Faith, Family, Football: Marietta’s Storied Tradition

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It’s a brisk autumn morning and the sun is in a losing battle with the thick blanket of charcoal clouds that resemble the dark gray color of burned wood.  The early morning smells refreshing as the roar of a golf cart can be heard through the gusts of a harsh breeze. Upon pulling into the “parking lot” which is just an open space in front of someone’s house, there is a heap of golden bronze and burnt orange leaves strewn across the empty spot. A tailgate comprised of one lone picnic of hot dogs, soda, and coffee reassures the incoming fans that there is indeed a game to be played. For a brief moment, the sun breaks through the gray barrier and illuminates the words “Marietta College” that are placed on the light brick wall entrance leading to the stadium.

However, these words pale in comparison to the ones located on a sign in assistant football coach Greg Harbaugh’s office. The sign reads, “Faith, Family, Football,” and looks small on the vanilla-colored wall, but its meaning at Marietta is quite significant. Notice the order these words are placed because in this community, football takes a backseat to these other two mainstays that make Marietta so unique. Bound together by faith in one another since 1892, the Marietta coaches, administrators, community members and players have become a family through the game. An unimpressive 9-41 record over the past five years hangs over the Pioneers’ football team, which has not experienced consecutive winning seasons since 1995 and 1996. Despite Marietta’s struggles on the field, these community members still give their all to the football program because of their love for Marietta, and love for one another. Located in Southeast Ohio, Marietta has been a welcoming place for all of its community members including associate athletic director Jeanne Arbuckle who has been there for nearly three decades.

“This has really been home,” Arbuckle said. “It’s been a great place to have a lot of good experiences and I’m proud to be a Marietta Pioneer.”

While the team places faith first with a chapel service at 9 in the morning in a church outside of campus, devotion to and faith in the program are also measured in decades. This starts with the man inside Don Drumm Stadium who is leaving the golf cart to place bright orange yard markers on the field to begin his work for the day.

The man is Sam Meade, the first person inside the stadium and the last to leave on game day. His unshaven and aging face reflects nearly three decades of hard work, which is hidden underneath his navy, sweat-stained Pioneers hat. With Meade as the manager of Marietta’s grounds crew for the last 27 years, Pioneers football cannot be mentioned without his name coming up in discussion.

“Sammy’s job is to make sure the facility is ready,” Arbuckle said. “He oversees it. This is his facility to take care of, so he does all the regular maintenance and upkeep and then on game day he does all the preparations as far as getting the field ready. He does an amazing job getting everything ready, and has been a great friend over the years.”

To make sure the facility is ready on game day, Meade has many tasks to complete before kickoff. These duties include padding and erecting both goal posts in their appropriate position, placing flags, yard markers, and pylons on the field, and setting up player benches and communication headsets prior to each game.

Every single coach and player said a quick “How ya doing, Sam?” before making their way to the field. That acknowledgment is a sign of respect because the coaches and players realize that game day has been made possible over the last three decades because of Meade and his service to the school. Meade spoke very briefly with the players and coaches, and is a man of few words because he has a job to do for the Pioneers.

“I make sure everything is cleaned up good, and ready to go, and I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Meade said.

Because Marietta is a Division III school, coaches at the college must also act as managers for home football games. One of these coaches includes Arbuckle who is also the head softball coach and is in charge of all football game operations. This soft-spoken, motherly figure contributes to game day by hiring and working with more than 20 Marietta students. These students do a number of things including selling tickets, monitoring the gates, and selling Pioneers merchandise. All of this is done under the supervision of Arbuckle who oversees the entire process behind her onyx-colored glasses. After 28 years at Marietta, Arbuckle knows that game day preparation takes a collective group of people to be successful.

“I have other people that support me, so it’s really a team effort,” Arbuckle said. “It’s not just one person, it’s a lot of people coming together to make sure that the event comes off hopefully without a hitch, and is a good experience for the fans.”

One of the student employees that works under Arbuckle and helps her make game day at Marietta enjoyable includes the chestnut-brown-haired Matthew Valverde who helps to sell tickets at the front gate. It’s not your typical ticket booth at Don Drumm Stadium where someone sits behind a glass window encased in a small brick building to hand out game day tickets. Instead, the ticket booth at Marietta is a bone white, plastic folding table with an orange Nike shoebox on top to hold the tickets and money. Behind the makeshift ticket booth is the personable and polite Valverde, whose enthusiastic demeanor and authentic smile welcomes all Pioneer fans to the stadium.

“I’m here making sure people have a friendly environment when they come in so they’re excited for some Marietta football,” Valverde said.

Although Don Drumm Stadium can seat more than 5,000 fans, the Pioneers only have around 800 to 1,000 people come in on the last hour before kickoff. This does not deter Valverde who still stands in the freezing cold treating it like he were handing out golden tickets for the Ohio State-Michigan game.

While Valverde is the first person to welcome fans inside, football game manager Adam Rosen is the first to greet anyone outside of the stadium. After finding a space in the makeshift parking lot, fans are welcomed by Rosen who is also the assistant baseball coach for the Pioneers. Rosen is a wiry, salt-of-the-earth kind of guy who has been at Marietta for two years handling the game manager responsibilities. Rosen’s easygoing approach to game day preparation contrasts his serious appearance, which is highlighted by his gray crew-cut hair.

“My job is to get opposing teams, officials, and fans in and out of here as quick as possible,” Rosen said. “Above all, it’s important to give everyone a positive experience on their Saturday afternoon here at the stadium.”

Despite the stresses that come with all of this game day work, Rosen is still able to greet fans, officials, and the opposing team with the utmost respect. His sincerity and ability to make others feel welcome creates an enjoyable atmosphere before people even get their tickets.

The man that holds this entire football family together is athletic director Larry Hiser. Standing well over 6 feet tall, his presence is usually felt, but not for its intimidation. He considers himself to be just another fan and talks to members of the community about anything they have on their minds because that is the kind of man he is. Hiser comes to simply watch the games as a spectator and can be heard from the sideline shouting words of encouragement to the Pioneers’ team or even suggestions to the referees. Although Hiser has little to do with game day preparation, his impact comes before the season even starts including setting the team’s schedule and getting travel arrangements together for away games. He has been at Marietta for the past six years and has been a part of the Ohio Athletic Conference since his college days as an all-conference shortstop at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio. After being a part of the OAC for so many years, Hiser has grown fond of the conference and this town the Pioneers call home.

"It still has that feeling of home and I like my home here." – Larry Hiser

“It’s nice to be in the Ohio [Athletic] Conference as an administrator when you were there as a player,” Hiser said. “It’s like coming full circle and I really enjoy it.”

To go along with his collegiate and professional years, Hiser also has a family outside of football here at Marietta with his wife and two kids.

“For a married person with children I think Marietta is tight-knit. It’s not necessarily a small town like it is in Ada, but it still has that feeling of home and I like my home here.”

While there are some that have been at Marietta for nearly 30 years, offensive coordinator and line coach Alan Estep has been a Pioneer for less than a year. Estep is a man that is not afraid to get in a player’s face and let him know when he has made a mistake. His drill-sergeant-like approach to coaching may seem intimidating, but behind his burly physique and thick beard, it is easy to tell that Estep’s bark is much worse than his bite. He coaches with a certain passion to light a spark in all of his players and has adapted quickly to his new life as a Pioneer.

“I like it a lot. There’s a lot of things about Marietta that are going in the right direction,” he said. “In this small town there are lots of people that support us and support what we’re doing, so I’m very excited about the opportunities we have to grow as a football team.”

Despite his short time here, Estep has already picked up on Marietta’s values of faith and family. These beliefs were put to the test and reinforced with the recent passing of his father.

“At some point before the game I take a minute for myself to connect with my dad who just passed away in August then come to the facility… and get my mind kind of framed the way I want for the game.”

To any outsider looking in, this is just another normal Saturday on game day for the Marietta Pioneers. But look closer and you’ll see this is more than just a college football game. From a passionate first-year man like Estep to experienced Pioneers like Jeanne Arbuckle and Sam Meade, this family knows that football for Marietta is not the game at 1:30 p.m. and it is not even the hours of preparation it takes to make the game possible. What really makes this Division III team different than any other Division I powerhouse are the people that dedicate themselves to making sure the fans and players have nothing but the best for every home game. Not many people that make up this community are originally from Marietta, but they all consider this town to be home.

“The local community and college really work hand-in-hand so it’s been a wonderful opportunity,” Arbuckle said.

Faith, family, and football are not just words on a sign in an office at Marietta. This is a way of life for those that consider themselves part of the Pioneer community. The support and spirit of these people to create a successful game day atmosphere has grown stronger every year in spite of a football program that has gotten progressively weaker. To this town, football is not measured by the end result on the scoreboard but rather the scores of people that have become a family because of the game. Don Drumm Stadium is also more than a field on Saturday afternoons as it is a second home where Marietta’s football family has come together for the past 121 years.