On Feb. 3 and 4, Fairfield University did something that was a long time in the making and hosted former Fairfield football players from the 1998 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship team back on campus for a reunion. The Fairfield football program lasted from 1996 until 2002 when the program was cut. The team saw a lot of success, most of which came under head coach Kevin Keisel who coached from 1996-2000 and in his five seasons with the team he only had one season below a .700 winning percentage. That one season was the program’s first where it went 1-8, followed by a 7-3 season and then back-to-back 9-2 seasons which included winning the MAAC championship in 1998. When Kiesel left in 2000, the team was 34-17 and stayed around .500 in its final two years.
The team and the football program as a whole owe its history to Bill Miles who funded much of the program and was the main reason for the school starting its football team. Miles joined Fairfield’s Board of Trustees in 1973 and was its chairman from 1978-1989, according to his obituary. Then in 1992, he became the vice president for administration. Miles passed away in 2004 after giving so much to the Fairfield community throughout his life.
Another member of Fairfield’s faculty who played an integral part in the football program’s success was Reverend Victor Leeber, who was a founding faculty member at Fairfield and the “Father of Athletics” at Fairfield as stated in a press release after his death in 2009. Father Leeber founded five varsity sports programs and was chaplain to multiple teams, including the football team. He played an important role in many of the player’s lives; when asked what impact Father Leeber had on the team, team captain Lomax Edwards ‘00 stated that “he was instrumental to the team, being the biggest supporter and he helped a lot of guys with tutoring and being an inspiration on and off the field.”
Fellow captain and quarterback Jim Lopusznick ‘00 also stated that the team “always felt protected by the Lord and the angel of a man with us,” when referring to Father Leeber and stated that Mr. Miles “always had a smile on his face.” As can be seen, Father Leeber aided many athletes both on and off the field throughout his storied career and life at Fairfield.
The team itself was one driven by grit and toughness as they started the 1998 season 1-2 and then proceeded to rattle off eight straight victories to finish the season, including multiple fourth-quarter comebacks throughout the season, one of which was against Duquesne University who was heavily favored in the matchup. The team had the number one total defense in D-1-AA in yards per game, rush yards per game and they had the number one scoring defense in D-1-AA.
The idea for the reunion began roughly 18 months ago and came to fruition due to both Steve Mirasolo ‘02 and Pat Grugan ‘01 remaining in contact with both the team and the administration to help set it up with Vice President of Athletics Paul Schlickmann and Associate Director of Athletic Development/Associate Director of Athletics Mike Jarvis being two of the main players in on the administrative side. Schlickmann stated that “I think it’s fantastic, it’s special on multiple levels. Really good to get them back and feel connected to each other and to the University. I’m really glad we could reform the connection…bringing family back to a place they loved.”
The players felt similarly with Mirasolo stating that “It’s been a long time coming and was something we always wanted. Everything just lined up, the new arena, Mike Jarvis helping, the 25th anniversary. Any other year and it wouldn’t have worked.”
The event itself began on Saturday, Feb. 3 with roughly 70 of the 90 former players attending, most of whom brought their families along with them totaling roughly 200 people. On Saturday afternoon, the alumni and their families were invited to the Walsh Athletic Center where they were welcomed with a few words along with lots of hugs, laughs and love from their former teammates. Everyone then went down to the weight room to reminisce and catch up some more along with seeing their new plaques, which are hung in the weight room thanking the new members of the Monarch program. The Monarch program is when members of a Fairfield sports team graduate and pledge to donate some amount of money back to their program each year. The football team had over 30 alumni sign up to become Monarch members since it became available to them recently and each has their own plaque in the weight room which is where the money will be going since there is no football program for them to donate to. This way the team and the players can contribute to Fairfield sports and help out all of the sports programs while getting reconnected with Fairfield athletics.
Coach Kiesel stated that “It is a tribute to these guys and their friendship and unity which is the reason they were so successful and is why they are all here. Fairfield looks beautiful and it’s wonderful to be back.”
The evening then continued in the Dolan School of Business Event Hall where there was food and drinks along with Fairfield football hats for the alums and their kids with a highlight video from the ‘98 season, along with a montage of photos from the season playing on the projectors. Once again, there were lots of laughs and hugs as the players reconnected and told old stories, returning to the campus many of them had not been back to in 20 years. The reason being many of the players felt neglected by the school, Edwards stated that “the school did the right thing putting this night together. We felt a little alienated [when they cut the program]. Feels good to be back. It’s great to see everyone, re-connect and see the great things on campus that have been added.”
The night continued on and multiple players gave speeches, as did coach Kiesel, all of which included lots of laughs, along with plenty of stories about the team and their great season with some impressions of coach Kiesel, which garnered the most laughter. Each speech also contained gratitude toward the university, to Father Leeber and Bill Miles along with a remembrance of two players who have passed since graduating, 1998 MAAC Rookie of the Year Dan Fitzpatrick and Ralph Danise ‘02, all of whom were great members of the football program and were deeply missed by the alumni.
All of the players were very happy to be back and to be reconnecting with old friends. “[It’s] awesome to hear how football impacted all of the players’ lives along with the friendships and the brotherhood we have,” Grugan stated.
“It’s so special to be back 25 years later and experience the special team,” Lopuznick stated.
The night then ended with some final remarks and some team pictures taken with the old MAAC trophy. Then the players went back to their hotels to return to campus Sunday, Feb. 4th for mass at 11 a.m, then all of the alumni were invited to the men’s basketball game vs. Iona University at 2 p.m, where the captains of the team were brought out to center court and honored during a break in the game. The weekend concluded and the players went their separate ways after enjoying the opportunity they had to reconnect with old friends, introduce new family members to Fairfield, and enjoy being back on campus while being welcomed by the school.
Incredible job Ryan! Thank you for being part of our celebration and for such a tremendous recap!!!
Great job capturing the spirit of a fantastic weekend, Ryan!