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Finale an Emotional Day for UCA Seniors
CONWAY — Before the elevator whisked him away to the next handshake and next congratulation, Clint Conque had something to say.
“Hey, Jeremy,” the Central Arkansas coach said to fifth-year senior offensive lineman Jeremy Ford. “I love you.”
It could have been real joy, or it could have been an athlete’s natural can’t-show-weakness swagger, but Central Arkansas ’ four fifth-year seniors — Ford, quarterback Nathan Brown, receiver Eric Ware and defensive back Dathan Johnson — whooped it up with the rest of their teammates after the Bears’ 47-30 victory over McNeese State.
The victory capped a 10-2 season, including a 6-1 conference mark that is the best in the Southland Conference.
But those four, along with seven other seniors, won’t play college football again.
Central Arkansas’ victory remains shadowed by the NCAA’s Nov. 11 decision that the Bears would not be eligible for a Southland Conference championship, and thus could not earn the conference’s automatic bid to the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA ) playoffs.
Central Arkansas, formerly a member of NCAA Division II, has a year remaining in the fiveyear reclassification process and will remain ineligible for postseason play until 2010.
And while the university and the program will no doubt promote the concept of an “unofficial” conference title well into next season, that’s cold comfort for the veterans who can’t push their college careers at least one game further.
“We knew when we made the transition we weren’t going to play for the postseason,” Conque said.
Any disappointment can be tempered by this: When players signed in the fall of 2003, Central Arkansas was still firmly entrenched as a member of Division II’s Gulf South Conference.
The Bears rode out of the GSC in style, winning the conference outright and advancing to the 2005 Division II playoffs. And following a strictly transitional 2006 schedule without a conference game, the Bears have now posted back-to-back winning seasons in the Southland Conference while spending all of 2008 in the FCS national rankings.
That’s more than the average high school senior expects when he signs with a Division II team — especially given that most transition teams take their lumps well past their five-year trial period.
It doesn’t completely ease the pain of a truncated football career, especially at the smallcollege level, where the final game of the senior year almost always signals the last time a player will put on the pads.
“It’s different from high school ball,” Ware said. “We had an idea we’d be going someplace else. Now, at the college level, not many people make it to the next level. It’s kind of sad thinking about how it will be your last game forever.”
But as last games go, there are worse ways to end it.
“I won’t lie, it would be great,” Ford said. “It just shows you the character of the guys in the room. One year, we were an independent. We couldn’t play for anything. As Coach says, if 50 people show up and there’s no band, we’ve still got to get after it.”
It was right as Ford talked about these things — the end of football, wanting more yet being satisfied with what is — that Conque stepped out of the room and onto the elevator.
“I love you, too, Coach,” said Ford, as the doors closed.
No doubt there was a lot of that going around Estes Stadium on Saturday.
Finale an emotional day for UCA seniors
By Doug Crise, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette