SI Vault
Bil Gilbert
May 10, 1976
Maryland's Mount St. Mary's College offers the usual lineup of liberal arts courses, but its 1,200 students take part in sports to an unusual degree, learning what many kids fail to learn at bigger schools—that the days they spend playing games will be among the best days of their lives
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May 10, 1976

Play As You Go

Maryland's Mount St. Mary's College offers the usual lineup of liberal arts courses, but its 1,200 students take part in sports to an unusual degree, learning what many kids fail to learn at bigger schools—that the days they spend playing games will be among the best days of their lives

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A middle-aged man, who came as a freshman, went elsewhere for graduate work but returned to spend his life teaching at Mount St. Mary's, says in explanation and self-defense, "This has been a good place to live and raise a family. It is a very pretty place."

"What a lovely spot for a college, such a pretty place to go to school," a mother enthuses while strolling on campus with her student son.

Having delivered the obligatory critique on the backwardness of his instructors, the poor quality of campus food and girls, a senior adds with irony, "But as the catalog says, you certainly can't beat the scenery."

Mount St. Mary's is a college of 1,200 students in Emmitsburg in the foothills of the Blue Ridge in western Maryland. The Mount has been there a long time, since 1808, and is (as the catalog keeps saying) the oldest independent Catholic college in the United States. The eight or 10 major buildings have been erected as the need arose and resources permitted. There was no master plan but all are vaguely of the fortress gothic style, heavy gray structures now softened by vines, by thickets, by groves of trees—oak, maple, tulip poplar, sycamore, white pine. Like the backyards in a one-street village, the turfed lawns, terraces and playing fields of the college merge without formal demarcation into the farmlands of the Monocacy valley.

Catoctin Mountain, rising sharply only a few paces to the west and to the rear of the administration building, lends great beauty to the campus. Steep, ledgy and covered with the tangled mixed deciduous jungle of the central Appalachians, the mountain always has been poor, unprofitable land to farm. Here and there old drovers' watering stops in the notches have been restored to a certain quaintness for the dinner trade. There is a ski area on the ridge, a few recreation developments. But Catoctin Mountain is not greatly different from what it was in 1808.

On a summer day, even when heat devils are dancing all across the open Monocacy valley, it is cool, green and soft in the shade of the mountain. In fall the ridgeside is a hot fire of turning oak and maple foliage. After a winter storm the mountain glitters in a filigree of ice and snow. In spring it is an impressionistic daub—redbud, dogwood, shadblow, all manner of delicate greens, pastel upon pastel.

I have come to know the Mount well. I live nearby—in fact, just on the other side of the mountain. I agree that it is a pretty place, but I do not hang around because of the scenery. Rather, it is a very good place to play games. At the Mount I have found satisfying fields, playing partners and opponents. And also insights into larger sporting matters.

Like so many things on the mountainside, the oldest tennis court is located on a wide ledge. Directly above are 30 acres of lacrosse and Softball fields. Below is a spring-fed swimming pool. The court was once rolled hardpan; then 40 years or so ago it was covered with asphalt. The surface is now pitted, slopes to the south and in the summer is unbearably hot underfoot. For playing it does not compare to the composition courts that have been built by the college half a mile away. But the old court is much prettier. In the spring morel mushrooms grow on the grassy bank protecting one side. The other three sides are enclosed by a stone wall and fence, on which grow wild flax, woodbine and poison ivy. An immense maple shades and litters the south half of the court. Best of all, a mountain spring flows under the court and out below the ledge. Where it wells up, there is a shallow trough, lined with smooth stones, where players and anyone else can flop on their stomachs and suck up the cold water.

It is a nice afternoon in spring and we are playing paddle ball. Jim Phelan is the athletic director and basketball coach at the Mount; he once played in the NBA. We are frequent opponents. Our skills, or what is left of them, are equal and so is the degree of caring that we bring to games. Each point is wrestled and grunted over and after an hour the points add up to lips caked with dried saliva, shaky legs and an 8-6 set that goes one way one day, the other way the next. We use our own rules, based on tennis, to arrive at the score. On this day we have been nicely transported by an 8-6 set and are leaning against a wall commanding a maze of walks, paths and roadways branching out from the gymnasium. There is a lot of traffic. All the tennis courts are occupied. Runners are jogging toward the track, carrying spikes. Vaulters and putters are laboring along with poles and shots. Basketball players, baseball players and weight lifters are streaming into the gym to gather their gear. Lacrosse, golf and softball players already have theirs and are beating on balls on the field above. In the middle of everything three boys and three girls are flying kites and courting. Something quite like this can be seen at the proper season around other schools and playgrounds. Yet there are times when you become intensely aware of a commonplace thing, the flight of a dragonfly, a combustion engine, a daily newspaper, and are overwhelmed by its marvelousness. This is what has happened.

"Jim, look at all these people playing games on the mountain. There is no way that so many people are going to come together in any other way and look so pretty."

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