JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (April 22, 2015) – When East Tennessee State University graduate students Matthew Himel and Andrew Avery started hearing about the return of ETSU football, their questions and curiosity did not focus on what the future would hold for the new athletic program.
They wanted to look back.
That interest led to the “Countdown to Kickoff” exhibit which opened earlier this month at the Reece Museum, and will remain open to the public through May 29. With the help of the ETSU Department of Intercollegiate Athletics, the Archives of Appalachia, and the private collections of former players, coaches, trainers and staff, Himel and Avery were able to assemble a plethora of artifacts to complete an extensive and engaging look back at ETSU football’s history.
“Originally, I came up with the idea when I saw that we were bringing the football program back, and that made me curious about the program we had before 2003,” Himel said. “That led me to talk with Andrew about working together to develop this ‘Countdown to Kickoff’ exhibit as a way to look back at those previous 80-plus years of history.”
For his part, Avery said the project is about informing those he pass campus every day on campus – ETSU students.
“Enough time has passed that there is a vague idea that there was a football program, but there wasn’t a really good way to bring the past back up for current students,” Avery said. “This exhibit supplies some context for current students, alumni and future students that there was a very competitive program here in the past.”
As graduate students majoring in history, both Himel and Avery knew what they were looking for when it came to archives and memorabilia, but actually finding those items became the real challenge.
Ultimately, searching through old storage rooms inside the Mountain States Health Alliance Athletic Center and relying on the generosity of individuals who still possessed long-forgotten artifacts became crucial to completing the project. In particular, the private collection of longtime ETSU athletic trainer Jerry Robertson proved invaluable to the effort.
“The biggest challenge from the very beginning was getting the artifacts and all the memorabilia from different decades,” Himel said. “We found a lot of items from the 1990s and from the Grantland Rice Bowl era, but things from those years in between and before the 1969 season were the hardest to find. But the more we talked to people and the more items we were able to get, we found that all the decades were being represented.”
Himel added, “We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Jerry Robertson because he provided at least a quarter of the things we have in the exhibit. He opened a lot of doors for us and what we were able to do would not have been possible without him.”
Himel and Avery also commended the staff at the Reece Museum – in particular Randy Sanders, the museum’s interim director – for providing logistic support and guidance when it came time to develop the look and feel of the exhibit.
“We want to thank the Reece Museum specifically, because Matt and I had never done a museum exhibit before,” Avery said. “We gathered the artifacts, but the staff were great about coming in and helping with the installation of the items.”
Having originally conceived the idea of this football exhibit, Himel said he has some specific hopes for the project.
“We hope that it conveys the idea that there was a significant football program at ETSU before this upcoming season, that it was an integral part of the university before, and that it will be again beginning next season,” Himel said. “I think this was a great launching pad for people to see what the program was in the past and what it can be in the future.”
The Reece Museum is located on the ETSU campus, Johnson City. All exhibits are open to the public free of charge. Gallery hours at the Reece Museum are: 9 to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. For more information, call the Reece Museum at 423-439-4392.