By Brayton Slusser ’23, Mary Hanrahan ’22
March 3, 2021
Many people hold misconceptions about college athletes, including the “jock” stereotype of athletes who are heavily invested in maintaining their fitness and athletic talent rather than their academic capabilities. In contrast to this trope stands Hobart Football alumnus Ali Marpet ’15. On Feb. 7, 2021, starting on the offensive line for the Tampa Buccaneers, Marpet became the first Hobart alumnus to compete in and win the Superbowl. The Herald sat down with the Head Coach of Hobart football, Kevin DeWall ’00, and former Head Coach Mike Cragg to discuss Marpet’s success as a former student-athlete.
Cragg countered misunderstandings about what it means to be a student-athlete and a member of the Hobart football team. “Most people, when they think of football—it’s just on Saturdays, it’s just about the wins and losses,” he said. “But what it really means is establishing a culture wherein you preach to your players about being in class every day, doing it the right way, doing it the Hobart way.”
Was Ali Marpet, with his exceptional record, an exception to the reality of Hobart football culture? According to those that knew him in both the academic and athletic realms of the HWS campus, Marpet embodied the “right way” of doing things. Referred to as “the HWS way” by Cragg and DeWall, this concept encompasses leadership, accountability, well-roundedness, and a rejection of complacency.
Describing his coaching philosophy, DeWall revealed, “We hold them [student-athletes] to a higher standard than just being great athletes. Here at Hobart we truly pride ourselves on being great student-athletes.”
Cragg identified a strong system of support and a sense of trust as a priority of his philosophy and a core component of the team’s success on and off the field. According to Cragg, relationships with players keep the team strong long after their days of playing for Hobart have ended. Both Cragg and DeWall maintain strong relationships with their network of Hobart football alumni as mentors, which extends to Cragg’s position as Senior Director of Development for Athletics. Regarding Marpet, both coaches are in frequent contact with the Superbowl champion through phone calls, mid-game texts, and the occasional attendance at Marpet’s professional games.
Cragg elaborated, “I tell him when he needs a shave, I tell him when he needs a haircut. We have a great relationship, and I’ll always be his coach. He has many mentors, and I am so proud that he has so many mentors, but I will always feel like I’m one of them, and I can say
anything to him at any time.”
DeWall also finds significance in these close bonds, stating, “That’s why we coach. That’s the reason that I am still here.” He further emphasized the importance of college as a place of growth. “These four years you spend in college can be really influential and a huge part of the interaction and creating relationships with other people.”
As seen in the bond between Marpet and his former coaches, the relationships student-athletes build in college can last for lifetimes and help to propel them toward success. Both DeWall and Cragg discussed this, explaining that “If we’ve done our job right, then the alumni will want to stay in touch with us.” In some cases, alumni get directly involved with current members of the HWS community. Both coaches refer to the bond between themselves, the current students, and the alumni as being similar to that of “a family.”
The emphasis on a need to form strong familial bonds is illustrative of a network of respect that Cragg sees as paramount to the production of players that embody his vision for the Hobart football program. For Cragg, academic and athletic success are connected: “Typically, if you’re lazy and you’re not going to class, typically it’s going to translate to laziness on the field.”
From the standpoint of the coaches, the balance of classes and sports is imperative to being a great and successful student-athlete. DeWall still follows the ideology of Cragg, his mentor, stating that “How they [athletes] handle a Tuesday afternoon class and how they handle a Wednesday morning workout shouldn’t be different.”
Accordingly, Cragg requires from his players a level of effort and accountability modeled by the likes of Marpet in an athletic and academic contexts. “If I cannot trust you to go to class, then I am not sure if I can trust you in the fourth quarter when I need you,” he explained.
With role models like Marpet in place, the true mission of coaches like DeWall and Cragg can be realized in real time, as attention to successful student and alumni leaders helps them effectively engage with their team. Cragg’s focus on student and coach collaboration is centered on creating a lasting system of values shared through team communication. Speaking in reference to the leaders that have emerged from the team, such as DeWall himself, Cragg stated, “when they leave and graduate, they are to pass the sentiment on to the next generation of leaders. That’s how you build a culture.”
Cragg attributes individual players’ success to personal ambition and a constant drive for improvement, even in times of transition. “When you have a great player coming in at a Division III Program, and they’re the person, they’re the dude, they’re the answer, the star, the stud, by their senior year they’ve already been all-conference, all-league, all-American, already scored their points. By their senior year they’ve plateaued off and resting on their abilities.” Players like Marpet, on the other hand, reject complacency and find success in their careers beyond HWS.
Marpet’s work ethic was key to his identity as a player and a hallmark of his success as a model for the members of the Hobart football team. Cragg emphasized that Marpet, even as a senior, never settled into a state of complacency. “Ali was getting bigger and stronger, and working harder and harder, and he was dominating his position, but he didn’t stop, and he just kept trying to get better,” he said. “You don’t see that very often. He didn’t plateau.”
According to DeWall, Marpet arrived at HWS “as a quiet kid, but hungry” for success and greatness. “Even now after the Super Bowl, he’s going to reinvent himself and find even more ways to keep improving.”
With hope for more HWS success stories like Marpet’s, Cragg emphasizes that building a well-rounded team requires that coaches and team leaders create and maintain bonds that encourage players to hold themselves and others accountable. “When you’ve got 89 players on a sideline, it’s hard to keep people motivated, happy, content. And as a coach, you always have to keep coming up with ways to keep your players happy. The happier they are, the more they are going to give you. And if you’re not showing them love, that you care about them, they’re not going to care about what they’re doing.”
Cragg continued, “It has something to do with the X’s and O’s, but more so it has you caring for that individual as a person on and off of [the] field. Whether in the classroom, back home with their families, or in the dorms, the more you ask about them, and get to know them to show that you truly care, whether [as a] star or [the] hundredth player, they’ll give it back to you.”
Featured image by Ani Freedman.