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Having attended Delaware from 1990 to '94, I know what it is to walk the mean streets of Newark (that's new-ARK), a greasy slice of Margherita's pizza in one hand, a faded Stone Balloon mug in the other. I'd like to say it's a unique college experience; that—as is the case in South Bend and Tuscaloosa and West Point—there's nothing quite like a football Saturday at Delaware Stadium. This, however, would be a lie. I spent four years watching I-AA (we now refuse, on principle, to say "football championship subdivision") matchups against Maine and Richmond and Rhode Island, and they were (with rare exception) pretty forgettable experiences. Generally, students tailgated, caught about 13 minutes of action, then returned outside to polish off their seventh can of sun-warmed Milwaukee's Best. Those who packed Delaware Stadium (capacity 22,000) were crusty diehards relishing the opportunity to wax poetic about the heydays of Ivory Sully and Conway Hayman.
And yet that's what's so cool about the whole thing. Despite the student apathy, and despite being located in a part of the state with, truth be told, absolutely nothing to do (Christiana Mall, anyone?), and despite having run the boring-as-a-desk-lamp wing T offense for most of its history, Delaware has now sent six quarterbacks to the NFL. Along with Flacco and Gannon, we've got Dolphins backup Pat Devlin, former Giant Scott Brunner, ex-Lion Jeff Komlo and former Eagle Andy Hall. (O.K., the late Komlo might have been the worst quarterback in NFL history before he embarked on a second career as a criminal who was featured on America's Most Wanted. And, admittedly, Hall spent almost all of his career on the practice squad. We're I-AA—we take what we can get.)
"To understand what this means to us, you have to understand Delaware," says Kevin Mench, the former Rangers outfielder who grew up in Wilmington and then attended the university. "We're a small state, we're made fun of, we're not thought of very much. So when someone like a Rich Gannon or Joe Flacco comes along and brings some attention, it's important. It's like, 'Hey, we've got stuff going on here, too. We're Delaware!'"
Along Main Street these days, purple-and-black FLACCO Ravens jerseys are ubiquitous. Kids wear them. Adults wear them. Students wear them. There's a pride to it all—not merely having produced an NFL star but also knowing that when athletes come to Newark, they're not housed in lavish athletic dormitories and flown, via prime-rib-catered charter, to games across the country. Unless a matchup is more than six hours away, the Blue Hens travel by bus. They eat the same mediocre assembly-line grub served everyone else, and they live scattered among their fellow students. Though Tubby Raymond, the head coach from 1966 through 2001, is a College Football Hall of Fame inductee, nary a statue of his likeness can be found on campus. The stadium is, at best, pedestrian. The practice facilities are far from extraordinary. Media hype comes in the form of a profile in the Wilmington News Journal or Newark Post. "I think Joe came here because the football program was strong," said Brian Ginn, 35, a former Blue Hens quarterback and the team's longtime wide receivers coach. "It's not about hype. But if you want to learn and excel in the game, this is a great place."
When Flacco arrived on campus in 2005, having transferred from Pittsburgh, he was sized up by Ginn. Delaware had been home to plenty of quality quarterbacks, including one, Matt Nagy, who would go on to spend six years in the Arena League. Yet Flacco was different. "His arm strength just blew me away," said Ginn. "He could make every throw to every spot on the field. It sort of changed how we approached situations and what we could try."
Yet it hasn't changed Delaware. There are still few things to do and fewer places to do them. Which, come Super Bowl Sunday, is perfect.
"I'll be in front of a television," says Ginn, "watching Joe."