Football team gets civics lesson

OXFORD, Ohio -- Shortly after 1 p.m. Tuesday, the polling place on the Miami University campus was overrun by large young men in red sweat suits.

About 20 members of the Miami RedHawks football team filed into Withrow Court, the school's ancient former basketball gym, as a group. They were here to make the first presidential votes of their lives. That night, they would win a football game against Toledo, 23-16.

"This was the most important thing we did today," receiver R.J. Corbin said after casting his vote.

Here in a state that, perhaps more than any other, shaped the future of the nation, Miami-Toledo was decidedly on the undercard to Bush-Kerry. In fact, many wondered why it was on the card at all - including SI.com columnist Frank Deford. But RedHawks coach Terry Hoeppner responded to the criticism by putting democracy in motion.

Of all the ideas being pitched this campaign season, Hoeppner might have had the best. One day after practice in early October, he introduced the team to election officials he had invited to the football facility. He asked the players to register, and all 105 responded -- some of them signing up while wearing towels after emerging from the shower.

Hoeppner said all of his players told him they voted Tuesday -- but he added, "they all tell me they go to class, too. ... The football team that votes together wins together."

According to several players, what Hoeppner set in motion then remained in motion through Tuesday. Members of a traditionally fickle young voting base became involved in the process and explored their own beliefs, the way you'd hope college students would.

Players tuned in to CNN. Read about topics on the Internet. Educated themselves on local issues and races. Debated and discussed. On the short walk from Hepburn Hall, where many of the players live, to Withrow Court, the players were talking politics, not football.

"We'd be sitting around as a team, or go out to dinner, and politics would come up," offensive lineman Mark Kracium said. "Politics is definitely a touchy subject, but we discussed what we thought about certain policies."

Of course, it has been hard to avoid politics for the last month in Ohio. Driving into this idyllic college town, the roadsides were carpeted with political signs. A thicket of signs stood in front of Withrow Court: eight for Democrat John Kerry, three for President George W. Bush, and another two dozen pertaining to local elections. Every time you turned on the television, the ads came in torrents. Cell phones and dorm phones chirped constantly with pre-recorded messages touting Bush or Kerry.

And the candidates have criss-crossed the state in person as well. Hoeppner introduced the Bush twins at a gathering campus -- which many of the players attended regardless of political affiliation, for obvious reasons. Kerry campaigned on the Toledo campus last week, Bush came to the city the next day, and vice president Dick Cheney the day after that.

"They're definitely hitting Ohio hard," said Kracium, who is from New Carlisle, Ohio, and seemed to be one of the most politically inclined players. "I'm definitely going to turn on the TV and watch the returns -- after I watch the highlights from the game."

On a raw, windy night at Yager Stadium, the election was a hovering topic. Laptops in the press box were frequently diverted to news sites to check the electoral count. And in a major news outbreak, the president of the United States was found reclining comfortably in a lounge chair at a tailgate party.

He had a bowl of peppermints on his lap and a Coors Light sitting on the arm of the chair. (Scandal! Teetotaling president falls off wagon!) W. was smiling, but looking a little thin.

OK, so it was a life-size cutout of Bush, not the real thing. The bogus Bush was a special guest of John Tuggle, a former Miami player under Bo Schembechler and a three-decade-plus season-ticket holder from Eaton, Ohio. And, in case you hadn't guessed, a staunch Republican.

"We're just glad that George could join us to tailgate for the big Toledo-Miami bash," Tuggle said.

Many of the fans who made up a smaller-than-expected crowd of 13,940 had no qualms about the game being played on Election Night.

"I think it's great," Tim Skinner said. "We're not going to know for a while who's elected anyway."

All the RedHawks wore "I Voted Today!" decals on their white helmets - the suggestion of Hoeppner's wife, Jane, who said, "The players are about football, but not all about football."

But in a battleground state where every vote mattered, the Miami football team had its say. And felt good about it afterward.

"Four years from now," Hoeppner said, "we'll do it again."

Said linebacker Dontae Wright: "If you're going to play on this day, you need to show people you still care about your country."

Like the rest of the state of Ohio, the RedHawks said the team seemed to be split about 50-50 between Bush and Kerry. The team offered a snapshot of the nation as a whole: whites, African-Americans, city kids, rural kids, conservatives, liberals. Abortion, same-sex marriage and the economy were major issues with several players. Surprisingly, only two of about eight RedHawks interviewed mentioned Iraq.

The only thing they unanimously agreed upon was the importance of voting. Especially linebacker Terna Nande, who became the first member of his family to cast a vote in America.

Nande's parents, David and Veronica, moved to America from Nigeria more than 20 years ago. David, a plastic engineer in Grand Rapids, Mich., impressed upon his son the incredible freedom and prosperity available in America -- things not in great supply in many other parts of the world.

"He's a very educated man, and he felt very strongly about it," Terna said. "He told me how he fought to become an American citizen, and how black people had come from Africa to this country and died for the right to be free and vote.

"He didn't tell me who or what to vote for. He just said, 'Terna, if you care about your future, you'll do the right thing.' "

Terna Nande and his teammates did the right thing Tuesday afternoon. By voting first and playing second, they did their part to keep this most important of American days in perspective.

Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com.