NELSONVILLE, Ohio (AP) — A small community college in Ohio is banking on its newly created football team to boost school spirit and enrollment. In turn, its starting quarterback — a former high school player convicted in a notorious rape case — is banking on this school that took him when others wouldn’t.
But though the team is rolling over opponents thanks in large part to its star quarterback, not everyone on campus is impressed. In tiny Nelsonville, criticism over the creation of the team and allowing Trent Mays to play on it has hung a shadow over the team’s early success.
Hocking College’s new president, Betty Young, hoped that adding football and other sports would help reverse declining enrollment and make people feel better about the beleaguered technical school in rural southeastern Ohio, nationally known for producing forest rangers.
The campus police chief, Al Matthews, had convinced Young that football, cheerleading and other sports would attract more tuition-paying students, generate revenue and raise the profile of the 3,400-student college. Matthews agreed to be the volunteer head coach, and Mays contacted him about joining the team earlier this year.
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Mays, now 19, spent two years in a juvenile lockup after he and another high school player in Steubenville, Ohio, were convicted of a raping a 16-year-old girl at a party in 2012. The case drew national media attention in part because of the role of texting and social media in exposing the attack, which led to allegations that authorities were covering up the actions of players on the city’s revered football team.
“Everyone deserves a second chance,” Matthews said, adding that because Hocking is an open-enrollment school, Mays was free to attend and join the football team if he met the same basic criteria as every other student.
A handful of small U.S. colleges add football programs every year with generally happy results. But some Hocking faculty and students wondered why sports were necessary at a two-year technical school in Appalachia that has been plagued with minor scandals, low staff morale and a budget crisis that led to three dozen layoffs earlier this year.
“I believe most of us like the idea of a football team,” said student Isobel Hutchinson, 22. “However, there are just so many other issues on campus that were kind of thrown to the side when this football team was created.”
The inclusion of Mays on the team, she said, has led to “nervousness” on campus. An avalanche of social media postings about Mays’ participation have been more pointed and angry.
Then, just as classes started this fall, a report of a sexual assault in one of the dorms put the administration into crisis mode amid assertions by some students that officials weren’t taking it seriously enough. Prosecutors are investigating, but no charges have been filed. (The school has said Mays was not involved but won’t say whether other football players were.) The handling of the case and other issues generated student demonstrations outside Young’s office last week.
Young, 60, had a reputation for tackling big problems at other small schools but also for butting heads with faculty. She said she was prepared for the criticism over the decision to start intercollegiate sports, which she says will generate a net profit of more than $800,000 in the first year.
“Don’t most people who introduce new ideas to places get pushback?” Young said. “If you don’t, you’re probably not really introducing anything new.”
While other schools have spent several hundred thousand dollars or more starting football programs from scratch, Hocking College got football up and running for about $70,000. Much of the team’s equipment was donated, and home games are played at a high school. Operating costs for football and other sports that were added this year — cheerleading, men’s and women’s basketball, and archery — are coming from a slice of the tuition paid by the athletes attracted by those programs and the revenue generated. There are no scholarships.
The team has about 90 players on the roster from at least 11 states. Some were high school stars who didn’t get scholarships or couldn’t afford to play at a private school. Most hope to get some attention and move on to finish at four-year schools.
That includes Mays, a talented quarterback who knew he’d have trouble getting most programs to take a chance on him.
“Especially because of my case, people weren’t just going to open their arms and give me a scholarship, just because of who I was,” he said. “But I have to prove myself, and that’s what I’m ready to do.”
Matthews, a former high school assistant coach, is now 3-0 as a college head coach. In the first two games, the Hawks routed junior-varsity teams from small Ohio colleges by scores of 35-14 and 41-14. Then in their home opener on Monday night in front of a packed grandstand at a country high school, they beat Wright State University’s club team 52-2.
Mays has been instrumental in every win, passing for four touchdowns and running for four more in the three games.
“I have an added pressure, but it’s nothing I can’t handle,” he said. “I’m prepared for it. If anything, it just motivates me more.”