August 07, 2013 - Al Manfroni has been coaching football for 32 years, in various capacities, with a wide range of ages and teams.
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This fall, he will make history, as the head coach of the first ever football team at Oakland University.
"This is a dream come true," said Manfroni at the school on Monday. "OU is the last major college in southeast Michigan without a football program. We are working on getting it together."
Football will be played as a club sport at OU, as part of the Great Lakes Conference in the National Club Football Association.
Nic Bongers, club adviser, had no explanation for why OU has never fielded a team before now, even though the school has been in existence for more than half a century. The myth that circulated at OU for years is that Matilda Dodge Wilson, who founded the school in 1957, forbade the playing of contact sports.
"We are treating the creation of the new football club as a new chapter in OU history," said Bongers, who is studying for his doctorate degree in educational leadership at OU and will play wide receiver for the team at the age of 33. "Part of our mission is to dispel the myth. Over the last few months, the response has been positive—finally, we have football."
David Brosky, club president, is respon-sible for making it happen. Last fall, Brosky, then an OU freshman, approached the OU Club Council about forming a team after researching leagues in which the school could fit. He found the NCFA, in which U-M Flint participates. The OU Council told Brosky that if he could drum up interest and form the club at a reasonable cost, it was doable. He started putting out flyers.
The endeavor had its ups and downs, he acknowledges. The first month after he put flyers up, he only had interest from four or five players. He had to file for non-profit status as a 501c3, locate a field to play home games on, and, perhaps most intimidating, overcome the funding hurdles.
Players have to finance their own equipment and travel costs, about $850 total for the season.
Still, the club managed to sign up 28 players as of this week, including two 2013 Brandon High School graduates, both of whom played football as Blackhawks—Mitch Ballard and Nick Newsom.
Newsom learned about the team in June at orientation and has been at practice twice a week since July.
"I love the sport and want to continue playing," said Newsom, who will play center on offense and tackle on defense. "Practice has been going pretty good… These are a great group of guys and we have a lot of talent on the team, so I am expecting we will do well. We will play our hearts out and hopefully make it to the playoffs."
Newsom is excited about having Manfroni as his coach, again. Manfroni coached Newsom as a Brandon Junior Blackhawk during his elementary and middle school years.
"He's a great guy and knows his stuff," Newsom said. "He tells you to do something, you do it."
Manfroni said he began coaching at Kent State University (where he also played) in 1980. He has coached at various high schools in the years since, including as a defensive coordinator for the Brandon junior varsity team last year. Manfroni was also a founding member of the Northern Youth Football League in 2005 and is still involved in the organization.
He stepped in at OU in July after the original coach stepped down due to scheduling conflicts.
Manfroni, 56, tells his players that he can teach them everything, but at the end of the day, it is the players on the field. As a coach, he has two priorities—to make sure his players have their priorities straight, placing their education first; and to make sure they have the tools they need to be successful on the field.
"This is a team effort," said Manfroni, who owns a property investment company. "Just because this is a club sport does not diminish its value in any way. We will run a spread offense and that means lots of running. We have tremendous athletes on this team."
Manfroni is not compensated for the position and said he is coaching sheerly for love of the game.
"I do this because I love football, I love what the game does for young men—they learn discipline, hard work, consequences—life lessons… I want to see the university have a program they can be proud of."
Ballard, who played linebacker at Brandon, will be the quarterback for the Golden Grizzlies. He is optimistic while acknowledging the team faces the challenge of being strangers and learning to work together.
"It seems like we're getting the hang of it," he said. "I expect us to win a majority of our games. I feel once we move on to campus and the people know about it, more people will join the team."
The OU Football Club's season kicks off with a scrimmage game at 8 p.m., Sept. 7, at the Auburn Hills Civic Center Park, located at Cross Creek Parkway and Valley View Drive, within walking distance of campus.
The team will also play U-M Flint twice this season (away game Sept. 21, home game Oct. 26), as well as the Milwaukee Panthers (away, Sept. 28), Columbus State Community College (home, 4 p.m., Oct. 5), the Wright State Raiders (away, Oct. 12), Miami (Ohio) University (at home, 4 p.m., Oct. 19) and Ohio State University (away, Nov. 10).
All teams are in the National Club Football Association's Great Lakes Conference. For more information on the OU Football Club, visit https://sites.google.com/a/oakland.edu/football-club/ or https://www.facebook.com/OUclubfootball or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville