Bowl games usually mean distant places and unfamiliar faces. But when the University of Toledo plays Cincinnati tomorrow in the Motor City Bowl, that won't be the case.
PONTIAC, Mich. - Bowl games usually mean distant places and unfamiliar faces. But when the University of Toledo plays Cincinnati tomorrow in the Motor City Bowl, that won't be the case.
“This is like a home game for us, since so many guys on this team are from Michigan,” Toledo defensive tackle Jake McLean said. “The Silverdome will be full of our friends and family. I know I've got a couple of hundred coming to see me. That will make it seem like a home game.”
There are 22 players on the Rocket roster from the state of Michigan. Seven of them are starters, and 14 are on the two-deep chart that lists the guys who will see the bulk of the playing time for Toledo (9-2) when it faces the Bearcats at noon on ESPN.
“We talked to these kids and their parents when we recruited them about the chance to play in Pontiac, to play this bowl game and be out there like the home team,” Toledo head coach Tom Amstutz said. “This gives a lot of players' families the opportunity to see us play. Not that many could go to Florida or somewhere else if we were in a bowl there. This is something special for the whole program, but especially for our Michigan kids.”
That long list includes All-American tailback Chester Taylor from River Rouge, wide receiver Carl Ford from Monroe, and defensive tackle Sameer Hamood from Dearborn, who like McLean, will play his final game for UT in front of a homegrown crowd.
“It will be a great opportunity for me to end my career here in the Silverdome,” said McLean, a native of Grand Ledge, about an hour and a half west of Pontiac. “I tried to work as many tickets as I could. My family is pretty much die-hard football fans, and this is close enough that it's not an inconvenience for any of them. Playing my final game here - this is where the Michigan high school championships are played - it's like a dream.”
McLean's younger brother, Joe, played on a team that won the state championship here last year. When McLean was recruited by Amstutz, the prospect of playing a bowl game in front of the home-state crowd was on the table.
“We've got a lot of guys from Michigan, a lot from Detroit, and they're excited - you could see it in practice,” McLean said. “There was a little more pep in their step. They were bouncing around a little more - this is a big deal for all of us.”
Hamood's mother was picking up tickets in blocks of 25, and had difficulty keeping up with the demand.
“For me, this is very special,” Hamood said. “I played in a state championship game here as a freshman in high school. I love Detroit. I'm from Dearborn, and this is where I plan on living when I'm finished with school. All of my family is here, and I've got a hundred people coming. There's going to be a big cheering section for Hamood, and that really feels good.”
Hamood said Toledo is a great choice for a Detroit-area player, since it's only an hour from home and the Rockets have a shot at playing in the bowl game in Pontiac each season.
“I could have gone to Wisconsin, but that's 10 hours away,” he said. “I have obligations here, to my family, and playing my last game in front of all of them - you can't describe the feeling. People I haven't talked to for the last three or four years are calling my mom to find out about tickets. For a Detroit kid, a Michigan kid, getting to play in a bowl game in the Silverdome - you couldn't ask for more.”
Taylor said this will be the last chance for his following in River Rouge to see him play college football.
“I'd love to see all of River Rouge show up,” Taylor said. “But I have no idea who is going to be here. People are always telling me that they are coming to see me play, but no one ever seemed to make it down to Toledo. Hopefully, they can make it out here to Pontiac.”
This significant Michigan presence is not a new phenomenon. Former Rockets like record-setting tailback Wasean Tait came to Toledo from Detroit, as did linebacker Keith Travis and wide receiver Ray Curry. All-MAC linebacker Jason Lamar was recruited out of Ypsilanti to play for the Rockets.
“We've had a steady flow of Michigan players who have come in and been impact players on our team,” Amstutz said. “I think it's a really good connection we have in the state of Michigan - it's a natural flow for us. Kids like to come to Toledo and we love to have them. I have been recruiting here for years, and people know how well Michigan players have done at Toledo, and that makes them want to send more.”