JMU Football (copy)

JMU football is a little more than a month away from taking the field against West Virginia.

As the 2019 CAA Football Media Day got underway, former Richmond running back Tim Hightower walked up to the lectern to address the room filled with coaches, student athletes and media members. 

It may seem weird to some JMU faithful that a former Spider was offering advice to other CAA schools. Most know of the rivalry between JMU and Hightower’s alma mater —  Hightower even commented on the abundance of purple shirts at the JMU table when he came to say hello later on during media day.

It’s clear that love among both fanbases isn’t often seen, despite a level of respect between the two teams. But, as the former NFL running back who secured almost 3,000 rushing yards and 32 touchdowns during his professional career looked out across the Baltimore Ravens’ locker room, he gave a piece of advice to all the players scattered throughout: find your “why.”

Numerous motives fuel an athlete to endure hours of workouts and practices in order to make it to game day. For redshirt senior cornerback Rashad Robinson and senior center Mac Patrick, who both represented JMU at this year’s media day, their “why” is simple.

“My family, you know, that's kind of the reason I play football,” Robinson said. “My family goes all out during the game, and it's only right that I make them proud every weekend.”

With all of the accomplishments Robinson has earned during his years at JMU, it’s hard to imagine his family wouldn’t be proud of him. In three seasons of playing time, he’s made his name known across college football. An All-American with 103 tackles, 10 interceptions, 25 passes defended and two forced fumbles, Robinson’s “why” has witnessed him create a dominant career with time still left to add on it. Now back from a foot injury that sidelined him all of last season, Robinson is ready to return to the field. 

“I'm most excited for game day,” Robinson said. “That's the one thing I can say. That was the toughest for me knowing that taking the Duke Walk and stuff like that and just know that I [couldn’t] suit up and perform in front of those fans.”

For Patrick, football at JMU runs in the family. His brother, Tabb Patrick, is a redshirt junior with the team, and the duo has been through their entire college careers together. They were with the Dukes when the team claimed the 2016 FCS National Championship, they experienced a loss in the same game the following season and endured last year’s early playoff exit together.

With Mac a true senior and Tabb still in his redshirt junior campaign, this season marks the last they’ll play together for JMU. But throughout the next several months, Mac will continue to suit up with his younger brother with something special on his jersey each week — the name Patrick.

“I love my family tremendously,” Mac said. “The name on the back of my jersey means a lot to me, and that's who I play for. That's who I try to make proud.”

Head coach Curt Cignetti has only been with the Dukes for a little over seven months now, but with a coaching career that’s spanned more than three decades, he’s found his “why” as a coach. A father himself, Cignetti’s “why” emulates what a parent would want for their child — success. 

In the world of sports where people and careers can often be defined by a moment or a stat, Cignetti understands there’s more to coaching than just the game itself. When tasked with leading a program, a coach has the potential to directly impact an athlete’s life. 

“I love seeing guys develop as people, students and football players from their freshman year to their senior year,” Cignetti said. “Some of them move on to the NFL, and some of them move on to their life's work … And [I like] developing those relationships and helping people develop and reach their fullest potential.” 

While one of the reasons Cignetti coaches is to watch the men who come into his locker room grow, his competitive spirit is still present. With each team Cigentti has been with, he’s found a way to win, and that winning feeling both during and after games is one that continues to drive him.

“When you know you got that win — sometimes it's not till the end, sometimes might be middle of the fourth quarter — I just love that feeling,” Cignetti said. “I think that a lot of these guys love competition for the same reason, and I think we have a lot of great competitors on this football team.”

When Hightower stood in front of the room filled with CAA football players, he made sure the players knew their teams belonged to them. They were in Baltimore as leaders of their respective schools, and it was their job to inspire their teammates.

Coaches are often the figureheads of college football programs, but it’s the players who take to the field week in and week out. To Hightower, in order for a team to be successful, the leaders on the rosters need to be the ones who help define the reason to play. 

“When you go back, what is your ‘why’ going to be?” Hightower asked the athletes. “What’s going to be special about your team? What’s going to be special about your legacy? And before you step out on that field, define that with the guys.”

In a season that holds promise and potential for JMU football, the Dukes’ reason to play the game could just be what distinguishes them from the rest of the CAA.

Contact Catie Harper at breezesports@gmail.com. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.

Pat Summitt, Erin Andrews and Lindsay Czarniak were three names that inspired me growing up. Here I am now at JMU, Czarniak’s alma mater, taking steps to live out my dream. As Pat would say, “I’m going to keep on keepin’ on, I promise you that.”