It was a long time ago when Joe Previte and Micah Morel both hung up the cleats for Brockton High.
The Boxers lost the 2012 Division 1 Super Bowl to St. John's Prep, and the program has not made it back to the big game since. But while chasing the same dream to play at the Football Bowl Subdivision level, those scholarship offers just weren't there. Previte, a defensive lineman, did a post-graduate year at Northfield Mt. Hermon. Morel, a defensive back, prepped at Milford Academy.
Each chose to take a preferred walk-on role at UMass, with no guarantees of gaining a scholarship. Perhaps that struggle is what powers their leadership for the Minutemen, who have that same drive to earn the program's first trip to a bowl game since joining the FBS in that same year the Boxers lost to the Prep.
It's been a fraternity of sorts, with starting defensive back Jesse Monteiro graduating last year and wide receiver Jonathan Derolus also on the team.
"It's fun. It's probably everything you'd expect it to be, and then probably even a little more, too," said Morel, who is still a walk-on. "It's fun, it's a blast, because you can always have someone there reminiscing about, 'Hey, Joe, remember when we played Weymouth in the playoff game? Jesse, remember when we played Taunton my junior year?' Or when we played whoever my junior year. And Jon was a little bit younger, but we were still on the same team and we can relate to a whole bunch of stuff. We don't live that much far away from each other back home. So we still see each other when we're not here. But, definitely, having that fraternity, that brotherhood, it really is enjoyable. It is everything you'd expect it to be and a little more."
Said Previte: "It's nice that, like, you have a bunch of Brockton guys on the team. Me and Jesse last year, obviously both started. I would always talk to him in practice and we'd always have that bond from playing at Brockton High. We were always pretty good friends there, but we were really good friends here, you know what I mean? It's the same thing with me and Micah. We're better friends even now because we have that bond, you know what I mean?"
For Previte, he was able to work his way into the starting lineup and earn the scholarship, and has become somewhat of an older elder statesman. He receives some good-natured teasing for being the "old man" of the group.
"Old man? I'm just happy I'm still able to play," Previte said. "I've had a lot of injuries. I'm just really looking forward to it. I have a fifth year. I think it's an important role. I like being in that leadership role. I like having leadership with this young group and the D-linemen. The sky's the limit, I guess. I'm excited to see them play."
But his demeanor is serious to make sure the younger players stay in line.
"You've just got to have an attitude with you. We call it like a motor. You have to have a motor," Previte said. "You can't just come out to practice with your head down or something. You've got to be pumped up. No one likes to practice. You've always got to be on your A-game. If a guy is moping around, I've got to be like, 'Kid, get pumped up. You look terrible.' But that's the main thing I say to the young guys is have a motor and be juiced up, I guess."
That attitude is infectious, and integral to the team, according to coach Mark Whipple.
"He's been great, the way he goes about his business," Whipple said. "He's always ready, always prepared. Probably a little more vocal in the D-line room, but just well respected by everybody in the program, just how to be a UMass football player. A guy that came here as a walk-on, earned a scholarship, and well-deserved it."
Previte's approach earned him the Mike Boland Award for character and respect in the spring.
But even though Morel has seen limited playing time and still doesn't have that scholarship, his value as a leader still exists.
"As far as contributions is concerned, its not hard," he said. "I redshirted my first year here. The following season, I didn't play the first two games. And then, slowly but surely, I'd see a little bit more action, a little bit, little bit, little bit. By the end of the season, I was just so sore from every game from all the bumps and bruises. And then getting ready for all the offseason, training, expected to elevate your play a little more, try to get into the playbook more. Take more of a leadership role.
"As far as the contribution was concerned, I wouldn't say that was much of a worry," he continued. "I would say more of trying to earn everyone's respect at first, because you come in here underrated. They're probably going to look at you at first, 'Oh, look this skinny kid, he's probably not much.' You work your tail off and you show to everyone that, hey, you can play with these guys, and you can compete with everyone in here. And you do that day-in and day-out, and you kind of open people's eyes, and they change their opinions about not only you but almost the whole program in general. Because if you say, 'Well, if this kid can out-compete and out-work everyone, then what does that say about people who are getting 'paid' to be here?' "
Maybe it's growing up in a working-class city like Brockton that has formed such a deep sense of determination in these players, or maybe they just love the game too much to take no for an answer when they're not given the immediate gratification of a scholarship offer. Either way, Whipple will keep going back to the well.
"It's been great. Been great (recruiting Brockton)," Whipple said. "All the guys from there, we tried to recruit the other Monteiro, (Aaron), the starting tackle for BC. And Jon Derolus is from there and is doing really good. They all love football, great kids, and really fun to have them on the team."
Now, just like in 2012, the former Boxers have their eyes set on a bowl.
"That's the only goal. That's the only goal we all have," Previte said. "We've got to come out and beat Duquesne first. That's all we're talking about. That's all we're thinking about right now is Duquesne. But the ultimate goal is to win a bowl game. That's been the goal every year, and that's the goal this year."
Morel sees a direct correlation to his prep days.
"It kind of reminds me of the transition from my junior year to my senior year at Brockton because it was a totally different team," he said. "It was the majority of the same players. We had Bubba (Shelby), Jesse (Monteiro), Devante (Cartwright); they were gone. But other than that, pretty much everyone was back. It's kind of what this team is like. OK, we don't have (tight end Adam) Breneman. We don't have (running back Bilal) Ally, (defensive lineman Da'Sean) Downey, (defensive lineman) Sha'ki (Holines). Other than that . . . (Linebacker) Steve (Casali) is gone, too. He was huge for us.
"We pretty much have everyone back. It's like, I really, really, really think we can do this. We believe in it. Now we just have to execute it."