Although Ball State Football lost their 2022 season opener to the University of Tennessee 59-10, the occasion was still momentous. Not just for the players and coaches on each team, but for those in attendance.
From former students such as Robby General (2018 graduate), Sports Writer for The Star Press and Al Lesar (1978 graduate), Sports Writer for the Associated Press (AP), to former Ball State football players, alumni were scattered throughout Knoxville, Tennessee, for gameday. Some had a job to do, some cheered on from the bleachers and some watched from the sidelines.
Blaine “Woodie” Bishop, former Ball State football defensive back, co-hosts a radio show “Blaine and Mickey” out of Tennessee on 1045 The Zone, covering the Volunteers and his former team, the Tennessee Titans. From Indianapolis, Indiana, Bishop played football at Cathedral High School, where he initially enrolled at St. Joseph’s College to continue playing, eventually transferring to Ball State, before making his way to the NFL.
Though he said he’s always wanted to be a broadcaster, before his current career, Bishop was a four-time National Football League (NFL) Pro-Bowler with the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans, the organization that selected him in the 8th round of the 1993 NFL Draft. Involved heavily in both Ball State and Tennessee as a whole, Bishop said this contest was special for him.
“I'm always an advocate of Ball State,” Bishop said. “I'm very proud of where I've gone and where I've come from, to be honest, and I take pride in that, just like I did as a player at Ball State when we played these big programs.”
Going from playing intramural basketball with Ball State Football head coach Mike Neu while students at Ball State to standing with each other on the sideline at Neyland Stadium, Bishop said being able to experience such a big-time game sparked something inside him he hadn’t felt for almost two decades.
“I kind of had chills, and that hadn’t hit me since I was an actual player,” Bishop said. “It was just verification and gratifying to see that a big-time program, [like Tennessee] Ball State gets to play them in a city that I am ingrained in as a player and on the radio. It was super exciting. I don't think I've reached that level ever at a game, so there were times I thought, ‘Man, I think I think I could do a play again.’”
Tailgating and interacting with Cardinal families before the game, two former Ball State offensive lineman Chris Sparrow (2013 graduate) and Jalen Schlachter (2015 graduate) made a weekend out of their trip to Knoxville. Both from Michigan, the two grew up less than two hours away from each other, but didn’t meet until their time together at Ball State.
The two lived together at LaFollette Complex and became best friends as Cardinals, with Sparrow eventually being Schlachter’s best man at his wedding. Constantly laughing and joking around with each other, the two former offensive lineman were excited to be around the atmosphere for big games again, and to support their alma mater, the place Sparrow said he learned many valuable lessons he applies to this day.
“It goes beyond the game,” Sparrow said. “Anything that you were taught from school to just being accountable and doing what you’re supposed to do.”
Having played “Power-Five” opponents like Indiana University, Clemson University and the University of Virginia, during their time as college athletes, the two said they remember how they approached games such as those. Sparrow and Schlachter each said for offensive lineman, it was like having “ice water in your veins”, as they couldn't afford to approach the game any differently.
However, Schlachter said “games like that will stick with us for the rest of our lives.”
“It’s a different level when you come to something like this,” Schlachter said. “You try and think of it as the same, but a lot of guys in the MAC (Mid-American Conference) got passed up by teams like this. So, it’s like you got a chip on your shoulder.”
Still keeping an eye on Ball State 29 years after being drafted, Bishop said he has noticed Ball State’s growth academically and athletically, through both President Geoffrey Mearns and Director of Athletics Beth Goetz. He said the two of them did an “exceptional job” organizing events in Knoxville, such as an alumni gathering at a restaurant called Calhoun’s, to show fan support for Ball State football.
For Bishop, this game was about his two worlds colliding. Though he currently is heavily involved with the University of Tennessee and the Tennessee Titans through his job with Cumulus Media, he said he will always have a special place in his heart for Ball State.
“I'm just so proud and to be a Cardinal, to have a chance to say where I'm at and go see them and stand on the sidelines with my team and my school was pretty unique, and a lot of people don't get to experience that,” Bishop said. “So it was a special, special day for me…that was also gratifying, even in the stands and seeing how many people live in Tennessee that actually went to Ball State, that was really cool. I felt like it represented some parts of me and who I am and helped me develop as a person.”