Not long after losing the FCS National Championship game, redshirt seniors Ron’Dell Carter, Ben DiNucci and Riley Stapleton each walked off the stage following the postgame press conference.
Before each left the platform, head coach Curt Cignetti stopped them, one by one, for a simple handshake. The exchanges were quick between the fifth-year seniors and the first-year head coach, but they signified the end of a run.
The trio of players sat to address the media only a few minutes prior. Their faces were blank — occasionally forming into flashes of disappointment and sadness — as they fielded questions on topics from the loss to their time with the program.
“There's got to be a winner every game, there's got to be a loser every game, and we just happened to come up on the short end of the stick today,” DiNucci said as he looked toward the ground.
Coming into the national title game, the JMU senior class had already cemented itself as one of the best to wear the purple and gold. It’s the winningest class in program history with 51 victories and six players named to 2019 All-American lists, and some were FCS National Champions in 2016.
For Stapleton, his entire college career has been based in Harrisonburg. The Indiana, Pennsylvania, native redshirted his first season at JMU but later became a constant threat at the wide receiver position, finishing second in program history for receptions (169), fifth in receiving yards (2,113) and second in receiving touchdowns (22).
“It’s tough to put in, like, one or two sentences,” Stapleton said with a slight shake of his head. “It’s been an amazing experience. I wouldn’t change it for the world. JMU holds a special place in my heart, and, uh, it’s tough to look back right now just because this hurts so much.”
Even though Carter and DiNucci started their careers elsewhere — both playing in the FBS first at Rutgers and Pitt, respectively — their importance to JMU football can’t be denied. DiNucci, a two-year starter at quarterback, climbed into the record books after only playing in 28 games.
The Wexford, Pennsylvania, native finished his career as a Duke tied for third in program history for completions (479), fourth in passing touchdowns (45) and seventh for total offense (6,718). DiNucci also fought his way to a major comeback after a difficult end to last season.
“I haven’t been here for four years, but I’ve had the pleasure being here for the last two,” DiNucci said. “It sure feels like I’ve been here for four or five [years]. These guys have been nothing but brothers to me.”
Carter joined the JMU football program in 2017 fresh off its first FCS National Championship win since 2004. His brother, Robert, was on the team from 2015 to 2018, and sitting in Frisco, Texas, that Saturday, Carter told the media he wished he never went anywhere other than JMU.
The defensive lineman played one season at Rutgers before reuniting with his brother in Harrisonburg. During his time playing for the Dukes, Carter became one of the top defensive players in the country.
During the 2019 season alone, Carter epitomized a senior leader on and off the field. He recorded 66 tackles, 12 sacks and 27 tackles for loss. Carter’s disruption in the backfield this season earned him eight First Team All-American selections, and he was also selected as a STATS FCS Buck Buchanan Award Top-3 Finalist.
“I transferred in here three years ago, and it was for this reason — to compete for a national championship,” Carter said. “Those guys in that locker room, I wouldn’t trade them for the world. Win, lose or draw, I want those guys to the end.”
While the trio won’t take the field again for JMU, the players who wait behind them for their own chance have had at least a season to learn from teammates like Carter, DiNucci and Stapleton.
During Saturday’s contest, there were glimpses of the future when athletes like redshirt sophomore quarterback Gage Moloney and freshman running back Latrele Palmer took the field.
“This place was good when I came in,” Carter said. “I've been fortunate to see great leaders before I got here — the Bryan Schors, Andrew Ankrahs, Simeyon Robinsons … All of us were able to learn from them, and we was able to basically preach all that stuff to the young guys, and hopefully, they'll just carry on the legacy.”
When the three Dukes walked out of the press conference, they headed down the hallway of Toyota Stadium and into the locker room. Carter took off the No. 5, DiNucci the No. 6 and Stapleton the No. 10 for the last time as JMU football players.
They won’t be back for spring camp in a few months, but that doesn’t mean football is over for the three or any of the other seniors. There’s always a chance to play on Sundays.
Contact Catie Harper at email@example.com. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.