When Assistant Professor of Sociology Michael Rocque arrives at Garcelon Field for the football team's final game of the season, a noontime contest vs. Hamilton, he’s looking the part of a Bobcat fan, sporting a branded Bates Athletics hat, hoodie, casual jeans, and Crocs.
Instead of heading to the seats, however, he walks onto the field and over to the Bates sideline. He greets players and coaches and takes his place with them as they line up for the national anthem. Rocque doffs his cap, they their helmets, and the anthem begins. From now until the final handshakes, Rocque is part of the scene and the team.
Rocque sees his role as a faculty liaison to the football team “as a bridge for students, between their academic and athletic worlds,”which explains why he's on the sideline for each and every game.
“It shows our students that we as faculty members support what they’re doing. We understand that athletics is not just something that takes away from our teaching them in the classroom but is a big part of their overall Bates experience.”
Before that final game, Rocque posts on his Facebook page. “Last game of the year for the Bates football team,” he writes. “If you are around, please consider coming out to watch. It’s beautiful out. Also, this will be the last chance to see one of the best linebackers I’ve had the privilege to watch play, Mark Upton.”
The faculty liaison program, begun in 2002, gives professors a specific yet informal role within Bates varsity teams. Broadly speaking, it puts another caring adult into the day-to-day experiences of Bates students.
Rocque personifies that definition, yet when he arrived at Bates in 2013, “I had never heard of faculty liaisons before.” Even so, the concept appealed to him, especially since “I'm a big football fan,” and the football liaison spot was open. So he contacted head coach Mark Harriman, and that was that.
At first, Rocque was a liaison in name only, partly because it’s hard for one person to make an impression on a big program. President Clayton Spencer, the liaison to the men's basketball team, can easily have 20 players over for dinner, but you’d need busses to get the 70 or so Bates football players out to Litchfield for dinner at Rocque’s.
“The first year, I went to a few games, trying to figure out what my role would be,” he says. It helped that the coaches were “really enthusiastic about my involvement.”
In his second year, he upped his game and his presence by helping the coaches with the team’s Twitter account, @Bates_Football. He's now a sidelines social-media stalwart, tracking the line of scrimmage and doing live updates. He videotapes every play, tweeting out notable ones so “fans can see from the sideline perspective.”
Rocque talks about the fun of being up close with the team during games and practices. As a lifelong fan but never a player, it’s something “I’ve never been privy to.”
“Being on the field, right in the action, is really fantastic,” Rocque says. A televised game mostly shows just the ball carrier, “but when you’re on the field, you can watch who you want to watch and see what they’re doing and the assignments they have.”
Football’s extreme physicality has been driven home to Rocque, quite literally. During the Colby game, a Mule receiver heading out of bounds slammed into Rocque. “I felt that for sure,” he says. “I had a bruise for a little while.” Just that brush with the pain inherent in football created a connection to the students. “When they get hurt it’s not just, ‘Oh, there’s a player on the team that got hurt.’ It’s one of your students. It can be difficult in that sense as well.”
During halftime, Rocque heads back to his office in Pettengill Hall to post updates on Twitter and Facebook. “Fans really enjoy in-game updates.”
Bates’ All-New England linebacker, Mark Upton ’17 of Winthrop, Mass., took Rocque’s course “Crime, Justice, and Society” during his sophomore year. What stood out, Upton recalls, was how Rocque’s “incredible passion for the material made us invested in the broader implications of what we were learning.”
The same could be said about Rocque’s engagement with the football program. The players’ passion and commitment have brought him closer to their lives. Says Upton, “He knows the hours it takes to perform on the field.”
“Being on the practice field, being there for the games, and seeing the amount of work and hours they put into it really gives you an appreciation of the challenge of being a student-athlete,” Rocque says. “It’s a much more demanding experience than I ever had.”
He adds, “I respect them as people. I see the camaraderie –– the way that they support one another when things get tough, when they have a rough start and then things sort of turn around.”
That was the case in 2016, when a 1-4 start was followed by wins over rivals Colby and Bowdoin. “Seeing that jubilation and the support of one another was really neat.”
Rocque is no mild-mannered, pipe-smoking prof roaming the sideline in a tweed jacket. He’s liable to be one of the first to congratulate a player coming off the field and has been seen shagging balls for the Bates kicker who wanted to practice at halftime.
In this video clip, Rocque captures a critical stop of Colby’s 2-point conversion attempt and, inadvertently, the sounds of his own reaction.
Young Bates professors are evaluated on the quality of their research, teaching, and what’s called “service” — contributions to college life outside the classroom. As the Bates faculty handbook says, “such service to the college may take the form of work within departments or programs, on the committees of the faculty, or in other activities of the college.”
For Rocque, whose research interests include racial disparities in the criminal justice system and desistance from crime, service as football liaison sure beats committee work. “It’s just the most enjoyable service that you could ever imagine,” he says.
“Students will come up to me and say that they really appreciate that I’m there for them, especially when I travel to an away game and I’m on the field with them,” Rocque says. “That’s very, very rewarding. You combine service that’s really enjoyable with supporting the students. It’s a win-win.”
In the end, he sees his value in what he’s not. He’s not their coach. He’s not their professor. He’s not an adviser or dean. He’s just an adult in their lives, someone who, “if they have a question that they are uncomfortable taking to one of those figures, they can come to me.”
For the players, “it means a lot to have a faculty member support us on the football field and interact with us outside the classroom,” says Upton. “Not all students and faculty have that opportunity.”