COVINGTON — Former Newton football players Nick Hardeman and Duronte Carter are prepared to help Mercer’s football team stage a comeback more than 70 years in the making.
The Bears will be in their newly built Mercer University Stadium to take on the Reinhardt Eagles at 6 p.m. on Saturday.
“There’s a lot excitement around the town and around the campus. It’s a very interesting time for the whole community,” Hardeman said. “We have a lot of support from not only the city but the students, faculty and everybody around.”
Mercer’s football team has been on hiatus since 1941 when the team was disbanded due to lack of players because everyone was going to fight in World War II. But in 2009, Mercer president William Underwood decided that one of the things he was going to do was bring football back to the Mercer campus in Macon. After the impact studies came back showing it was a favorable move, Mercer hired head coach Bobby Lamb to restart the program in 2011.
Two of his freshman picks were Hardeman, who graduated in 2012, and Carter, who graduated in 2013, were selected to play in the secondary. While Hardeman will be running onto the field looking at the crowds as they cheer for the Bears, the same cannot not be said for Carter who will be sidelined after going to an exploratory procedure on his knee.
There is no question that opening day is filled with anticipation and excitement. But this is something Hardeman has been looking forward to for the past two years.
“It’s not something that you can prepare yourself for fully. But you can only imagine what it can be like with all the excitement surrounding it. But there’s nothing you can do to prepare yourself since it’s nothing you’ve ever experienced before,” Hardeman said. “It’s like an Eastside-Newton game but 10 times more than that.”
Mercer, who plays in the Atlantic Sun Conference in all other sports, will play their football under the banner of the 12-member Pioneer Football League for their opening season before moving up to the Southern Conference next year with Kennesaw State.
The Bears are also looking forward to starting more games against Georgia schools. The first major school on their schedule will be Georgia Tech in 2016. Mercer’s program is not new to playing other Georgia programs. They played in Georgia’s first intercollegiate football in 1892 when they faced the Georgia Bulldogs. Georgia won that game 50-0. Mercer did get a win against a Georgia school on Nov. 5, 1892 as they defeated Georgia Tech 12-6 in Tech’s first football game.
Even though their jump to the SoCon and the Football Championship Subdivision is coming after one year. Assistant Director of Media Relations David Beall feels that it’s a move they have to make.
“It’s moving very quickly but it was planned,” Beall said. “It’s one of those thing with Georgia Southern and Appalachian State moving out of the conference it was a spot that we wanted and we were able to get it. A lot of schools wanted that spot. We were able to show them that with our academic and athletic excellence we would be a good fit.”
The football program is already having an impact on the campus as they have the largest freshman class in with 721 new students coming in.
“We’re going to go through some growing pains but I think it’s going to be great,” Mercer student John Wilson Gordon said. “I had a friend ask me to get him a ticket and we had to wait in line. I’ve never seen that many of us (students) come together at once. It’s crazy but they’re all super excited about it.”
Even though the last 70 graduating classes missed out on the excitement of cheering for their own college football team, that does not mean that they are missing out for the future.
“It’s really, really exciting because now I can say ‘my football team’ instead of following another team. It’s a sense of pride,” said 2012 Mercer graduate Sam Pollock. “We were really good at basketball but football is football. You can’t really brag about being inches from making to the NCAA tournament in basketball. It (Mercer) is growing and there’s so much a sense of community among the people that went to Mercer. They have that bond with the school.”