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Football: Can Napier's football team help UL community heal after school year filled with tragedy?

Kevin Foote, The Advocate, July we, 2019

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UL football coach Billy Napier, right, pictured here with UL alumnus Bobby Simon during signing day activities, is hoping his team can help the Acadiana area heal beginning with its season opener on Aug. 31 against Mississippi State in New Orleans.

Football programs have carried the heaviest burden for athletic departments for decades.

But the responsibility — or in this case the opportunity to help heal — UL football coach Billy Napier and his Ragin’ Cajuns are faced with this upcoming 2019 season is unique in school history.

It’s about more than being the primary financial provider, a role many football programs fill across the country. 

(Editor's Note: By all standards, the 2018-19 athletic school year was a disappointing one for many UL Ragin' Cajuns programs. This is the thi…

The 2018-19 school year for the UL athletic department is among the darkest in school history.

There were disappointing results on the field. For the first time since joining the Sun Belt Conference 27 years ago, only one UL sport finished in the top three of the league’s overall standings.

But that pales in comparison to the emotional toll of the off-the-field tragedies the UL community has endured this past school year.

Among the excruciating list of deaths that have tested the resolve of Cajun fans everywhere are: UL baseball coach Tony Robichaux, UL softball assistant coach Geri Ann Glasco, longtime equipment manager Lynn Williams, longtime athletic bus driver Mastern St. Julien, career athletic employee Leonard Wiltz, track Hall of Famer Twilet Malcolm, baseball Hall of Famer Garrett O’Connor, former defensive back Sean Thomas, super fan and school supporter Donald Mosing and most recently basketball coach Bob Marlin’s brother, Mike.

Obviously, success in football — or any other sport during the 2019-20 school year — isn’t going to bring any of those loved ones back. Winning and losing isn’t life and death.

But the fan base and the community could use something to rally around these days.

But that pales in comparison to the emotional toll of the off-the-field tragedies the UL community has endured this past school year.

Among the excruciating list of deaths that have tested the resolve of Cajun fans everywhere are: UL baseball coach Tony Robichaux, UL softball assistant coach Geri Ann Glasco, longtime equipment manager Lynn Williams, longtime athletic bus driver Mastern St. Julien, career athletic employee Leonard Wiltz, track Hall of Famer Twilet Malcolm, baseball Hall of Famer Garrett O’Connor, former defensive back Sean Thomas, super fan and school supporter Donald Mosing and most recently basketball coach Bob Marlin’s brother, Mike.

Obviously, success in football — or any other sport during the 2019-20 school year — isn’t going to bring any of those loved ones back. Winning and losing isn’t life and death.

Sports can help heal. There are many examples of it. 

The USA hockey team in 1980 revived the energy levels of countless Americans during one of the most depressing eras in U.S. history.

Look at what Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints did to lift the spirits of New Orleans residents after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

Or the message of pride and purpose George Bush’s first-pitch strike gave our nation after 9/11.

“I would agree whole-heartedly that it could be a great opportunity for this community,” UL athletic director Bryan Maggard said. “I’m very hopeful that it will be that. Sports is a great unifier anyway. The circumstances that we’ve had here at the University of Louisiana can just ramp that up significantly.”

It begins Aug. 31, ironically in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, when the Cajuns in effect kick off the next school year for many fans against Mississippi State on national television. 

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Napier discussed the role that first game could play.

“What an incredible opportunity this year,” Napier said Monday. “We play in New Orleans in the Superdome against an SEC West opponent. It’s an opportunity, in my opinion, at one of the more critical times for the university’s athletic department to rally the troops and unite with all of the things we’ve been through this offseason.”

This might sound like a huge boulder to put on the shoulders of a football team and it isn’t a typical team responsibility. But perhaps, just perhaps, it’s a chance a create a therapeutic, rejuvenating rallying point for Cajun fans across the nation.

“I hope Cajun Nation takes great advantage of coming to New Orleans to celebrate the start of the football season, but also at the same time to just get together and do something fun,” Maggard said. “Let’s come together in an exciting venue and I hope that carries on throughout the entire school year.”

To a less somber degree, high school football coaches and principals have told me for years that a football team's successful kickoff in the fall semester can produce the needed boost for a great school year.

More than ever, UL students, athletes, coaches and fans need a good, old-fashioned emotional pick-me-up that sometimes only sports can provide.

“I think that’s very accurate,” Maggard said. “The mood in our community and any community on Sunday morning after a football win is so much different after a football loss. A successful sports program — especially in the sport of football — can do wonders for any community but especially Lafayette right now with everything that’s happened.”



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