HUDSON VALLEY, N.Y. - Irondequoit. Herkimer. Liverpool.
A review of St. John Fisher College’s football roster will usually find athletes from towns in northern New York, places closer to the school’s Rochester campus. But sprinkled in among them are kids from Pleasantville, Hopewell Junction, and the Bronx.
So, what would make a young student athlete want to travel more than 300 miles to play for a small-but-respectable Division III program that doesn’t offer athletic scholarships?
For love of the game, of course.
It’s what also drives Tim Brunelle Sr. (Yorktown), JR Bergman (White Plains) and Samuel Holden (Pleasantville) to volunteer as recruiters for St. John Fisher College, a private school with which they have little personal connection.
Brunelle, a standout quarterback for the Huskers more than four decades ago, also played football for a Division III school (Brockport). He then tried out for the Montreal Alouttes, a professional team competing in the Canadian Football League.
At Brockport, Brunelle played for Bud Sims, the program’s winningest coach. Now, at 82, Sims coaches tackles and tight ends at St. John Fisher College. That connection led Brunelle to volunteer for the college, and then recruit his two friends.
All retired, Brunelle, Bergman and Holden travel to dozens of Section 1 and Section 9 games and practices throughout the fall season, scouting players who might be a good fit for the program.
They’ll speak to their coaches and parents, handing out cards with details and contact information. But contact with students is kept to a minimum until their season has ended, as to not to disrupt their varsity experience.
“We don’t pressure these kids,” Bergman said. “We’re not jumping all over them.”
Last year, they collectively spoke to 190 student athletes, four of whom committed to St. John Fisher College.
“To tell you the truth,” Brunelle said, “that was a biggie, getting these four kids. This year, hopefully it catches on a little bit more.”
Tuition at St. John Fisher College is roughly $50,000 a year, according to the school’s website. Unable to offer financial assistance in the form athletic scholarships, the recruiters have their work cut out for them.
The Rochester college has robust pre-med and business programs, but for local high school students who want to continue their playing career at a Division III school, state schools like Cortland or Brockport are more appealing financially.
But the biggest challenge, along with the lack of scholarships, is managing expectations, which often focus on the most-competitive schools, those in Division I.
“A lot of parents, they think their kids are all DI,” Bergman said. “Unfortunately, that’s not the case.”
Division I scholarships are more common in this area for sports like lacrosse and field hockey, but football is another story.
“This area, there are not many DI players,” Brunelle said. “You might get it out of Stepinac, you might get it out of Iona Prep, you might get it out of New Rochelle—your bigger schools. But really, DIII is best-suited for this section.”
Still, Bergman said, “It’s a hard sell to get a kid to go to a DIII school.”
Often, Bergman said, the best Section 1 players don’t realize how difficult it is to compete even on the Division III level. There, he said, everybody on the field was the best player at his high school.
Like Brunelle, some student athletes will use their Division III experience and try to play professionally in Canada. But even those opportunities are slim.
Football, to be sure, builds leadership skills, forms lifelong bonds, and teaches accountability and host of other life lessons. But facing high costs, long hours, and a minuscule chance of playing professionally, students see few tangible benefits from playing Division III football.
But missing from the equation is love for the game. It’s not rational. It doesn’t dissipate.
Brunelle, Bergman and Holden are proof of that. None of them have any reason to spend their days scouting for a Division III school located near Canada, but they do it anyway. Why?
“I played football. I coached football. I love football,” Brunelle said. “That’s my passion.”
Bergman added, “This is all about the love of the game and trying to get young people to be on the right path in life.”