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The Sports Edge – It’s a family affair

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One of the most overused cliches in sports is “this team is a family”. Every team seems to throw that out there but it rarely rings true. However, this past weekend I got to see an example of not only a team, but a program that truly is a family.

Jack Cosgrove was honored in Portland last Friday night for his 36-year connection to University of Maine football, as a player, assistant coach, head coach and administrator - and it was one of the most remarkable gatherings I’ve ever seen.

Former Black Bears dating back to the 1950s were in attendance and the bond between those former players reaches across the decades. Guys like my broadcast partner Bob Lucy and his brother Jim, teammates Chuck Deluga, Dean Ramsdell, three Keating brothers (Chris, Steve, and Tom) and early 70’s players like Jim Walsh and Steve Harlow all mingled with the likes of more recent Bears like QB Ron Whitcomb, Zach Magliaro, Chad Hayes, Dennis Dottin-Carter and former Kansas City Chief Mike DeVito.

It wasn’t just the former stars who were there to celebrate Jack Cosgrove but the role players, because Jack didn’t make that distinction - they were all important. The night was filled with stories, from the casual conversations to those who were presenters and the theme was the same; that putting on that uniform makes you a part of a lifelong fraternity. Magliaro recalled being diagnosed with cancer and getting a call from his former coach, who then proceeded to drive to Massachusetts to be with him “for as long as you need me here.”

Dottin-Carter, who became interim head coach at Delaware midway through last season, shared the story of the advice Cosgrove provided when he stepped into that position. Even rival head coach Sean McDonnell of New Hampshire was there to explain that, despite the intensity of the competition, they have become great friends and take pride in each other’s accomplishments as the bastions of Division 1 football in Northern New England.

Everybody had their favorite moments to recall, including program-defining wins at Mississippi State (the first over an FBS opponent), McNeese State (the first playoff victory), and a pair of postseason triumphs at powerhouse Appalachian State. The wild overtime at James Madison University certainly came up but most of the stories were about practices, bus rides, plane flights and the friendships that have only become stronger as the years have passed.

For those who only look at sports in terms of the numbers, there is the fact that Jack Cosgrove is the winningest coach in University of Maine history and led them to five playoff appearances. Jack will be the first to say that he is also the losingest coach in Black Bear history and like his friend Sean McDonnell, Jack knows that every win was the result of overcoming huge challenges, from geography to finances. He often said Maine players had to carry a chip on their shoulders as they competed with rivals from programs that had many more advantages and perhaps that attitude is what has led so many of those Black Bears to find success, whether in the NFL, in business or simply in life. They knew they had to work a little harder than everyone else and they’ve taken that approach with them into the world beyond Orono.

Wins are certainly the goal in sports and as people often say, that’s why you keep score. Last weekend’s gathering paid tribute to many of those moments in Maine’s football past but the focus was on something greater. It was a celebration of a coach who put people first, whose commitment to them didn’t end when their playing career wrapped-up, and a program that has forged an unbreakable bond among all who have played and coached there.

If that’s not family, I don’t know what is.

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