WESTMINSTER -- It was 7:30 on Labor Day morning but already Matt Humphrey was at the gym, the first to arrive for football practice.
"It takes me a long time to wake up," explained Humphrey, a sophomore defensive end at Western Maryland.
Practice wasn't scheduled until 9 o'clock but Humphrey already had risen and had breakfast.
"Is the team better this year?" Humphrey was asked.
"Hard for me to say," he said, pondering last year's 3-5-1 team. "I played here two years ago, but last year I was in the Merchant Marine.
"That worked out all right. I didn't have the money for the fall semester so I worked as a steward's helper and made some money. Sailed to France, Brazil, St. Croix. I got out in Norfolk in February and came back here in the spring."
Humphrey, a criminal justice major who went to Springbrook High in Silver Spring, is a well-put-together 6 feet 2 and 200 pounds.
"Why do you play football?" he was asked.
He shrugged. "I love it," he said.
At 7:45 a second young man in shorts and T-shirt entered the gym lobby. Another football player, obviously -- barrel-chested, strong-legged. This was John Carroll, junior center.
Why is Carroll, from West Chester East High in Pennsylvania, playing at no-football scholarship, Division III Western Maryland?
"I'm a little undersized," said the 200-pounder. "I'm only 5-11. For me, this is a chance to have some fun playing football and get a degree from a good college."
Carroll is a chemistry major who expects to go on to graduate school and perhaps teaching and coaching.
He loves Western Maryland. On a postcard perfect day like yesterday, with the bright, early morning sun caressing the gentle Carroll County hills beyond the college's attractive campus, who wouldn't love it?
"You hate to leave here," he said.
Only a few years ago I thought Western Maryland should drop football. There were 0-9 and 0-10 seasons in '85 and '86. Naturally, interest was low.
I had seen other small Maryland colleges drop football. Mount St. Mary's in nearby Emmitsburg. Washington College in Chestertown. Before that, Loyola College and the University of Baltimore got out. Why not Western Maryland, enrollment 1,200 including women? I asked that of friends who had played there -- Mitch Tullai, Harlow Henderson, Mike Rentko.
"Nah," Henderson said, dismissing the idea. "Western Maryland has played football for a long time. It's part of what the place is. Things go in cycles. Football will pick up."
Tullai and Rentko agreed, and they were all right.
The gung-ho Dale Sprague came along as coach in '86. By 1990, the record was 6-3-1. Sprague went 5-5 in '91 and '92 and moved on to a tiny Midwest college.
Tim Keating came here as coach last year from Division III Wesley (Del.) College. Keating had turned Wesley around, going from 1-8 to 8-2 in four years.
Last year things started slowly, but to some it looked as if the turnaround already was under way late in the season. The team won its last two games over Swarthmore and Johns Hopkins.
Does this mean the Green Terror (the nickname was singularized a year ago) is on its way?
"I wish it was that easy," said Keating, a Mickey Mantle lookalike. "We lost 12 seniors. We have 27 new guys. We're starting five freshmen on defense. But we're getting there."
In a broader sense, Western Maryland already is there. The football program, which once seemed not to fit, is a good fit today. There are 60 on the squad. Interest is solid. Hopes are high that Keating can build a winner. The season opens Saturday at Juniata.
"Tim's a good coach," said John Buchheister, who joined Keating's staff this year after coaching state champions at Milford Mill and Randallstown high schools. "He had a good recruiting year. That's the key to it -- getting the players."
This is the hundredth season of football at Western Maryland in a year that marks the 125th anniversary of college football. The tradition here is too rich for the sport to be abandoned.
One of the game's greatest coaches, Dick Harlow, coached here from 1926-1934. Harlow also was a brilliant botanist who grew rare gentias and rhododendrons. Times change, don't they?
Harlow grew football players, too. He had three undefeated teams here.
Harlow left to coach Harvard, then one of the nation's powers. In 1936 he was the country's Coach of the Year. He was elected to the National Football Hall of Fame on Aug. 10, 1954.
In retirement, Harlow came back to Western Maryland and served as advisory coach to the beloved Charley Havens. Their teams were excellent.
Football has survived some hard times here, but at the age of 100 football is alive and well at Western Maryland. That's the way it should be.