When I arrived at Whittier Field 15 minutes before the start of practice, the place was vacant—or so I thought. While I was sitting in the Hubbard Grandstand, enjoying the fruits of the $8 million dollar renovation, a voice called up to me from the field. I poked my head over the railing to find a boy wearing generic gym clothes, neon soccer cleats and lugging a Bowdoin-issue football helmet around behind him. For some context, his short, wiry frame did not exactly scream “collegiate football player”—the weight of his helmet alone seemed to be weighing him down.
“Is there football practice here today?” he asked me. Taken aback, I told him that I was just a reporter but that yes, football practice began in 15 minutes, and asked if he was on the team, wondering how he had a team-issued helmet but didn’t know when practice was. “I’m the new kicker,” he told me. “It’s my first day of actual practice.”
As it turns out, the Polar Bears had found themselves in a tough spot with five days until their season opener. After its first-year kicker, a recruit, left the team during the first week of practice, and its veteran kicker Michael Chen ’19 found himself nursing an injury, the team needed a backup. Finding no qualified candidates among its ranks, it appealed to the men’s JV soccer team for help. The savior, I learned, was Sean Mitchell ’22, who had kicked for his high school team in Chicago but had had no intentions, until the day before, of playing college ball.
As players of all shapes and sizes arrived to the field, lugging shoulder pads, helmets and cleats, two things became clear. First, everyone was psyched to have a new kicker—“You’re the new guy!” became a common refrain—and secondly, Sean was dwarfed. Even next to the 5’9” Chen, he looked small.
Football practice is a meticulously orchestrated, ruthlessly regimented activity. Every coach carries a laminated, color-coded schedule, which breaks down that day’s two hour and 15 minute practice into five minute chunks and records every unit’s activity throughout that time. Practice starts exactly at 4:45, and from there on, there is no deviation from the plan.
To a layperson, however, the experience is closer to watching that of a three-ring circus. At any given moment, there are at least three, often more, drills happening at the same time, some of which involve players launching themselves at enormous rolling blue foam rings, coaches poking at players with gratuitously padded hockey sticks and gigantic linemen squatting with remarkable elegance under a slightly raised canopy.
It’s also cacophonous. Everybody is yelling at somebody, and the voices reverberate off the stone of the grandstand to produce an indecipherable rumble. When I occasionally could discern a word, it was something like “puma” or “multi” or, my personal favorite, “weasel.” I trust these all mean something; at least the players act like they do. Stretching off to the side, Sean looked equally confused.
If you ask a Bowdoin football player about the team culture, chances are good that he’ll mention the team’s “core values:” toughness, demandingness, accountability and love. The players selected and defined these values, at Coach J.B. Wells’ urging, after the 2017 season, and have been working to integrate them into the team’s routine. At the end of every practice, players gather for the daily “put-up,” wherein a player shouts-out a teammate for an action or attitude that embodied a core value. During the offseason, players are “drafted” into smaller teams which compete against one another by accruing points for eating meals together, completing community service activities or hosting events.
For anyone familiar with basic managerial tactics, this stuff isn’t revolutionary. But it is a step in the right direction for a roughly 80-man team that, in recent years, has not always seen eye-to-eye. The core values are Wells’ and the players’ way of trying to have the team converge around a single, common point of reference.
As the circus ran its course on the field, Sean worked on the sideline with Chen, warming up his leg and going through his “rituals,” as he called them. With half an hour left in practice, Kyle McAllister, the special teams coach, gathered his squad on the field, before calling upon Sean, who, after squibbing a couple of kicks across the field nonchalantly launched two consecutive perfectly placed kicks to the opposite 10-yard-line, eliciting an enthusiastic high-five from McAllister and a nod of approval from Wells.
Next, the coaches directed Sean to the 15-yard-line, where he set up to practice an extra point. While Sean was getting his steps, a mass of players started to spread out across the 40-yard-line, dropping their helmets to the ground to spectate. The holder took the snap, and Sean, from a shortened approach, placed the ball perfectly between the uprights. A roar of approval arose from the peanut gallery, which by now included the entire team. McAllister moved Sean 10 yards back to the 25; the peanut gallery whooped and hollered; Sean drilled the kick and the gallery bellowed. Back five more yards. Now the players, howling and screeching, broke from the 40-yard-line to form a tight semi-circle around Sean, who, with remarkable poise, nailed the kick. The semi-circle lost its collective mind, converging around their diminutive teammate, chanting “Sean! Sean!” As he disappeared among the mob of bodies, I feared for his safety, but not for his confidence.
Chatting with Wells in the middle of the field after practice, I asked his thoughts on his newest backup kicker: “Awesome,” he said. Apparently Sean had approached him right before I had to thank him for the opportunity and for getting the guys to support him at the end.
“I didn’t tell them to do that,” he told me. “That was all them.”
The Polar Bears open their season tomorrow against Williams, who has claimed victory in its last five meetings with Bowdoin and finished tied for fourth in the NESCAC last season with a 6-3 record. Seasons are not won or lost in a single game, especially an opener, which, Wells cautioned, is often won by the team that makes fewer mistakes. So what happens on Saturday will happen. But before then, it’s hard not to suspect that this Polar Bears squad has found its center, something real around which it can converge. And it’s not just Sean.