Piatt: Finally cheering — from outside the press box

<p>Zach Piatt smiles for a portrait Sept. 23, 2020, at Scheumann Stadium. Piatt has covered 26 Ball State Football games as a student. <strong>Jacob Musselman, DN</strong></p>

Zach Piatt smiles for a portrait Sept. 23, 2020, at Scheumann Stadium. Piatt has covered 26 Ball State Football games as a student. Jacob Musselman, DN

Zach Piatt is a senior journalism major. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the newspaper.

I held it in for a long time — 1,122 days to be exact.

For 37 months, all I did was watch instead of join in the celebration.

For just over three years, I refrained from singing the Ball State fight song at Scheumann Stadium — not because I wanted to, but because I needed to. Better yet, I chose to need to.

One of the first things I did when I arrived at Ball State in 2017 was join The Ball State Daily News. What I didn’t know at the time was how the fan aspect of sports is essentially taken away once you sign up to be a sports reporter. There is no cheering in the press box — you’re there to work, not just watch a game.

This was an adjustment for me. I had just come off of my senior year of high school, in which I was a captain of the baseball team and the president of the tailgate and student section. Competition and school spirit ran through my veins just as naturally as blood. As tough as it was, I swallowed that bullet and started rooting for the story rather than the teams.

As a freshman reporter, I started out low on the totem pole, so I wasn’t covering the football team. Because I knew this could be a possibility in later years, I attended as many home football games as possible — the last being Nov. 16, 2017, against Buffalo. It was a Thursday night, the weather was terrible and the buddy I went with wanted to watch the Steelers game, so we left at halftime.

If I had known that was the second-to-last time I’d cheer on the Cardinals as a student in the Scheumann Stadium stands, I would have stayed.

Zach Piatt takes in the moment before Ball State and Buffalo play for the MAC Championship Dec. 18, 2020, at Ford Field in Detroit. This was Piatt's last Ball State Football game he covered while a student. Jacob Musselman, DN

Long story short, I took over the football beat for The Daily News the following spring and kept it through 2019.

I watched the team go 2-10 my freshman year and reported on its entire 9-15 stint over the next two seasons. I wrote a preview and a recap for every one of those 24 games. I’ll be honest, it got difficult to talk to the players after each loss because they were so tired of losing. It got difficult to put a different spin on the “We’ll get ’em next week” story because it felt like an endless cycle.

That said, I also saw the improvements.

In 2017, Ball State lost five games by at least 40 points and went without scoring a touchdown during one three-game stretch. The next year, opponents outscored Ball State by an average of eight points, and the Cardinals went down to the wire with Notre Dame. The next, Ball State had the highest-scoring offense in the Mid-American Conference and was the only team to get to 3-0 in MAC play.

I saw changes that went beyond the numbers too — like an increase in team camaraderie, more focus on optimism and a better sense of pride — because I was at practice and talked with head coach Mike Neu and players every week.

Despite all this, most fans only saw the record. They saw year after year of losing records.

I couldn’t tell you how many times people asked me when Neu was going to get fired. Not if — when. Every time, I responded with, “Actually, I think he’s turning the program around, and I think he’s the right man for the job.”

Those people looked at me like I was crazy and were surprised when Athletic Director Beth Goetz offered Neu a contract extension this past summer. I was not because it seemed as though Goetz took notice of the same improvements I did.

I became editor-in-chief of The Daily News this past August, leaving football coverage to the next ones in line.

Fast-forward to Dec. 12, and I’m in the Scheumann Stadium stands for the first time in what felt like a lifetime. No reporting responsibilities, no story deadlines — I was there as a Ball State fan to watch my team play Western Michigan for the MAC West Division Title.

Zach Piatt sits in the almost-empty Scheumann Stadium stands before Ball State takes on Western Michigan Dec. 12, 2020. This was the first Ball State Football game Piatt attended as a fan since November 2017. Jacob Musselman, DN

After four quarters and one of the craziest endings to a football game I’ve ever seen, the Cardinals had stamped their tickets to the MAC Championship, and I found myself using what little voice I had left to sing the fight song right along with them.

Six days later, I provided social media coverage of the championship game in Detroit from right behind Ball State’s bench, screaming internally when the Cardinals rushed the field as newly crowned MAC champions.

Fast-forward again to New Year’s Eve, and I’m yelling at the TV from home as Ball State scores 27 points in the first quarter en route to its first bowl game win in program history.

I say all this because I’m thankful. Covering Ball State Football is what I’ve most identified with in my time in college, and it’s been quite a ride. It was tough — excruciating at times — to keep quiet while covering this team, but doing so led me to some amazing experiences and memories I’ll hold onto until the day I die.

The job is finished — for both me and the team. Now, let’s celebrate.

Thank you, Ball State Football, for everything.

Contact Zach Piatt with comments at zapiatt@bsu.edu or on Twitter @zachpiatt13.

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