He turned a casualty of the coronavirus into a Field of Dreams.
Just a month after Bobby Rome took over as the new football coach at Central State, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, closing down the school and, like at every other institution, quickly putting a financial strain on all aspects of the university.
When it came to football, one of the first cuts was the new turf field that was to be installed at McPherson Stadium.
With the existing grass field, if you could call it that, it was just as easy to break an ankle as break a long run. There were potholes and ridges and spots where there was no grass at all. And the nearby practice field was worse than that.
“Once I was handed the keys here, I figured, ‘OK, it’s my responsibility now to make sure the field is up to par,’” Rome said.
To do that, he had to:
—-Push aside game film and instead watch a YouTube video on the best way to grow grass.
—-Trade his coach’s whistle for a garden rake and bags of grass seed from Lowe’s.
—-Fill the back seat and trunk of his charcoal gray Cadillac – the one with the North Carolina plates – with a half dozen or so containers of water since none was available at the practice field and the watering system at McPherson wasn’t working.
The 34-year-old Rome – who came here from Virginia University at Lynchburg after being the starting fullback and team captain at the University of North Carolina – spent almost every day of the three-month COVID shutdown working on the fields.
Watering was a monumental – and sometimes messy – job, but it was crucial to get the lush thatch of grass that now covers the playing surface at McPherson.
“Everyone’s telling me this is the best the field has ever looked,” he said proudly.
It truly has become his Field of Dreams.
And those dreams aren’t just about getting CSU football back to being a winning program – the Marauders haven’t had a winning season since football was reinstated in 2005 — and reconnecting with the history that saw them win three NAIA national titles in the early 1990s.
Rome also wants the field to be part of the platform players use to address the larger issues in society, issues that especially affect an HBCU (Historically Black College and University) like CSU.
Those include things like the disproportionate toll COVID-19 has taken on people of color, as well as the matters that have formed the underpinnings of the Black Lives Matter movement, be it the brutality of some police officers and others on unarmed blacks to the systemic racism that is too prevalent in our society.
Rome wants his players to make positive contributions to those issues and he thinks this is a good time for such action:
“The biggest thing I’ve seen is that there are more listeners now than talkers. In order for us to fix the problem, we have to be able to listen. I think a lot of people don’t realize how prevalent things are. Rather than make excuses or just tolerate us and move on, people are realizing the problems.”
And there are problems, big and small – not just in Minneapolis, Louisville and Brunswick. Ga. — but right here.
“I was at the Walmart in Huber Heights the other day and there were these black kids playing on the basketball goals in the toy aisle,” Rome said. “They were just being kids and all of a sudden I hear someone say, ‘Hey, stop playing basketball!’
“I assumed it was a Walmart employee, but as I got closer I could see it was just some woman – white, maybe in her 40s — and she was wagging her finger at them and yelling. It was to the point where she was going to call the police to stop them.
“I finally said, ‘I can’t believe you’re going to call the police on kids playing in the toy aisle.’ I thought that was out of pocket. I said it was just down the street at the Beavercreek Walmart where almost the same incident unfolded and that guy (John Crawford) lost his life.
“I said, ‘That’s not happening again! I won’t tolerate that kind of overreaction.’”
He said the woman eventually left:
“I believe we’ve got to start calling out stuff like that.”
Rome grew up in Norfolk, Va. and had a productive career at UNC, though he also remembers a profiling incident there:
“I was sitting in my car in the parking lot of my apartment complex in Chapel Hill and I was reading an old issue of Sports Illustrated. Back then I used to collect them.
“A cop rolls up on me and says, ‘Hey, if you’re doing something illegal in there, you better stop it now!’
“I looked up and was like ‘What?’ And he said if I said another word he was gonna get dogs and take them through my car. I tried to explain, but he called for backup and the next thing dogs were going through my car, but there was nothing be found.
“People came out and once he found out I was a Carolina football player and a team captain, he started to understand. But we could have had that conversation at the beginning.
After UNC, Rome made brief stops with three NFL teams – Green Bay, Pittsburgh and Kansas City – and then won All Pro honors with the Las Vegas Locomotives of the United Football League.
In 2013 he went to Russia as the first American player for the Moscow Patriots and soon after he was tasked to teach football across the country.
A year later he was hired to launch the football program at Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostak, a city on the Pacific Coast near North Korea and China.
The players who came to tryouts wore motorcycle helmets and some had watched football videos on YouTube, although in their first practices they performed more like big-time wrestlers using body slams.
He turned that program into a winner and in 2017 he returned to America to take over the daunting challenge at Virginia University at Lynchburg.
With 300 students, it was the smallest institution playing college football. It was riding a 44-game losing streak, had no scholarships and returning players were protesting the firing of the former coach.
His team managed four victories in the 2018 season, but then went winless again last year.
With that background, he is not overwhelmed by the situation at CSU, which disbanded the program in 1997 for eight years. Since the return the Marauders have lost 107 of 146 games and now are on their fifth head coach.
Rome said he wants his players to reconnect with their history:
“They have to understand how it was before they arrived here. They need to know the legacy they were left and realize it can happen here again.”
’Turning crumbs into bread’
Although he doesn’t yet know when players will be allowed to return to campus, Rome said he has stayed in contact with them:
“Like everyone, they’re frustrated and angry about unarmed African Americans getting killed. I’ve had quite a few guys want to know what their role is in the fight.
“I tell them the same energy they put into football has to be put into graduating and getting ready to change the world. They have to be able to make an impact. They need to become the lawyers, judges, teachers, doctors and even college football coaches mentoring young African Americans.”
When the players do return, he hopes they notice the refurbished fields:
“I hope they see the work ethic put in from the top and understand what we’re trying to do here.”
He started to laugh: “We’re turning crumbs into bread.
“And once the season gets here and people are sitting the stands, I hope they’ll look out and say, ‘Hey, that’s Coach Rome’s field. We’re proud of it!’
“I want it to represent everything else we’re doing here at Central State, both on the field and off.”
He wants it to truly be the Field of Dreams.
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