Four years in: Reflections on Berry football

By Haiden Widener, Campus Carrier Sports Editor

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Current senior Chris Lilly catches a pass during the first ever win at Valhalla Stadium on Sept. 12, 2015 against LaGrange. the teams record this season 7-1 with only two games left. The Vikings take on Birmingham Southern on Saturday at 3 p.m.

Football was a rare topic of discussion on Berry’s campus until 2011, when the serious discussion of starting a football program began. Today people couldn’t imagine Berry without it. 

The seniors on the team this year were a part of the inaugural team, and the first class to play football all four years at Berry. With only two games left in the season and a chance to win conference on the line, they have one goal in mind: winning. 

Birmingham Southern and Centre are the two teams left to beat, both of which Berry has never beaten. The team is using that as motivation, and they are ready to leave everything on the field in order to win. 

“We’ve never been able to beat Birmingham Southern and we’re taking that one to heart,” said Lilly. “Winning out is the big thing that we’re trying to focus on. But we start every week 0-0. (We have to) get rid of the multiple penalties and do our job and execute when we can.” 

In 2010 Berry wanted to increase the number of male students on campus, make campus a place to stay on the weekends, and continue to expand the number of sports on campus. The answer to all of those was football.

After funding a year long feasibility study to determine if football at Berry could work, the administration started the campus discussions. These discussions were open to everyone on campus to voice their concerns or approvals. 

While some students disapproved of the idea, the student voice was mostly positive during the process, according to Dean of Students Debbie Heida. 

“It really took off in terms of people interested,” she said. 

The final decision to start the football program was made in October of 2011. Head Coach Tony Kunczewski was hired in March of 2012, and the team started their first season in August of 2013.

For the first two seasons before the stadium was built, all games were played either at Darlington High School or Barron Stadium in downtown Rome. 

The inaugural game at Barron Stadium housed 6,700 fans to cheer on the newest Vikings.

“When they first walked out on that field in Berry uniforms, it was a little surreal,” said Heida.

After the first ever Berry win, also at Barron, over 1,000 people rushed the field. 

“We were not supposed to storm the field, that was kind of in our contract with Barron, but there was no stopping our students,” said Heida. “You don’t get many magical moments in life, but that was truly a magical moment.” 

Once Valhalla Stadium and Williams Field were built, the magic continued. 

“The first two years, every game was an away game,” said senior wide receiver Chris Lilly. “I feel like there was a big sense of pride that came with the stadium. We’ve made that our home, and that’s what we’ve protected the last two years.” 

The Vikings went from records of 0-9 and 2-8 their first two seasons, to 7-3 last season and 7-1 with two games left this season.

“We have bragging rights,” said Heida. “There are very few start up programs that are this successful this quickly.”

While the success of the program and atmosphere of the games are part of what attracts potential players now, that was not the case when the program started. 

“The opportunity to start a new program was something that was big for me,” said Lilly. “I felt like it was a great way to leave a mark, and now that it’s my fourth year I can say it really was what I expected it to be.” 

Junior cornerback Tony White  had other reasons for wanting to play at Berry. 

White transferred to Berry last fall, after his former football program at Paine College was shut down. He was originally recruited by Berry out of high school, but didn’t have the grades to get in. After getting his grades up at Paine, he saw the ending of his career as a Lion as another opportunity to become a Viking. 

“I’m a strong believer in everything happens for a reason,” said White. “It gave me another opportunity, and I wasn’t going to miss out on being here.” 

While the impacts of a football team on campus were questionable just a few years ago, the outcome has been more than satisfying for the faculty involved in the movement. 

“There’s just an energy about football,” said Heida. “We’ve always had great competitive sports teams, but you just don’t get 3000 people out for a soccer game.” 

Not only has the program impacted the players on the field, but off the field and in everyday life as well. 

“It’s changed me a lot, and not just physically, but mentally,” said Lilly. “I feel like it’s changed me into a better man.” 

Even though this program only started four years ago, to all current students, Berry without football would not be Berry. The decision to invest in the football program is not one regretted by the people involved. 

“It’s brought a sense of pride,” said Heida. “It’s brought a sense of energy and I think it’s brought 100 terrific young men to Berry College.” 

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