Eastern Michigan University and Old Dominion University arrived at Atlantis Monday afternoon with both teams looking to achieve a historic victory for their school in this Friday’s Popeyes Bahamas Bowl (ESPN, 1 p.m. ET.) It’s been 29 years since EMU last boasted of a bowl victory. And for ODU, Friday will mark their first bowl appearance in school history. But the chance at history isn’t the only thing weighing on the minds of these student athletes.
“I talked to some of our players before we left Old Dominion (this morning),” ODU Head Coach Bobby Wilder said. “And they were talking about how they weren’t able to sleep last night – it felt like the Night Before Christmas. You can see how excited they are to be here. It’s a special moment for us.”
Special might be an understatement for these two groups of athletes who will spend the week on Paradise Island, not only preparing for a football game, but also serving as ambassadors for their sport. The two schools will team up Wednesday with a visit to the Ranfurly Home for Kids, and then they’ll lead a USA Football Heads Up Football clinic for local children. Players from both schools are excited to give back to a Bahamian community that has welcomed them with open arms.
“Football provides a lot of great opportunities for us,” EMU offensive lineman Cole Gardner said. “I love opportunities to give back to the community and to see how people live in other places around the world.”
But Monday was all about the arrival for the student athletes. And while most of the player were seeing Atlantis for the very first time, even the ones who had visited in the past were left in awe of the grandiose resort.
“I’m like a kid in a candy store,” ODU senior quarterback David Washington said.
Wilder wants his kids to feel that way, setting up practice throughout the week so as to give his players afternoons to enjoy themselves.
“We’ll do our work in the morning,” Wilder said. “We want this to be a lifetime memory for them.”
His counterpart at EMU, Chris Creighton, shared a similar sentiment.
“When we are doing football, we will be focused on football and when we are not, we will put our feet in the sand and enjoy the place,” he said.
There was no football to focus on Monday night as both teams joined together for the Popeyes Welcome Reception on the Royal Deck at Atlantis. For most, it was a chance to relax and unwind after a day of travel. But for EMU offensive lineman Jimmy Leatiota and quarterback Brogan Roback, it was a chance to show off their dance moves opposite the Junkanoo dancers.
“We were trying to dance with them. It was an upbeat tempo., and I got a little sweaty,” Leatiota said without confirming whether or not he could keep up with the impressive Bahamian dancers.
But while both teams are trying to make the most of their time off the field this week, everyone involved is aware that the best memories could be made Friday.
“Twenty-nine years is a long time and our guys, badly, want to play well on Friday,” Creighton said.
Just getting here was a big accomplishment, but to win it would be that much better. We didn’t come here to lose,” Wilder proclaimed.