Western Md. road to Russia striped with hash marks

March 11, 1992|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,Staff Writer

The 35-mile trip to Johns Hopkins hasn't been kind to the Western Maryland football team in recent years. Across the Mason-Dixon Line, victories at Gettysburg and Dickinson also have been rare.

Now, the Green Terrors face a longer road trip and a most curious way to celebrate St. Patrick's Day: On Tuesday, they'll become the first American college football team to play in Russia.

On Friday, a 66-member traveling party will leave Dulles International Airport for Moscow via Paris. Four days later, Western Maryland will venture inside the Moscow Arena to play a team of all-stars from the fledgling Euro-Asian League. Despite the league's name, most of the players are from Russia.

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics broke up last summer, and in August Western Maryland coach Dale Sprague began making arrangements for the Green Terrors to play in Moscow. History is being made there every day, and Sprague and company are delighted to have a role.

"Western Maryland College can always say it was the first American college football team to play in Russia," said Sprague, who would find a speech to inspire players in the lacing of their shoes. "We're not going over there just as students or athletes. We're going over as diplomats of American football."

It's the peak of recruiting season for Sprague, who said, "My head's going in 16 different directions."

Mike Hamm, a graduate assistant who quarterbacked Western Maryland during 1987 to 1990, has overseen many of the details of the trip, including hand-delivering more than 50 passport applications to the proper authorities in Washington.

He and Sprague are a little confused about the opposition, which will be coached by former Denver Broncos coach John Ralston, and the Russians probably don't know what to expect, either.

The NFL has never taken its product there. As far as the college game, Hamm said, "I don't know if they expect Notre Dame or Penn State or what," but it's doubtful that the Russians would know the difference between the Division I-A Nittany Lions, the Division III Green Terrors or a high school team.

Hamm stressed that it is an exhibition, but Sprague has a different approach.

"I tell you what, if we get embarrassed . . . " said Sprague, leaving the thought unfinished.

To Sprague, whose first four Western Maryland teams were a combined 4-35-1 before 11 victories during the past two seasons, it's a risk worth taking. He's getting one last chance to coach tailback Eric Frees, the state's all-time leading rusher, and his program is getting publicity and 10 practice sessions that no other Division III team in the land can offer.

"To be the first to play in Moscow and get a jump start on next year, wow," Sprague said. "When I found out we could have some practices in preparation for the trip, I would have gone to the moon to play a game. The moon."

There is also the not-so-small educational matter of soaking up VTC foreign culture during a weeklong trip that includes visits to the Kremlin, museums and the Moscow Circus.

"I won't appreciate it until we get home, but I'm excited," said Sprague, whose last overseas travel occurred in 1967, when he went to London with other students from Moriah Central (N.Y.) Middle School. "The intrigue, the mystique, the enigma of Russia, fascinating stuff."

Jim Webster, with Frees and wide receiver Andy Steckel the only seniors making the trip, is an economics major.

"They're going from a command economy to a capitalist economy, and that's quite a change," said Webster, who is from Painted Post, N.Y. "I'm probably never going to be able to go back to Moscow, and that makes this one of the most interesting things I'll ever do.

"I had an interest in international affairs before this trip, and when you hear reports of violence in Moscow, that's scary. I'm a realist, and when plans were announced for this trip, I was pretty skeptical. Not anymore."

Forty-eight players, three coaches, a manager, two doctors and 12 family members and friends constitute the traveling party, which will be housed at the Hotel Ministry of Defense in Moscow.

At a cost of $1,795 per person -- close to $120,000 for the entire party -- that's a lot of pizzas sold during one fund-raiser. Few players were able to pay the entire sum up front, and they began asking for contributions in their hometowns during the Thanksgiving break.

Money will continue to be raised until a loan taken out by the parents' booster club is paid off. Five players who are also on Dave Siebert's baseball team will be trading six games and beach time in Cocoa, Fla., for spring break in Russia.

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