In the book of John Gagliardi, great-play anecdotes don't do a great player justice. So on the subject of his top receiver, St. John's 77-year-old philosopher-coach describes a simple, off-field gesture. "It was after a late practice over Thanksgiving, and there were no employees around to shovel snow off the bleachers," says Gagliardi. "So Blake Elliott grabs a shovel and gets to work. Soon the whole team was shoveling. I've said that my best players are the nicest people. With Blake, you've got the nicest ever. And maybe the best ever."
Welcome to lower-division football at its finest. If you want to watch phenomenally gifted collegians audition for the NFL, you can pay $900 to score a ticket to the Sugar Bowl. But if you appreciate the spectacle of honest-to-goodness student-athletes playing for pride and each other, you might have been one of the 5,073 fans in Salem (Va.) High Stadium for the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl, the Division III national championship game, last Saturday. And you would have gotten your $10 worth. In 30� temperatures and 18-mph winds, St. John's, of Collegeville, Minn., upset Mount Union, of Alliance, Ohio, 24-6, snapping the Raiders' NCAA-record 55-game winning streak.
For the Johnnies the improbable outcome was a fitting end to a Cinderella season. Mount Union came to Salem with an offensive line that outweighed Ohio State's and the cool confidence of a team that had not been touched this millennium. St. John's had Gagliardi, who last month passed Eddie Robinson to become college football's winningest coach (Saturday's was the 414th victory of his 55-year career), and 56 players who had made the team without tryouts (the unorthodox Gagliardi doesn't believe in them). Last week some of those players logged onto Mount Union's website to scroll through head shots. "We wanted to remind ourselves that they were human," says Elliott. "They've been kings of the hill for a while, but someone was bound to get the better of them at some point."
Spurred by straightforward play-calling ("You're not going to see any double reverse passes from us," says Elliott) and straightforward fan support (posters in the crowd included such frank gems as WE HATE PURPLE and MOUNT THIS), the Johnnies jumped to a 7-6 lead at the close of the first half and never looked back. Their undersized defense surprised the Raiders with three sacks and four interceptions, but most impressive of all was Elliott, a fifth-year senior biochemistry major who chose St. John's over several Ivy League schools so his parents, who live 18 miles from campus, could watch him play. Despite a nagging hamstring strain that forced him to limp between plays, the winner of this year's Division III top-player award—the Gagliardi Trophy, named for his coach—earned Stagg Bowl MVP honors with 110 rushing yards on 11 carries (he often lines up in the back-field), five catches for 51 yards and a 27-yard kickoff return.
As Elliott was handed the tide plaque after the game, he pulled his teammates onto the rickety winner's podium to help hoist it. "At St. John's no player is bigger than the team," he says. And despite the size of the stage, no win was bigger than this.