Photos provided by Berry College
Game day fills parking lots with pickup trucks toting portable restaurants. It dresses fans in displays of athletic apparel that vary based on their level of fanaticism. And it unites current students, alumni and the local populace with every six points. When the stadium is open, community happens. Whether seating is available for 90,000 or 2,500, every Saturday at home is an opportunity for the raving fan base to rave. Maybe you grill a burger or maybe you paint up despite the protests of your well-meaning friends, but the team is home and the time for cautious fandom has passed. For the world’s largest contiguous campus, best known for the deer-to-student ratio and the collegiate mob marching around Lavender Mountain in October, the culture of football game day will soon be an on-site experience.
No longer hosting their rivals at Rome’s downtown Barron Stadium or Darlington School, the Berry College Vikings will take possession of Valhalla at their first home event on Sept. 12. The construction of the nearly complete campus venue further cements football into the foundation of the college’s culture. With nearly 100 student-athletes ranging from incoming freshmen to job-seeking seniors, the team now shares history with the entire student body, having grown together since the sport’s introduction at the college just two years ago.
A Grove City College graduate known for his leadership on the field and his commitment to academics as an athlete, a student, and now a coach, Viking head coach Tony Kunczewski believes the stadium is a catalyst for further program improvement and the continued integration of team and school.
“Having a stadium on campus creates a sense of ownership for the student body and the athletes,” he says. “Everyone knows that this is our place; this is Berry College’s turf and I hope it is worth 14 points a game.”
Since the first Vikings victory against Washington University (St. Louis) on Mountain Day of 2014 brought over 4,000 fans from the stands to the Barron Stadium field, Kunczewski has recognized the power of a home advantage. With even more clout than a contest in downtown Rome, for Kunczewski, having Valhalla within walking distance of the college dormitories, proximate to the timeless brickwork of the academic buildings, and inside the “Gate of Opportunity” ensures other teams will know the Vikings are all ready to row.
With student involvement central to the game day experience, both for audience enthusiasm and tradition propagation, the stadium’s location and resulting ease of attendance will foster a spirited fan base ready to attend the five home events.
Preparing to start her senior year, Ree Palmer, president of Berry’s Student Government Association, knows Valhalla will be a game-changer for the team and for the school. “The atmosphere has been excellent the last few years at Barron, but having them here on campus will increase the number of Saturday game-related activities and student life traditions,” she explains.
Along with the organic development of cheers, the “We All Row” motion, and the always-unexpected sight and sound of vuvuzelas, Palmer shares, “We are going start a game day event called the Viking Walk, where the team, students, pretty much everyone marches from Richards Gym over to the field.”
With an affinity for parading already ingrained into the Berry College community, this tradition should line up with
Alumni also appreciate the soon-opening campus stadium and the community it will create within the Berry graduate population. Even though a Valhalla event will not rival the attendance of a game “between the hedges,” David Elswick, a 1990 Berry grad and current member of the Alumni Council, will certainly be a regular foam finger user.
“When I was in college, I know my friends and I would have loved to have had a football program to support,” he says. “We would have so appreciated a starter stadium like Valhalla.”
With thousands of alumni and, as a result, thousands of potential jersey-wearing fans, the concrete bleachers already should expect a weighty crowd come Sept. 12.
Not only a field for athletic competition, but also a venue for community, Valhalla can serve as a headquarters for the world of Berry College and as an incubator for increased patronage to the school.
“We have always had school pride, but it hasn’t always come across as school spirit,” says Palmer, who served on a student committee devoted to sparking game day enthusiasm. “I believe having this stadium will lead the transition from one to the other.”
Along with the volume of the shouting, the appetite of the crowd will be met by the increased capacity for tailgating.
“People will now be able to tailgate on the lawn in front of the Moon and Laughlin buildings,” says Palmer, who hopes these campus-wide cookouts will increase organizational unity. “Our student organizations sometimes get siloed – with groups hosting different events, but not cooperating all that often. Tailgating would be a natural forum for collaboration, and we are hoping to see more of it in the fall.”
Kunczewski also understands that a football game involves more than 22 athletes, four quarters and whatever constitutes the halftime show. “There is a real happening tied to football,” he says. “There are only five home contests every season and they become all-day Saturday affairs. We don’t want to people to just show up for two hours, fill a seat and head home. We want to see this become an event.”
Beyond the Berry bubble, Rome will now have two collegiate stadiums, Barron and Valhalla, to accompany the sizable high school football machine in Floyd County as well as local fandom.
“It’s great having [so many] high schools in Rome because that is a hotbed for recruitment right here in our backyard,” Elswick says. “People, obviously, are passionate about high school athletics because their kid or their neighbor’s kid is on the
team, but we would love Rome to own the Berry Vikings.”
Having every intention of creating a Division III program known locally and nationally for training their head in the classroom, having a heart for the school, and with hands able to deliver on the field, Kunczewski concurs with this sentiment. “No doubt, we also want to reach out to the Rome community, and we have been really thoughtful in establishing easy access on game days for tailgating, parking, and ticket information,” he says. “We want to provide a tremendous experience for the people in Floyd County. We don’t want to be just Berry’s team; we want to be Rome’s team.”
Although every collegiate athletic program primarily serves the college population, coaching staff, alumni, and students also hope the Rome-Berry connection will continue in the stands at Valhalla.
With the countdown on for the fall season, and with the construction crew ensuring the stadium is fan-worthy and team-ready, all Berry College Vikings are about to embark on an adventure into uncharted seas. Beginning their third season, these student-athletes know expectations are up because the team now has a house.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I anticipate 7,000 people being there for our opening game,” says Kunczewski. “I expect it to continue, but I also believe we are obligated as the team to give everyone something to cheer about.”
From a school for undereducated mountain children in Floyd County to a widely respected liberal arts college affiliated with NCAA, the influence of Berry College grows with each graduating class. Now with a football program devoted to building students first, athletes second and a stadium designed to create community across classes, the school’s wake continues to expand, impacting students and alumni through a previously unreachable avenue.
Whether you are 1971 graduate now considering retirement or a high school senior at Darlington, the game is about to change for Rome and Floyd County’s Berry College Vikings.
To follow the progress at Valhalla, visit www.berry.edu/valhalla. To stay updated on athletics at Berry, visit www.berryvikings.com