New York, NY – It was a sloppy game, but the atmosphere was superb when Fordham and Columbia met for Liberty Cup on Saturday afternoon.
While the final score was an error-filled 21-14 Fordham victory, the deeper meaning of the afternoon was honoring and remembering those who lost their lives in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Originally scheduled to play the Saturday after the attacks in 2001, the game was pushed back to the end of the season. Ever since, the teams have met early in the season to battle for the cup and, more importantly, honor the more than 80 combined alumni of both schools who were lost in the attacks, which included a pair of former Rams' football players, Nick Brandemarti and Kevin Szocik.
The game also has turned into a close-fought rivalry, as Fordham now leads the Liberty Cup series 6-4.
"It's an important game for us, we look forward to it," Columbia coach Norries Wilson said. "Our alums who have played in it look forward to it, an intra- city rival. ... Unfortunately, we don't get a chance to play for the cup for another 364 days."
For Fordham coach Tom Masella, his personal connection to the tragedy makes the Liberty Cup victory mean a little bit more.
"I was a fireman and I lost a lot of people who were friends of mine," Masella said. "And I never thought a football game would mean a lot to a lot of people. But then you see being back up here (in New York) on the 10-year anniversary and what it means.
"I said to the team on Thursday, 'We had 39 alums who were lost and I lost a lot of friends, so it means a lot to me and to this football program.' So for a lot of people connected to the event and this football program they look at that score and it brings a smile to their face, we can't change anything from the past, but it certainly brings a smile and to me. It meant the world today."
It was a day full of honors at Fordham, as the program recognized the 75th anniversary of its most famous alumnus graduating, Vince Lombardi, and the 2007 Patriot League champion team remembered Josh Arcadia, a quarterback who passed away after a battle with cancer at the age of 26.
Arcadia's teammates on the 2007 team came together and purchased a name plaque that will hang permanently in the No. 4 locker.
And while it was a day for remembrance, the offensive performance by both teams was quite forgettable.
With Columbia opening its season and Fordham having only played one game -- a Week 1 loss at Connecticut -- both teams looked sloppy, as neither team put together consistent drives and the teams combined to miss four field goals.
Columbia quarterback Sean Brackett, a usually reliable passer, looked out of sync most of the afternoon, underthrowing receivers often and trying to force throws into tight coverage. One of his passes was taken back 100 yards for a touchdown by Fordham's Nick Womack, which marked the longest interception return in Patriot League history.
"I just forced the ball, I waited and didn't see the guy coming," Brackett said. "I also couldn't make the tackle, so that was a big play and we lost by seven points."
Womack's interception return turned out to be the spark Fordham needed to pull out the come-from-behind victory, as it gave freshman quarterback Peter Maetzold a cushion to work with and allowed the young signal-caller to settle down.
With a game plan designed to protect the ball, Maetzold very rarely attempted a pass that traveled more than 10 yards. However, the plan worked as he went from getting sacked three times in first quarter to better reading the defense and setting up Sam Ajala for a 60-yard touchdown on a screen pass in the third quarter.
"The first half he just didn't trust what he was seeing," Masella said. "He had some things down the field and he just wouldn't let ball go. But, he didn't have any turnovers and the second half he made some big-time plays for us."
The biggest of Maetzold's second-half plays came with 5:19 remaining, as he connected with Carlton Koonce for a 16-yard touchdown which stood up as the game-winner.
With their quarterback settled in, the Rams continued to rely on their defense, a unit which stepped up when the game was on the line, stopping Columbia twice in the red zone and putting on heavy pressure so that Brackett rarely had time to make the correct decision.
Getting five sacks and two interceptions was the end result, a point of pride for a defensive unit that wanted to improve after losing to Connecticut in Week 1.
"The defense likes to bring the intensity," Womack said. "We just try to keep everybody intense, because that motivation is what makes us make big plays."
The big plays meant even more on Saturday as Womack -- a native of Ohio -- helped a large homecoming crowd not only celebrate a win, but also honor those who had fallen.
"It meant a lot, I was glad I came out here and played well," Womack said. "Alumni came up and congratulated me and I felt good for representing them well. For the 9/11 victims, it meant a lot for a lot of people and we came and tried to give them a victory."