overall record of 13-69 since 2011 and have won a total of two games in the last four seasons. They were winless in 2018 and 2019.

Despite an 0-10 season last year, players had the feeling a turnaround was not far away.

“I think, as a whole, there was a pretty good feeling of hope and that we weren’t far off (from turning things around),” sophomore quarterback and Nokomis graduate Andrew Haining said. “I think we were improving this past season, enough where this upcoming season, we had hopes (for a turnaround), knowing we worked in the offseason that we’d come and convert (the work) to wins.

“It’s something similar to what I went through in high school. It’s a real thing. When you go through droughts like this, you really have to relearn how to win. There were a couple games we were in where, if we have experience winning, maybe we do gets those wins.”

Pelletier said he believes the community’s lack of support for the team, because of their struggles, was a factor in the decision.

“It’s kind of sad, because you would think that they would be uplifting and go ‘Look, we’re going to do everything we can to help you guys.’ To be honest, it was a blindside hit,” said Pelletier. “And I feel like the community left us in the shadows and kind of said we’re a lost cause, almost, and stopped giving us support, stopped giving us attention when we started losing. All the players knew it, all the staff knew it. But for the lead people at Maine Maritime to make that decision, it’s honestly breathtaking and mind-boggling and hurts my brain to even think about.”

News of the program’s suspension was not only a hit for current players, but for alumni as well.

“For a school that tries to preach leadership and teamwork, to get rid of a program that exemplifies these qualities is absolutely embarrassing,” wrote former star player and assistant coach Joe Crowe in an email. “I can see suspending a season due to health concerns, but after all the money donated to build a beautiful locker room and facility. Shameful. It’s their largest group of sport alumni, and possibly largest group of donors.

“I was always very proud to say I played football at Maine Maritime Academy. In Division III, the sport isn’t about being a money maker. Its about team, it’s about learning how to be a member of society, how to take pride in working hard for someone else and having them work hard for you. Maine Maritime has been losing its identity and reputation (amongst the majority of alumni I have spoken with) for a while and this is just another step in that direction.”

Crowe added that he and several alumni that he keeps in contact with plan to call and email their displeasure of the situation to MMA’s administration.

Pelletier, Hopkins and Haining all said they plan to start the school year at MMA. But Pelletier said he knows several players that are leaning toward transferring, himself included.

“I’ve already heard a half dozen to a dozen kids say they’re thinking about transferring, and a couple of them that are pushing to get out of Maine Maritime before school even starts,” Pelletier said. “Yes, the education (at Maine Maritime) is one of the best in the nation. But at the same time, you have people that go to Maine Maritime for sports, and things that are more than just education. Because life is (more than) studies, you want to do stuff that makes you happy, like playing (sports) at a college level.”

“I’m on a group chat with (incoming) freshmen,” Pelletier said. “They’re just as amazed as I am. A lot of these kids came to Maine Maritime to play football. For them to be exiled so quickly and so suddenly, it’s a stab in the heart. It really hurts for me, a sophomore, or a junior. The seniors already knew the season was over because of COVID. When you have people left with eligibility, I really do believe that (players) will transfer. It will hurt Maine Maritime.”

“I, personally, do expect to see some (players) transferring,” Haining said. “I think freshman classes are going to drop a little bit in size. I think football was a big draw for the school. Despite the losing record, it is an opportunity – especially in the state of Maine – to continue to play. I’m not entirely sure that many (prospective students) would even come in and even look at the school if it wasn’t for athletics.”

There’s no telling when, or if, Maine Maritime will have football again. But it will be missed by those closest to it.

“I’m quite sad about it, to be honest,” Hopkins said. “I enjoyed playing football up there. It was pretty fun. Made a great group of friends up there, just through football. I know a lot of others, and I can speak for them, had a blast playing. Obviously, no one really goes to that school for football, in particular, but it makes the time pass up there. I had a blast. I’m going to be pretty sad that it’s gone. I know others will as well.”


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