ORONO, Maine — The atmosphere was festive and electric at a cold Alfond Stadium for the University of Maine football team’s NCAA playoff game against the University of New Hampshire Saturday.
Mike Hodgson, the university’s associate athletic director for development, said an impressive list of alumni returned to Orono for the game, including former NFL All-Pro linebacker Lofa Tatupu, who played one year at Maine before transferring to the University of Southern California.
“There were some who hadn’t been here in 15 to 20 years. A lot of them came back in groups. It was great to see,” said Hodgson.
One of the largest crowds in program history (7,992) braved the chilly 30-degree temperatures and a stiff 10-20 miles per hour breeze to watch UNH beat Maine 41-27.
“This is what a football atmosphere should be here at Maine,” said Old Town’s Jim Dill who has visited road venues “where the tailgating starts on Thursday.”
“There’s a lot of excitement,” observed UNH grad and fan Ted Dey of Portland.
Linda Collins of Brewer said the turnout at the tailgating lot “was the busiest I have ever seen it” and she was pleased with the crowd, saying “the team deserves it. They work hard.”
George Achey, father of Maine junior linebacker Arron Achey, said tailgating in December is much different than tailgating in September.
“You eat more in December. In September, you need to stay hydrated,” grinned Achey.
Achey tailgates for every Maine home game, driving 10 hours from Newmanstown, Pa., to watch his son and the Black Bears.
“These are good people up here. It’s a great state and a great campus. And I love getting away,” said Achey.
Several other parents were in the tailgating section and were elated about the team’s success and the atmosphere generated at the first home playoff game. They also said their sons are enjoying their time at Maine.
“We’re fired up. We’re proud of our kids. It all began in Pop Warner when they were 5 and 6 years old and it’s culminating in this. This is the most demanding sport there is. It’s a long season,” said Roy Eastman Sr. of Rahway, N.J., father of senior linebacker Troy Eastman.
“It has been a special ride,” said Eastman, who was celebrating his 53rd birthday. “I’ve developed a lot of friendships.”
“There’s a great group of people here. I’m glad to be a part of it. There’s no animosity or racism,” said Anthony Jones of Pleasantville, N.J., father of sophomore running back Nigel Jones.
Brad Carriker of Alexandria, Va., father of sophomore guard Daniel Carriker, said he had never experienced anything like this when he attended college.
“This environment creates a family bond,” said Carriker.
Former players Chris Howley , Roosevelt Boone and Lennard Byrd said they were elated that Maine finally earned a home playoff game and are hoping the experience will lead to better crowds in the future.
“I’m not sure people understand how much the fans mean to us,” said Howley.
“They give us energy,” said Byrd.
Tailgaters Jeff Harris of Old Town, Jeff Singleton of Albion, Layne Alley of Hampden and Ken Simone of Veazie were impressed with the turnout and atmosphere and Harris and Singleton speculated that it could help recruiting and also the overall enrollment at the school.
Harris pointed out that people sometimes equate “winning [athletic teams] with academics” even though they aren’t really linked.
“I think they have had better game day experiences this year,” said Singleton.
Byrd drives seven hours to attend game
Byrd wanted to be part of history. Again.
The former UMaine defensive back and All-Atlantic 10 kick return specialist hadn’t been back to Orono since graduating in 2002 but he wanted to be on hand for Saturday’s game.
So he drove seven hours from Kingston, N.Y., on Friday night and was on the sidelines Saturday.
Byrd and his 2001 teammates became the first Maine team to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs after beating McNeese State 14-10 in Lake Charles, La. They were ousted in the next round by Northern Iowa 56-28 in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
“Being the first time they’ve ever hosted a playoff game, I had to come up here and check them out,” said Byrd.
Despite the loss, Byrd said it was “definitely worth it.
“I went down to the locker room to see the coaches and equipment manager [Steve Jones] and they were happy to see me. It’s nice that they still remembered me 11 years later. I’m glad I left my mark,” said Byrd. “And I got to see a handful of teammates I hadn’t seen since I graduated. It was the first time I had seen my roommate [Malik Nichols].”
Byrd said Maine head coach Jack Cosgrove meant a lot to him.
“I really appreciated what he did for me. He gave me a scholarship and I enjoyed my five-year experience at Maine. I was very fortunate,” said Byrd. “I told the guys in the locker room to cherish every moment on this field in a Black Bear uniform. When it’s over, you’re going to miss it. There’s nothing like college football… playing with your friends and representing your school and having the fans cheer for you.”
The 34-year-old Byrd co-owns a window cleaning business and said that happened to be his work-study job during his summers in Orono.