By Sarah Stubbs
The University of Findlay football squad didn’t know what they were in for when they traveled to the Marion Correctional Institute in Marion, Ohio on Sunday, Aug. 23. UF football players left their smartphones and headphones in their lockers and boarded the bus for an hour-long ride full of anticipation and mixed expectations.
The Oilers were to have a standard two-hour practice in the Marion prison yard with a few hundred inmates as their spectators. After the practice, the team would hear a speech from a former professional athlete and current inmate, and then eat pizza.
“At first I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know if the inmates were going to be positive or if they were going to try to be intimidating,” said Johnny Hopkins, junior defensive lineman, and team captain.
Hopkins said that he had heard talks about the possibility of practicing at the prison last spring, but was unsure whether or not the plans would come to fruition.
“Just the other day after a normal practice the warden and some of his staff came and told us we would be coming and how that visit would go,” Hopkins said.
Rob Keys, head coach of the Oiler football team, got the idea after being inspired by Dean Smith, the notable University of North Carolina men’s basketball coach who died earlier this year.
“Every year as a staff we try to create different ways to educate our players off the field. Dean Smith used to take some of his teams out to prisons. We said hey, let’s take this a step further and actually have a practice there,” Keys said.
Hopkins said that the practice was well worth it from both a football and service standpoint.
“For the most part, we had a normal practice. We got better. I think being there made us a better team. If we’re not flustered about being in a prison environment, traveling to an away game is easy,” Hopkins said.
Bobby Brown, senior offensive lineman and team captain agreed and said that the practice went well, despite the fact that no one knew what to expect.
“When I got there and started practicing in front of all the inmates it kind of changed my perspective for the better. It ended up being a positive experience for everyone,” Brown said.
Hopkins said that the most impactful part of this experience was giving inmates the opportunity to watch live football.
“One guy I talked to had been there for ten years and he still has ten more. That was his first time seeing live football in ten years,” Hopkins said. “They were all laughing and having a good time. You could tell it was exciting for them and you could tell some of them used to play football, too, because they were really into it.”
According to Hopkins, the UF football team is used to giving back to the community and this practice directly did just that.
“We gave them hope. Which is good because 75 percent of them will be back in the community,” Hopkins said.
Keys said that there’s a “very good chance” the football team will make this an annual tradition.
Hopkins sees the value in making the prison practice an annual event, too.
“I think it would be a good idea, especially for incoming freshmen, because we all went through a hard week of camp and then were reminded by this trip that we are privileged to have this opportunity to play college ball. It’s a good reminder that one bad decision could make their lives our reality,” Hopkins said.
Brown agrees that the trip was a good reminder, but isn’t sure about a yearly visit.
“The experience gave me a completely different outlook on how fortunate we are to have our freedom but once I left, I had no intention of going back. It was a rough place to be in,” Brown said.
Aside from the service and athletic components, Keys sees an academic and professional benefit in the experience as well.
“We are trying to create a partnership with Marion Correctional Institute. We have quite a few criminal justice majors on the team so in continuing this relationship there would be opportunities for internships,” Keys said.
According to Keys, Marion prison also has a full graphics department that the team is looking to make use of for anything from recruiting brochures to any graphics in the football building.
Not only have UF student-athletes and coaches seen the value in this trip, but the administration has as well.
“I have been getting a lot of feedback from administration about this trip. I got feedback from President Katherine Fell and Brandi Laurita (UF’s athletic director) and they are both very excited to try to do this again in the future,” Keys said.
Hopkins said that his biggest takeaway from this experience is the impact of the game itself.
“The game we play can brighten somebody’s day.”