It's an unlikely friendship, the playwright and the football coach.
It's an unlikely comparison, the sports of football and buzkashi.
In his play "The Boy Inside", Richard Kalinoski explores themes of maturity, pain, risk and growth through the prism of a Division III football program. Kalinoski is a professor of theatre at UW-Oshkosh as well as a fan of the Titans football program. His interactions and friendship with head coach Pat Cerroni and his staff helped inform the playwright's research. He spent two years embedded with the Titans coaching staff, behind doors that usually remain closed. Cerroni also helped Kalinoski get in touch with several other small school coaches, including former UW-Whitewater head coach Bob Berezowitz.
The play is set at fictional Ramsey College, which Kalinoski says he modeled somewhat on Linfield (Ore.) and St. Norbert colleges. The football program at Ramsey College is successful but is threatened when a prominent donor makes a significant offer to the college, contingent upon the extermination of the football program. The play brings to center stage the philosophical conundrum facing football.
"I was always a football fan, but I made a lot of assumptions that I was happy to explode in my research," said Kalinoski, who also directs the play. "I wanted to show why a coach might want to be a coach, knowing that he's not going to become wealthy from it. The whole thing was very refreshing for me."
The conversations with Cerroni and his staff began right around the time the Titans began their ascent to national prominence. The Titans entered this season with a 30-5 mark in WIAC play over the past five seasons. The run includes a national quarterfinal appearance last year and a national semifinal trip in 2012. Cerroni has lived the challenges faced by Ramsey coach Tony Bartolo in "The Boy Inside".
"You have to have a common message," Cerroni said. "Getting a bunch of people to believe in one thing isn't as easy as you think. We really coach our senior classes on how to lead and we're recruiting the right people. With all of that, you need the administration's support behind you, giving you a chance to prove yourself."
The play explores the sometimes contentious relationships between football coaches and college administrators. In recent years, Cerroni has enjoyed the support of the UW-Oshkosh administrators. It wasn't always as good as it is now. Coach Bartolo has to plead his case to his school's college president when she fails to see the merits of college football the same as he does. She compares it to buzkashi, a brutal sport popular in Afghanistan in which players ride horseback and battle over a goat carcass at the center of the field. The physical toll of football is at the forefront of the play.
Cerroni has always tried to limit the risk of injury. The Titans do not tackle in practice. If any of them are going to suffer an injury, it's likely going to occur on a Saturday.
It wasn't just the physical toll of football that Kalinoski was interested in exploring. He wanted to get to know the players and why they play, in addition to understanding why coaches coach. He was surprised by what he discovered.
"I had an enormous number of stereotypes about football players," the playwright said. "I went in with a combination of ignorance and prejudice. One thing I assumed was that football players are of one ilk, focused on self-glory and self-gratification.
"What I began to uncover in talking to Pat and his staff was that all football players are very individual. Those guys are grinding it out day by day. It was interesting to watch how they interact with each other."
It was the camaraderie created by football, not the glory, that stood out among the young men Kalinoski observed. At the NCAA Division III level, players almost universally play for one another.
"The success and the records make you feel good, but it's the things that people don't always take time to appreciate," said UW-Oshkosh quarterback Brett Kasper. "The seniors always tell you to cherish the moments and take every practice seriously and work hard. It's the little things I'm going to miss the most, becoming closer with my teammates, joking in the locker room, and practices."
Although they originate from different worlds on campus, the playwright and the football coach continue to find out how much they have in common. The football players were in the audience when "The Boy Inside" premiered on campus in February 2015. Theatre students have ventured off campus to Titan Stadium to cheer on the football team.
"Our worlds are so comparable, it's ridiculous," said Cerroni. "He coaches actors and actresses, I coach football players. We enjoy each other's company. He's so thorough, and that's what I appreciate. He's a professional."
Kalinoski set out to explore the role of football in American society. He began writing the play in 2013 and it debuted in 2015. The conversation remains in the limelight today. Parents, fans, coaches, players, and administrators across the country continue to wrestle with defining the meaning and value of football. "The Boy Inside" shines a light on the spark of youth that lives in football coaches, as well as the vulnerability below the tough exterior of football players.
Coach Bartolo was not modeled directly on Cerroni, but there are core values shared by the character and the coach.
"It's a great game," Cerroni said. "It's a lot of fun, and I can't imagine doing anything else. I've always looked at this as an opportunity to teach young men how to survive in this world and be successful, to help them grow mentally, physically, and with maturity."
Written by Adam Turer, D3football.com • Photos courtesy of Richard Kalinoski