They share a unique bond.
For University of Maine football alums, the time they spent in Orono is memorable.
Many come from urban environments to the rural backdrop of eastern Maine. They immerse themselves in football and academics without the distractions one might find in a big city.
And they form lifelong friendships.
There were plenty of former players on hand Saturday afternoon when UMaine posted the first home playoff victory in the program’s 126-year history, a 55-27 win over Jacksonville State.
Former center Garret Williamson, defensive end Mike Kozlakowski and quarterback Warren Smith were among those on hand. They all live in the New York-New Jersey area and were among a large contingent from there that made the trip to Orono.
Smith’s father, Warren Sr., accompanied his son to Orono as did Williamson’s dad, Jack.
“It was great to be up there,” said Smith, who led UMaine to a 34-12 playoff win at Appalachian State in 2011, when the Black Bears last reached the Football Championship Subdivision national quarterfinals and lost at Georgia Southern (35-23).
“I got to catch up with a lot of my former teammates that I hadn’t seen in a while. We had a lot of success my senior year and it brought those memories back,” Smith said.
Several former players plan to attend a watch party Friday night in Hoboken, New Jersey when UMaine tangles with Weber State in Ogden, Utah. The 8 p.m. game will air on ESPN2.
The name of the establishment? The Black Bear Bar and Grill.
University of Maine co-captain Jeff DeVaughn said he and his teammates appreciated the support of the former players on Saturday.
“I’ve never seen so many alums before. We were really happy to see them come back and support us,” DeVaughn said.
Kozlakowski said he wanted to throw the pads on and had a great time watching game the and swapping stories with teammates and other alums.
“I had flashbacks,” said Kozlakowski, who because of an injury played his only game of the 2013 season against New Hampshire in the second round of the FCS playoffs.
UNH upset UMaine 41-27 that day.
“I remember the [good luck] rock and that playoff atmosphere. It felt like yesterday. You could feel the energy on campus.”
Williamson was a four-year starter on the offensive line for UMaine from 2009-20012.
“Being in that atmosphere again and watching them kick butt was nice,” he said.
“I have some good memories playing on that field. We made the playoffs two different years [2008, 2011].”
The players reminisced about their time at UMaine and how being together as much as they were creates what Williamson called a lifelong fraternity.
“It’s a long way from home for a lot of guys. You can’t get in a car and go home for the weekend,” said Williamson, who is from Flemington, New Jersey. “It brings guys together and creates a special bond. You fight for each other.”
Kozlakowski explained that the desire of many former players to make the trip to Orono for the playoff game is a reflection of how important the camaraderie is to them.
“It’s amazing,” Kozlakowski said.
“It’s a great example of how we’re here for each other and we all share that bond.”
Smith said that along with the isolation of living and playing in Orono, they are brought together by their common recruiting experiences. Players attend the school with a chip on their shoulders because, in many cases, UMaine was the only one to offer them a scholarship.
Smith said when he was at UMaine, the players referred to themselves as being in the “Land of the Misfit Toys,” a reference to the popular 1964 animated Christmas special, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
“We wanted to prove to people that we can compete at a high level,” he said.
Smith complimented UMaine’s defensive effort on Saturday, but was impressed by the play-calling of offensive coordinator Nick Charlton.
“They were shifting guys around, going in motion. They were very unpredictable and it made the defense uncomfortable,” Smith said.
He especially liked the trick play when UMaine quarterback Chris Ferguson pretended to fumble and then stood up and threw a short touchdown pass to a wide-open Drew Belcher.
“It was brilliant,” said Smith, who is a teacher and the offensive coordinator for the football team at his alma mater, Lacey Township High School in New Jersey. “I’m installing that for our high school team next season.”
Smith is still an active player in the four-team Arena Football League for the champion Washington (D.C.) Valor. He is a seven-year AFL veteran.
Kozlakowski on Saturday focused on UMaine’s defensive line play, which is where he made his mark.
“They worked together as a team and fed off each other’s energy,” he said.
“The defense hammered away the whole time. That’s one of the best defenses I’ve seen,” Williamson said.
Smith also was a fan of the fake punt on which Belcher picked up a first down via a direct snap.
“Even when Jacksonville State scored those two [quick] touchdowns, Maine stepped on the gas [and scored three unanswered TDs] and that’s the sign of a really good team,” Williamson said.
Williamson’s evaluation of the offensive line, which paved the way for Ramon Jefferson’s 186-yard rushing effort, was simple.
“They had an attitude about them,” he said.
This year’s UMaine team was picked to finish eighth in the Colonial Athletic Association preseason poll but won the conference title outright and is the only CAA team left in the playoffs — and one of eight FCS teams in the country still playing.
Williamson, Kozlakowski and Smith all said if the team makes it to the national championship game Jan. 5 in Frisco, Texas, they plan to be there.
“I think they have a good shot at going all the way,” Williamson said.
This story was corrected on Dec. 4, 2018, at 2:22 p.m. to reflect the correct spelling of Garret Williamson’s first name.