On a warm August afternoon, Open Door Christian School principal Darrell Dunckel watched as several young men ran football drills and practiced plays.
He beamed as if he were a father watching his baby enter the world.
"It's sort of one of those dreams you've had for years, and when it comes to fruition, it's sort of neat to see," he said. "When we saw the kids come out and have their pads on for the first time, and seeing them practice, it's just a really neat experience for us.
"When the goal posts went up, people started to believe. Then, Riddell's been in to fit the kids for their equipment, and all the kids were lining up during their lunch periods to get measured for their helmets and pads, and that was the next step. But to see them out here and practicing, that's everything. People are driving by (on West Ridge Road) and seeing our boys doing football drills, and they think, 'Really?' Yes, it's true."
Beginning this fall, Open Door will field a football team and, more importantly, a football program will be born.
Open Door is trying to build the program the right way. The Patriots will field a middle school team for the seventh-and eighth-graders, and the high schoolers will compete at the junior varsity level.
This fall, three seniors and 12 freshmen will suit up in Open Door's first attempt at a football program in the school's 36-year history. They will compete in a seven-game schedule consisting of mostly JV opponents, but some freshman foes as well.
It all kicks off today at their new home field against the Streetsboro freshman team. To get there, it's been a journey and, as coach Ray Lowe called it, a labor of love.
Rumors no longer
Senior Austin Collins said he and his classmates had been hearing talk of a football program from the time they were in elementary school.
"It seemed like every year someone would exclaim, 'We're going to have a football team,' but we never did," said Collins, who will serve as a two-way lineman.
Finally, the talk proved to be correct.
"I was a little bit surprised because I didn't think there was going to be enough guys to play," he said. "But once I thought about it more, I thought it sounded pretty exciting."
It took a school president, Dr. Jonathan Burton, who came from a football-friendly Christian school to finally help the dream become a reality.
Burton made the official announcement in early November by dramatically revealing a new Riddell football helmet from underneath a podium during a state-of-the-school address. However, the secret wasn't exactly the best-kept one prior to that.
Message boards had been lighting up with rumors. Parents were discussing it openly at other sporting events.
"When I first heard about it, I didn't think much of it," said senior two-way lineman Thomas Noris. "Once we saw the story in the paper about it, and then we started getting all of the equipment and the goal posts on the field, that's when I really started believing. That's when I knew I had to be a part of this."
Once it was announced, hiring a coach became the top priority. After a lengthy search, Open Door found the perfect candidate right under its nose.
A one-man crew
Lowe had been a football coach for the past 13 seasons in the Avon Lake system, mostly coaching the Shoremen's seventh- and eighth-grade teams at Learwood Middle School.
Lowe is also a member of the Church of the Open Door and had children attend the school. So when he heard about the new team, he was immediately intrigued.
"The whole idea of starting a football program is something that appealed to me," Lowe said. "I am honored to have been selected as the first head football coach at ODCS.
"It is like going back to my first year coaching in Avon Lake. The high school was doing well but most of the kids entering the seventh and eighth grade never played before. So when this opportunity presented itself, I thought I would be a good fit."
Lowe is not just the head coach. He's the groundskeeper, manager and trainer.
He's responsible for lining the fields every day and for making sure the tackling dummies get put away. If a player needs to be taped or his equipment adjusted, it's Lowe who does it.
Needless to say, he's been very busy since taking the job in February.
"It's been very time-consuming," he said. "I put a lot of hours in, and I kind of knew that was going to be the case. Luckily, my wife understands. She's willing to support me 110 percent in everything that we're doing. That's a big thing for me.
"Getting something like this off the ground, and knowing it was going to be a lot of work, I think the kids are doing everything I've asked of them to do. Right now, I can't expect any more than what they're giving me."
Lowe will also get the chance to coach his son, Jacob, who is a freshman.
"He played last year at North Ridgeville Middle School, and they were on a championship team," he said. "They had a really outstanding team, but I missed every game because I was coaching in Avon Lake. The only game I saw was that championship game because our season had ended and theirs went one additional week.
"I'm thrilled to have him out here and be able to coach him and also watch him grow and develop as a football player. It's been a blessing to be able to coach him."
Dunckel said that Lowe's hiring has been everything they envisioned.
"(Hiring a coach) was the most important part of the process," he said. "Once you make the decision to go with it, you have to get the right guy in to run the show and draw kids. Hiring him has been the perfect fit for us.
"He's the right person with the right personality for all of our kids and our families. He brings everything we were looking for in a head coach. We're very excited about what he does and what he will do with our kids. He's a quality guy, as well as knowing what he's doing as a coach."
Coming from a successful program like Avon Lake has helped Lowe develop a vision for what he believes can be accomplished at Open Door.
"When I started out in Avon Lake, Dave Dlugosz was all about dedication," he said. "He always said, 'You've got to get the kids to believe in what you're coaching.' That was something he pushed us to do as a middle school staff - get the kids to buy into what it is you're trying to teach them to do. So I've really taken that philosophy and have tried to get them to buy into the process of building this program.
"I've always said if I can get the kids to buy into what I'm doing, then I can get them to work hard. Once I start getting them to work hard, then they're going to be successful and be able to compete."
The guys he's gotten to come out for the team have taken to Lowe's philosophy.
"He really had to start from scratch," Norris said. "Our line's never played football before, so he basically took it upon himself to build us up. He had nothing to work with, but he's transformed us into football players."
Added Collins: "He gave us this saying, '212.' It stands for 212 degrees, because at 211 water doesn't boil. But when you add that extra degree, water boils. That means if you give that extra effort, great things can happen."
Lowe expanded on that philosophy.
"Basically, at 211 degrees, water is just hot," he said. "At 212 degrees, it boils. That boil produces steam, and that steam can move a locomotive.
"It's that one degree of effort, and I keep telling these kids and keep impressing upon their brains that if you work just a little bit harder than you did yesterday, and you continue to do that this whole season, you're going to grow as a football player by leaps and bounds within this one year. That's kind of the process that we're working at."
The few, the tired
With only 15 players out for the team, Open Door must have most of its players go both ways and play multiple positions.
It means that the players - a lot of whom have never played organized football before - will learn a lot of lessons during the season.
"Reality will set in that first Thursday," Lowe said. "It will make it more real for the kids, it will definitely make it more real for the coaches. I'm anxious to get that going because I want it to be more real for the school, for the students, the teachers, the staff and mainly for the parents, too."
The players are ready to line up against live competition.
"Right now, we're just playing against air," said freshman Dan Stintsmen, who will play quarterback, running back and middle linebacker. "But when that game situation happens, I think we'll step up to that pressure. I like it."
Added Collins: "We really don't have a defense to play against or an offense because we have to switch to both sides of the ball. It will be cool once we get out to our first game. We only have three subs for the entire team, so we'll be ironmen. It will be hard, but I'm looking forward to the challenge."
Lowe hopes the numbers increase as the Patriots start to play meaningful games.
"I know, at least I think in my head, that there will be students who will be in the stands at our first games and think, 'Man, I wish I could be a part of that,'" he said. "That's kind of the process and one of the building things that we're working on to develop this program - to get kids to buy into it that aren't playing this year, that will want to play in the following years."
Looking to grow
The impact of the football program has already been felt in the school's increased enrollment.
"We're keeping kids and getting kids here that we wouldn't have had before that we now have the opportunity to educate," Dunckel said. "It's just an exciting part of the whole process. This school will grow, we think, just because of football."
Stintsmen, for one, went to Eastern Heights Middle School because he wanted to play football. When he found out Open Door was going to offer football, it made his decision to attend school at the church he belongs to that much easier.
"The reason why I didn't come here in eighth grade was because they didn't have football," he said. "So when I found out they were having it, I thought it would be cool to come here to play on this startup team. That's why I came here."
Dunckel also believes that a football program will help the school eventually join a conference.
"We've had a solid athletic department for a long time, but you have to have football to really be a part of everything," he said. "For us to get in a league, we have to have football. It's difficult for public schools to consider you when you don't have that key ingredient. That's an important step, and it's going to make a big difference in our attendance."
Dunckel said the plan is to be a full-fledged varsity program by 2014. In fact, that first game is already scheduled - versus Oberlin at what Open Door hopes is a permanent stadium behind the school on church-owned property.
"To keep adding games to our schedule, we'll take on lesser varsity teams," he said. "Next year, there's a few schools that would like to add us to their schedules already."
The 12 freshmen and 18 middle schoolers playing now will make up the team that finally gets to play under the Friday night lights.
"I love having that freshman class as a base," Lowe said. "As the program builds, we'll end up with a varsity team of 30-35 kids, where we'll be able to split up into a JV and a varsity. I'd be ecstatic with those numbers in a few years."
Nice and tough
Can a Christian school field a competitive football team? That's a popular question asked since Open Door made its announcement.
"These are nice kids," Dunckel said. "That's the interesting job the coach has - to get them to that point, to understand this is a tough game, this is a physical game, and that's besides the regular hitting. All the things that really make you a football player, most of these kids haven't done before. They're learning that as they go."
Dr. Burton has seen it work, and believes it can at Open Door.
"I came from a very large Christian high school - Valley Christian High School in San Jose, Calif.," he said. "We had a phenomenal football team there that was ranked in the top 50 teams in the country. I have seen it done and I expect to see it again.
"There are not that many private schools on the west side of Lorain County, especially schools of our nature. We're the only one that is in the position to support a football team. For families that would like their students to participate in a football team in a distinctly Christian environment, there hasn't been that opportunity.
"I think it's important that our families have that option and don't have to choose between our Christian environment and their desire to have their son play football."
Lowe is helping his players understand that playing football is a way of honoring God and His teachings.
"I want this football program to be different than any other football program out there," he said. "We are playing to honor God. With this school being a Christian school, this is our mission. And the kids are starting to realize that.
"They understand that, hey, just because we're Christians doesn't mean we can't hit people. But when we do, we're going to pick them back up, put them back in the huddle and come back and hit them again. That's kind of the philosophy that we have.
"I want this to be a true representation of His work and His will, and that's something that we're really looking forward to."
Contact Dan Gilles at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today Streetsboro (Fr.), 4:30
Sept. 3 Oberlin (JV), 10 a.m.
Sept. 9 at Amherst (JV), TBA
Sept. 17 at WRA (JV), 2
Sept. 24 at Marion Harding (JV), 11 a.m.
Oct. 8 at Columbus Crusaders, 1
Oct. 20 at Lutheran West (Fr.), 5
Collins, Austin 12
Crowder, Caleb 9
Davis, Zach 9
Echo, Joe 12
Guard, Bobby 9
Kerby, Donevan 9
Lewis, Manny 9
Lowe, Jacob 9
Moultrie, Jamir 9
Noris, Thomas 12
Polen, Cale 9
Robinson, Dennis 9
Stintsmen, Dan 9
Thomas, Zach 9
Whitesel, Ian 9