Ypsilanti: Where College Football is Actually Refreshing
The college football story we all needed.
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Last week, Eastern Michigan was one of the most-discussed football teams in all of college football.
No, EMU isn’t changing conferences.
No, EMU didn’t get wrapped up in any crypto-backed NIL monsters for vanity’s sake.
No, EMU didn’t even win any games yet. It was still the first week of summer training camp.
No, the head coach didn’t get a massive contract extension either. He didn’t do yell about roster poaching or the state of the transfer portal.
No, there wasn’t another one of those “EMU needs to drop football yesterday” posts going around.
Sorry, if you were looking for any of the usual hot-button issues to get upset with again, you’ll have to look somewhere else. There are a lot of schools to point at and yell “the rich get richer, and I’m loving this sport a little bit less now,” but you can’t do that here. EMU is a much different place than that.
It aims to be more special than that, too.
Last week, EMU captain and returning right tackle Brian Dooley made an unprecedented move.
After four years of Zack Conti being a walk-on offensive lineman for the program while working long days and nights for a landscaping company and while helping for his mother Karen, who suffers from Plycystic kidney disease, on top of keeping up with all of his schoolwork, Dooley handed Conti the scholarship papers that he and his family had always hoped to see one day.
“I respect that he was always working and always trying to get by,” Dooley told the media yesterday after practice. “He was always working out with us in the morning, landscaping all day, and we wouldn’t see him until 7 or 8 at night. Then you’ve got to get sleep… and he’d still come to workouts and just kill it.”
Due to the circumstances of Conti’s situation and the overwhelming flood of responses that’ve come his way since last week, he did not join media availability. However, Eastern Michigan did provide pre-recorded comments by Conti to The Ypsilanti Eleven.
“After spring ball, I met with Coach Creighton and he told me to keep working, he sees the work I’m putting in and stuff,” Conti said. “He basically told me that he’s working on getting a scholarship. I feel like as time went on, my focus shifted from that to the season.
“I was shocked still, though. I came into camp not expecting it at all.”
Conti walked on with the team in 2019 after he graduated from Trenton High School. He knew that he was going to have to earn a scholarship one day. Creighton told the media the same thing he tells all of his walk-on players: hard work alone is not good enough to get you a scholarship here.
Hard work is the bare minimum for playing on gray turf.
“We just had a scrimmage today and (Conti is) running with our 1’s,” Creighton said. “He’s competing to be a starting tackle here this fall. Everybody in the room at our team meeting that night knew that. So he certainly has earned it.
“I said this earlier, Brian Dooley, when I grow up, I want to be like him some day. I’ve done this for a bunch of years and I’ve never seen it and I’ve never heard of it before. It is truly who he is. I’m not trying to make him out to be something that he’s not, but he’s that guy. It’s not just with Zack, he’s a two-time captain for our football team, is a servant leader, and is just an unbelievable human being.”
After the 2022 season, three of EMU’s starting linemen left the program. Two graduated out, and the third transferred to Missouri. With spots up for grabs and years worth of development to exercise, Conti saw his chance to take his game to the next level.
In doing so, Conti hitched his wagon onto the two-time captain and starting tackle Dooley, who is on-pace to break EMU’s all-time games played and games started records. Extra runs, extra lifts, extra whatever it takes, Conti was going to run with the first-stringers.
For Conti, it meant doing all the physical demands of his extra work, then still going to his job as a landscaper — it didn’t matter if it was super hot out or if there’s rainfall. The work has to get done.
“It’s been a grind my whole life, but I mean when you really want something, you do what you have to do to keep it going,” Conti said.
O-linemen are in the weight room first: 6:30 in the morning. After a good lift the group tends to get treatment and sit in the pool for a while.
But instead of pool floaties and swimming trunks Conti always had to change his jeans, lace up his boots, and head to work.
‘‘Where’s Conti at?”
“He’s at work, remember?”
“Oh, that’s right.”
All the extra work on the field on top of the extra work off the field was all necessary for Conti to make this football thing work for as long as he was able to.
But a fifth year paying out of pocket for football? That bill’s not cheap.
During the springtime, Conti and Dooley had a discussion about what Conti’s mother’s health situation, and how if he didn’t finally earn a scholarship, it was probably going to be a wrap on his college football career.
“I went up to Coach Creighton and Coach [Sean] Coughlin and was like ‘we’ve got to make this happen,’” Dooley said. “I’ve got two classes to finish my master’s degree, … he’s got another year and a half. That scholarship can help him way more than it’s going to help me, in my opinion.”
Outside, college football spins madly on.
The sport is on fire, and the response to every dramatic move dominating tomorrow’s and yesterday’s headlines has been somewhere along the lines of “Rich Guy Throws Money At Fake Problem, Doesn’t Have Athletes’ Hearts in Mind.”
If I can speak for all college football fans: Three straight years of doing that song and dance instead of talking about the actual, upcoming football season is ruining my enjoyment for this wonderful time of year.
The important thing to remember is that no matter how popular and dominant the biggest brands in the sport pave the way for whole new-looking T.V. product, every exhausting move made by schools, conferences, and studios that’s blowing up your Twitter feed is only a small portion of the sport.
Remember, most of college football is not played on Fox or ESPN. Most of college football, the game we say we really, deeply care about, is played where most fans aren’t even looking.
If college football matters to you, then I hope this finds you well. Because this, too, is as much of a part of college football as anything else you read about these days. This is as much of a college football story as anything else, and it’s a big breathe of fresh air, isn’t it? Isn’t it great knowing that the real good stuff of college football exists in more than just 40-60 schools?
College football’s big business these days. Whether you like that or not, EMU’s not caught up in the same whirlwinds as some of the bigger schools are.
At Eastern, these personal relationships actually matter to one another.
Because like Creighton, I’d never heard or seen anything like this before. And when I look at the college football news of the day, I like being positively surprised at what some people are doing.
With all the negative in the air, last week’s 2-minute video of Dooley giving Conti his scholarship was something a lot of college football fans needed to see.
“The breathe of fresh air,” Dooley said, “we’re breathing it every day and you know we just can’t wait to compete later down the road.”