It’s Friday night, and for the last time before a regular season game, 26 seniors walk off the practice field. For 10, 11, 12 years, this is all they have known in the fall. Football. But now, a moment once believed to never come is smack dab in the center of the windshield.
As the seniors gather in a circle, the rest of the Springfield College Pride football team circles around them. In the center of the circle, the old shoe is lit on fire, a continuation of deep history.
It began in the 1940’s when Coach Ozzie Solumn arrived at Springfield College with a tradition. At the end of the last practice of the year, the seniors would participate in the “Burning of the Old Shoe.”
Gathering around the shoe like a campfire, each senior tells their story – good, bad or both – to the team, sharing with them the emotion that lies deep inside.
This season, the Pride bid farewell to a senior class that has earned four bowl berths in four years. They are a class brimming with leadership, claiming not one or two captains, but four. A class that has fought from the bottom of the depth chart to earn their spots at the top.
On Friday night in the bitter November cold, the Pride burned the old shoe.
“It’s highly emotional,” said head coach Mike DeLong. “The fact that it’s the players’ potential final game, it marks the end. It’s the end of parents being able to watch their child in the sport. It’s a final game for them to play in.”
For this year’s seniors, the center of the circle represents perseverance and determination. As freshmen, they were forced to stand on the outside of the circle, vulnerable to the cold wind. Year by year, they moved one step closer in, until finally reaching the climax of their college career, earning the right to stand in the warmth, surrounded by their teammates and friends.
“It was an emotional type of deal,” captain Sam Weiss said. “Everybody got to think back on their four years and what they’ve done, and thinking back to what the coaches said when they were in the middle of the circle. Each year you get progressively closer in the circle; you’re not on the outside freezing. It’s a great experience.”
Not only does the “Burning of the Old Shoe” represent the end of football careers, it also ignites memories for the seniors from the beginnings of their college experience.
“My uncle was telling me to get noticed [when I came to Springfield],” said Weiss. “They have no idea what you’re capable of unless you get noticed.”
Weiss did just that, claiming captain status his senior year while accumulating 136 tackles and nine interceptions for his career.
No matter if a player experiences great statistical numbers, or simply works hard for his team every single day, the end of the journey presents a feeling like no other.
“It’s a pretty weird feeling,” captain Scott Leach said. “You play football your whole life, and then you realize that tomorrow is your last day. It all hits you at once. You’re excited you made it this far because you don’t think you’ll make it. You’re not sad, but you know the sand is running out in the hour glass.”
For the coaches, the end of the journey for their seniors is an annual letting-go process. No longer will they see these players in the workout room or on the practice field. For four years they have established a lifelong relationship with their players, and now they have to watch them walk off of the field for the final time.
“It’s really emotional,” DeLong said. “You get the chance to watch them come in as freshmen and be freshmen and you watch them mature and suddenly they are speaking and talking about real things instead of freshmen things. We get close to these kids; that’s what four years on a practice field does for you.”
Luckily for this group, they have been given a chance to play on their home field one more time thanks to a bowl berth. For one more week, they get to go to practice. Each night inches them closer to the last time that they will strap on shoulder pads and a helmet, and the next time they step on the field will mark their last, a sensation they won’t soon forget.
“It sucks to see it end,” Weiss said. “You put so much work into film and practice, working on schemes, and late nights watching films with your position coaches. It’s been awesome. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”