For anyone who has watched a professional football game either on television or live, the concept of the "armchair quarterback" should not be foreign. Cries of "WHY DID HE THROW THAT PASS?", "I COULD GO OUT THERE AND DO THAT!", and "IS HE BLIND?" are usually spewed out of the mouths of many fans that can see themselves inside the pads and under center. As an aspiring sportswriter, this sense of questioning and degrading the performance of players is a stereotype that I must deal with. Well, I am going to put on the pads and step onto the field in order to see how hard it is to be a collegiate quarterback, even at the NCAA's lowest division (Division III). Can I make it on the field? Probably not, but that is not my primary objective. Not only am I going to explore life as a collegiate quarterback, but I am also hoping this experience will enrich my talents as a writer. I am sure that in doing this, new facets of the game will become clear to me and my respect of those who dedicate themselves to football will grow. I may not make it in one piece, but it will be a unique and incredible experience. I will be a Fighting Scot.
Hometown: Frankfort, KY
Thesis Title: "My Days as a Fighting Scot: An In-Depth Analysis of Participatory Journalism"
Advisor: Mr. Kim Trevathan, Assistant Professor of Writing/Communication
Kevin Wheatley '09 hadn't played football since high school, but his Senior Study advisor didn't think he was completely crazy when Wheatley told him he wanted to join the Maryville College's Fighting Scots Football Team for his senior season.
At quarterback, no less.
Kim Trevathan knew his advisee's motivation wasn't fame and popularity; it was accuracy and insight for a study on participatory journalism.
"I was a little concerned for his safety, but I liked the idea very much, and I thought Kevin would learn from it in the best tradition of the liberal arts," said Trevathan, Assistant Professor of Writing/Communication. "It was a Senior Study that would test him physically as well as mentally, and require not only traditional research but direct interaction with teammates and participation in a sport.
"He assured me he was aware of the risks and planned to work hard to get into shape."
Wheatley's idea for the study came from a couple of different experiences. An aspiring sports journalist, he had covered high school and college football in East Tennessee as a stringer for local newspapers. Most of the inspiration, however, came from reading George Plimpton's 1964 classic Paper Lion: Confessions of a Last-String Quarterback, which chronicled an amateur's pre-season stint with the Detroit Lions.
Researching more in the "participatory journalism" genre, Wheatley found Jeff Foley's War on the Floor: An Average Guy Plays in the Arena Football League, and Lives to Write About It and a Sports Illustrated cover story about reporter Tom Verducci's five days as a Toronto Blue Jay.
As a sports follower, Wheatley knows that "armchair quarterbacks" aren't limited to football spectators – and that many fans are critical of coaches and players because they don't understand the complexities of competition. What he likes about participatory journalism is the opportunity for a writer to share new facets of the game and foster a respect for sports participants among fans.
With Trevathan on board, Wheatley took his Senior Study idea to Head Football Coach Tony Ierulli during the fall of 2007. The coach was supportive.
"Originally, I was just going to go through the 6 a.m. workouts and drills during the spring [of 2008]," Wheatley explained. "But Coach suggested I continue through the season, so during the summer, I went to a few throwing sessions and did the workout plan."
Pre-season practice involved lots of running and conditioning. At Wheatley's request, he received no special treatment.
Remembering the completion of 16 timed 110-yard runs, the senior described the pain: "It felt like my lungs were on fire and muscles in my legs that I didn't even know existed were torn, but I crossed the line."
Surprisingly, this inexperienced quarterback's biggest fear about the project wasn't heart failure or broken bones; it was not being accepted by the other teammates.
"Getting people to open up is a lot harder than it is to run 100 yards. I needed people to open up," he said, explaining that being a part of the team would help him pen a more accurate picture of the people in Division III collegiate football.
Wheatley's first two chapters cover an analysis of participatory journalism and an analysis of literary and journalistic techniques used by other participatory journalists, particularly Plimpton, Foley and Verducci.
The last chapter – entitled "My Days as a Fighting Scot" – details Wheatley's pitch to Ierulli to join the team, three-hour practices, big games, locker room chats and team meetings.
Peppered throughout are Wheatley's observations of coach-player relationships, players' responses to the media and the range of emotions that student-athletes experience. Some observations are poignant; more are presented with the wit of a stand-up comedian.
It was Wheatley's characterization of himself that Trevathan was especially curious about. The writing/communications instructor is a published author and has written biographical accounts of his trips down the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers.
"Since my own writing projects resemble what Kevin did here, I was interested in seeing how he characterized himself in the narrative," he said. "I appreciated his sense of humor and his perceptiveness about the other players. He took the sport and the project seriously but he also did a good job of having fun and using humor in the thesis."
Wheatley's most memorable moment of the season came in a junior varsity game against the University of the Cumberlands. As the "Fourth Quarter Quarterback," he was tackled in the opposing team's end zone for a safety. The call from the sideline was a pass play, but Wheatley said he didn't think fast enough to "check out" of the play with linebackers advancing toward him.
Such an experience will forever give Wheatley "a greater understanding of the sport and a profound empathy for what players experience on and off the field," Trevathan said.
Today, Wheatley is a reporter with The State Journal in Frankfort, Ky. He says his Senior Study not only made him a better writer – it made his portfolio stand out among other applicants.
"I don't think [the editors] had ever seen anyone with participatory journalism experience," he said. "Mine was definitely unique."