DeShone Kizer takes a snap as the Notre Dame quarterback against Boston College on Nov. 21, 2015, at Fenway Park in Boston, home of the Red Sox. The University of Maine football team takes on UMass on Saturday at Fenway Park. (AP file photo)
Jason Matovu grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, about 20 minutes from Fenway Park. Drew Belcher grew up in Reading, about 35 minutes away.
They’ve both been to Fenway Park many times as fans but never dreamed as kids of playing for the Boston Red Sox. Football was their sport.
But on Saturday, they’ll get to play at Fenway as members of the University of Maine football team (4-4), which faces Massachusetts (2-7) at 4 p.m.
“It’s going to be a fun experience,” said Belcher, a junior tight end for the Black Bears. “To be on that field … it’s going to be really cool. It’s something that’s kind of surreal.”
The game is part of the 2017 Fenway Gridiron Series, a slate of three college games that also features Brown playing Dartmouth (on Friday night) and Connecticut playing Boston College on Nov. 18. In addition, three Thanksgiving Day high school rivalry games will be held at Fenway.
“There’s a rich history of football at Fenway Park, back to the days when the ballpark first opened and they held high school games here,” said Mark Lev, the managing director of Fenway Sports Management, a sister company of the Red Sox that brings non-baseball events to the ballpark. “We’d like to resurrect the great football legacy at Fenway Park. We’re hoping this becomes a regular occurrence, whether that’s every year or every other year.”
Fenway Park was the home of the Boston Patriots from 1963-68. But after the Patriots left, football didn’t return to Fenway until 2015, when Boston College played Notre Dame and several Thanksgiving Day high school games were played. Fenway Park has also hosted ice hockey games (the Black Bears have played there three times, winning each game), soccer, skiing and hurling.
While the games bring added revenue to Fenway, they bring prestige to the teams playing there as well.
“There is certainly a mutual benefit,” Lev said. “Part of the value for us is showcasing Fenway and bringing new fans into the ballpark. When you bring in new football fans, or in the case of Irish hurling where I’d venture to say a majority of the people in the ballpark have never been there before, hopefully there’s some residual value.
“We’re always looking to open the doors at Fenway Park to as many people as possible,” he continued. “These events open it to people who do not come here on a regular basis.”
The game comes at a good time for Maine, which had its playoff hopes dashed with last week’s 31-17 loss to Delaware. Playing at one of America’s most iconic ballparks has added a level of excitement to the game that otherwise might not be there.
“This is really a dream come true,” said Matovu, a senior safety who is expecting a big family contigent at the game. “It really is amazing. It’s a great way to go out my senior year, to have a chance to play at Fenway Park.”
Maine’s bench will be directly in front of the Green Monster. “I’m looking forward to seeing it up close and personal,” Matovu said.
“Hopefully I’m going to be able to get a couple of pictures,” Belcher said.
And it’s not just the players who are excited. Head coach Joe Harasymiak, who grew up in New Jersey, said he’s sure to be a little awestruck, too.
“When we were playing home run derby in the backyard with our friends, it was always the Green Monster,” Harasymiak said. “It’ll be cool to stand there on the field and look up at it.
“I’m sure there’s going to be a minute when I’m on the field and I have to remind myself, ‘OK, time to get back to coaching.’”
That the Black Bears are playing Massachusetts, a Football Bowl Subdivision team with more scholarships and a larger roster, adds another level of interest. The former Yankee Conference rivals are meeting for the 58th time, first since the Black Bears defeated the Minutemen, 24-14, at Gillette Stadium in 2013.
“They recruited me a little bit, not a ton,” Belcher said of UMass. “And I think that’s the case for a lot of kids on our team. UMass recruits a lot of the kids from the same area as (Maine). So there’s a little chip on your shoulder. Anytime you play an FBS team, you have something to prove. And this will be a good game for us to gauge where we are as a team.”