For the first time in its history, the startup Misericordia University football team, which had endured nearly two full seasons of ego-bruising blowouts and some heartbreakingly close losses, did something Saturday that can inspire even those people who usually pay no attention to numbers on a sports scoreboard.
It won a game.
For the record, as time expired Saturday, the light bulbs on the blue board showed the home team had 40 points, the visiting Cougars from Misericordia 63. But the final tally is less impressive than all that preceded it. First came the university’s bold decision to start a collegiate football program in the Middle Atlantic Conference and then came the commitment from players to stick with it no matter what.
Since then, Misericordia’s athletic experiment has demonstrated what can be achieved through practice and upholding values such as patience and positive attitude — the kind of lessons that should resonate long after a student leaves campus.
This small, liberal arts institution founded in Luzerne County’s Back Mountain region by Catholic nuns, and formerly a place that only educated young women, put its fledgling football program on the field for the first time in fall 2012 and promptly got trounced. The opposing team received the first kickoff of the inaugural game and returned it nearly 90 yards for a touchdown. About 15 seconds had elapsed. In the end, Gettysburg College routed Misericordia 70-0.
It would not be the only lopsided loss of season one.
Misericordia fell to Albright College in its final road game of that year, 48-0, while gaining only 38 yards in the entire game. Its first season ended with a loss to Lycoming College: 38-0. Perhaps the highlight of its season had occurred in late September when NFL Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris visited the university for the dedication of its field house and watched from the sidelines. The team played 10 games and lost them all.
Like “The Little Engine that Could,” however, the coaches and players stayed on course, confident in their abilities to make progress.
Misericordia nearly defeated King’s College of Wilkes-Barre earlier this season, coming up just short in a game that extended into double-overtime. Headlines from as recently as last month charted the change: “Cougars continue to show improvement in loss.”
In all, the young team experienced the sting of defeat in 19 consecutive games.
Then, it finally came.
“I’m just really thrilled for the kids,” Misericordia coach Mark Ross said after this weekend’s victory over a struggling Fairleigh Dickinson University-Florham team in Madison, N.J. “They decided to do something unknown, knowing they probably weren’t going to have a lot of success early on.”
Misericordia quarterback Jeff Puckett expressed pride in his teammates. Of their collective struggle, he said, “It’s been a really, really long road.”
Before leaving the football field, Misericordia’s coach and others stopped to photograph the scoreboard. It glowed against a backdrop of trees dropping their autumn foliage, but it failed to reflect the full story. In truth, these young men didn’t become winners Saturday.
They were winners from the moment they decided to try, then took the risk and kept on trying.