Football’s “Semester at air”
The country’s second-most traveled football team knows a thing or two about life on the road
James Douglas | Copy Editor | The USD Vista
At the University of San Diego, football players usually don’t get the opportunity to study abroad. They dedicate their offseasons to honing their position-respective crafts, whether it’s practicing getting off the ball at the line of scrimmage or back-shoulder throws. But just because the football players don’t study abroad doesn’t mean they don’t travel their fair share.
KJ Mahoney, a redshirt junior linebacker, acknowledged the connection between how much the football team travels and how much students abroad travel.
“We have this joke that a lot of the guys are in on,” Mahoney said. “You know how there’s Semester at Sea? We call football season the ‘Semester at Air,’ because we go all over the place.”
Just how much does USD football travel? Approximately 25,000 miles, enough to circle Earth’s entire circumference once. USD is second only to the University of Hawaii’s football team when it comes to travel distance during the regular season.
Because USD’s football team belongs to the Pioneer Football League (PFL), a conference in which players don’t receive athletic scholarships, they mostly play teams that also belong to the conference. All of these are in the eastern or central time zones. This season, the Toreros flew to New Jersey, Ohio, and Florida twice. In two weeks, the team will fly to North Carolina.
While the Torero players don’t get to rack up frequent-flyer miles for all of the long plane rides they take, they still enjoy the trips and the camaraderie they experience while traveling.
Senior defensive end Jonathan Petersen expressed why he likes away games so much.
“It’s just fun hanging with the guys, honestly,” Petersen said. “We play cards and board games on iPads and just relax.”
But when it comes to traveling across the country to play an away game, there isn’t a whole lot of rest and relaxation for Ben Brunnschweiler, the football team’s Director of Operations.
“The best thing as a director of operations is to go unnoticed,” Brunnschweiler said. “That’s when you know things are going okay. You always have to have a Plan B. This past weekend, with our meal that we give the players on the bus to the San Diego airport — we had Chick-fil-A set up to be the meal, and they [Chick-fil-A] just didn’t show up.”
Brunnschweiler didn’t get bogged down by the mishap. Similarly to how quarterback Anthony Lawrence might make a pre-snap adjustment at the line of scrimmage, Brunnschweiler calmly called an audible.
“I asked how quickly they could get food to us, but it became clear that they couldn’t rush the sandwiches to campus,” Brunnschweiler said. “Luckily, there was a place at the airport where we went through and I just held out the credit card and said, ‘These are the guys that are going to be getting a burger.’ It turned out to be a pretty good meal, actually.”
In regards to the travel budgets and expenses for the football team, both Brunnschweiler and Athletics Director Bill McGillis declined to comment. Brunnschweiler is responsible for all travel-related issues for the football team. This includes organizing meals, buses, and flights.
“I contact one of our travel agents, who works with all of USD Athletics, and he’ll get us our flights,” Brunnschweiler said. “When our schedule comes out, I’ll review it with him and say, ‘We want to get out of here on Thursday and get back on Saturday.’”
The team doesn’t charter planes; instead, it flies commercially on airlines such as Southwest, Delta, and American Airlines. Those who travel with the team include 13 coaches, three athletic trainers, the team doctor, a school administrator, and an equipment manager. When one combines the non-player personnel with the 56 players whom the Pioneer League allows teams to travel with, however, it becomes clear that even though they don’t charter planes, the football team transforms the planes on which they travel.
Brunnschweiler noted the interactions that non-USD passengers typically have with the team.
“You get people that aren’t associated with the team in any way but who are on the same plane as us, and they are so interested and intrigued,” Brunnschweiler said. “They’ll start talking to the players and asking what their positions are. It’s even more impressive when they start asking our kids what their majors are — when they start talking about things that aren’t football-related.”
Plane seating proves to be a pressing matter for many of the players, including Mahoney.
“Seats are actually really interesting, how it gets done,” Mahoney said. “My freshman year — I’m a pretty skinny guy, people call me ‘Slim Kim’ — I was a highly desirable middle-seat candidate. I was perfect for the middle seat — tall and lanky and could fit in between anyone. A lot of people will save rows so that they can play a board game or play cards. There is a lot of trading of seats that goes on, too.”
According to Brunnschweiler, the team’s travel requires balancing seriousness and fun.
“We focus on it as a business trip,” Brunnschweiler said. “And I think that’s partly why the program is as successful as it is. The guys definitely have fun, but they find ways to have fun that might not be typical. This past weekend was Halloween-themed, so some of the players dressed up in costumes. It’s a lot of joking around — they’re good teammates to each other.”
Mahoney echoed the idea that long plane rides can be fun. The team often engages in shenanigans to keep the mood light. According to Mahoney, an unnamed senior has received renditions of ‘Happy Birthday’ on nearly every flight he’s been on since his first year at USD.
“There’s a guy on the team who, in the past, we’ve always said it’s his birthday,” Mahoney said. “The flight attendants aren’t in on the joke. They’ll come on over the loudspeaker and announce ‘Happy Birthday’ to him. Sometimes we’ll tell flight attendants that someone on the team needs a seatbelt extender. We even got a flight crew to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to our [74-year-old] coach on his ‘95th’ birthday.”
Still, Mahoney acknowledged the focus that the team maintains when on their trips.
“Whenever we travel, our coaches reiterate that it is a business trip,” Mahoney said. “We’re not here to visit the city. It’s not like, ‘Oh, Disneyland is nearby, we’re going to go to Disneyland.’ No, we have a game. Trips are cool because you get downtime with friends, you get to disconnect from pretty much the rest of the world, and you always eat pretty good. But then at the end of the day, we flew across the country for one thing — to beat who we’re playing.”
Petersen, the team’s co-captain and USD’s all-time leader in forced fumbles, agreed that knowing when to get serious is a key to the Toreros’ success.
“I think we are so successful for one major reason,” Petersen said. “Unlike other teams, who probably lose some focus on long trips, Coach Lindsey makes sure we keep it very business-like. Anytime we start losing focus, he makes sure to get us back in the right mindset to play a football game.”
Even if it’s across the country, wherever students go — in this case, student-athletes — academic worries linger close behind. Brunnschweiler explained what football players have to do to manage the missed class time that results from leaving California on Thursday morning and returning Saturday night.
“Our academic support will write up a letter for the players that they give out to their professors at the beginning of the semester and that indicates there’s a possibility that they might travel to such-and-such games,” Brunnschweiler said. “I don’t think we have much of a problem in terms of guys missing anything [academic-related]. They’re supposed to be in touch with their professors and say, ‘Hey, is there something I’m going to be missing this week because I’m traveling?’ And they’ll set it up with the professor and Ron Valenzuela, our academic support guy. If he’s traveling with us, or if it’s any athletic director other than Ronnie, they’ll proctor exams or quizzes for the players.”
Mahoney, an engineering major, discussed his experience with on-the-road academics.
“It’s pretty exhausting,” Mahoney said. “What’s important, though, is good communication with your professor. You do homework on the plane, you land, and then you have to wait until you get to the hotel to submit an assignment on Blackboard. And I’ve taken tests in hotels and other places — sometimes it just happens to be wherever you can get a moment to take the test.”
Even as he juggles school and sports, Mahoney still has time to document on social media the locations where the team stays. He posts photos on his Snapchat, parodying students who study abroad and share on Snapchat the “foreign” places they visit.
“I’m poking fun at my friends who have traveled abroad,” Mahoney said. “I always wanted to go and so I was super jealous when I saw everyone abroad. So I’m like, ‘You know, man, I might be in Dayton, Ohio, but I’m going to show it off.’”
For the team, traveling across the country multiple times per season doesn’t qualify as an excuse to neglect commitments, whether athletic or academic. In fact, it’s actually an opportunity to execute what the team does best. While USD students abroad might hop from island to island, USD football hops from one American city to the next, dismantling PFL opponents as they go.
After USD plays Drake University at home on Nov. 4, 2017 at 2 p.m., the ‘Semester at Air’ carries on, with the team traveling to North Carolina to face Davidson College on Nov. 11.