The football team’s backbone is an enigmatic specimen, quiet almost to the point of secrecy yet knowledgeable to the brink of brilliance. He is a team manager, a defensive assistant and a music coordinator. He is a coach, a teammate and a friend.
He is John Dame.
Descriptions of the sophomore usually range anywhere from the declarative -“John Dame is THE man” – to an obscene gerund affixed to some derivation of “awesome,” as in “John Dame is f—ing awesome.” And these aren’t wrong. On the football team and within the athletics department, to be John Dame is to be universally liked.
More importantly, it means universal respect.
“I think it comes from who he is as a person,” junior offensive lineman Andrew Rayner said. “Try to name one bad quality the kid has. You can’t do it. He’s out there to help people. All he does is help people. That in itself commands a lot of respect.”
It’s also always John Dame. Never John. Never Dame. Maybe a two-syllable name lends itself to constant total utterance. Maybe it came from Bill Samko, the former Tufts coach whom Dame contacted as a high schooler, asking to become the Jumbos’ manager. Or maybe, as coach Jay Civetti said, he’s just more deserving of multiple names.
“There’s no doubt, it’s clear to us and everybody involved that John Dame cares,” freshman quarterback Jack Doll said. “We take that very seriously. What John Dame brings to the table, it really can’t be measured.”
Ask John Dame his official title with the football team, and he’ll spend more time ruling out what he’s not. He’s not really a manager – that’s more of the stock answer he likes to give. Nor is he the players’ dad. And he’s certainly not an intermediary between players and the staff.
John Dame used to say “football agent” when people inquired about his career ambitions. Over time, player personnel became a better fit for his style. Agents can be slimy people. There’s more value to being part of the organization.
“It makes our team closer,” Rayner said. “He’s a person who everyone on this team hangs out with. It’s almost like being very good friends with one of your coaches, whether it’s a coach but in a social environment, social situation where you can just be yourself around him.”
Semantically, there’s not much difference between slimy and fluid, but the words are miles apart when it comes to describing the easygoing John Dame. He navigates groups within the larger unit with ease, transcending positions and grades. He knows class schedules and due dates. During pregame in the fall as well as for basketball and lacrosse, he operates the Jumbos’ pump-up music. Individual preferences are second nature. Junior tight end Nick Kenyon wants hip-hop. Others, like Rayner and sophomore running back Ryan Pollock, prefer country.
“He really knows how to balance his roles,” freshman linebacker Tommy Meade said. “He’ll be in the coaches’ office for hours on end during camp, but he’ll also come hang out with us on the weekends.”
John Dame was never a football player – tall and thin, he hardly looks like one, either – but his knowledge of the game is unparalleled for someone of his age and in his position. On game days he helps chart. Practices are spent on the move, shuffling between the clock and equipment piles, a paper containing the day’s plan folded up hot dog-style in his hand. He’s at the point now where he’ll see things before Civetti even asks.
And it’s all done on pure merit. Civetti will occasionally toss him some Jumbos gear. Pay was taken off the table a long time ago. Before this year, Civetti wanted to put him on the website and give him an official title. No dice.
“He doesn’t do this for notoriety,” Civetti said. “He does it just for pure love of being a part of this football program. It’s the most pure example of commitment, work ethic and energy that anybody could exemplify. His efforts are never flagged and his commitment is one of a kind.”
In a spacious room on the second floor of Halligan Hall, the walls draped in white boards with player names decorating the surface in four colors, John Dame arrives to go to work. Wearing Tufts football sweatpants, Nike sneakers and a green wristband that reads “PROVE PEOPLE WRONG,” he sets about helping the Jumbos, who went 0-8 in Civetti’s first year, follow that mantra next season.
“In my opinion, he’s one of the more valuable guys in this program,” Civetti said. “He’s a tireless worker, his passion for this program and commitment to what we’re trying to do here is impressive. We’re lucky to have a guy like that along.”
He’ll spend hours in this room each week, combing through film on a Dell laptop adjacent to a Mac desktop, looking through defensive alignments and game action. This is the perfect way to play this, he says, as Meade drills an opponent in what he calls the “boom zone” as the cursor dances on the screen.
Coming from Baltimore, physical, defensive football is always top-of-the-line stuff for John Dame.
“He grew up in the restaurant business.”
So reads the caption to an audio slideshow on the Tufts Journal, which dispatched a photographer to Linwoods Restaurant in Baltimore. John Dame’s parents founded Linwoods more than 20 years ago. In the opening picture, John Dame is smiling, wearing a jacket and collared shirt, as chefs go to work behind him.
This is the closest John Dame has gotten to even toeing the spotlight – or to skimping on work. His duties often go unnoticed outside the football team; the hours spent watching film or texting players are a product of his desire to be around the game and those associated with it. This past spring break, Rayner and some teammates road-tripped down south. They stopped at Linwoods. John Dame hooked them up with dessert.
“He’s done his homework, to say the least,” Doll said. “It helps a lot at practice, because it give you a different perspective. He’s not coach or a player, he’s just your friend.”
In eighth grade, he founded a middle school radio station. When he moved to high school, he founded another. Between school years, he worked for WNST sports radio and the now-defunct WVIE. He earned weekly appearances to talk Ravens on Saturdays, got credentialed for Orioles games and still worked the restaurant on Saturday nights.
He founded Ravens Blackout, a fan blog that received 1,000 views per day at its peak but closed shop in September. Earlier this season, he got former Baltimore receiver Qadry Ismail to deliver an inspirational speech to the Jumbos via Skype. Last summer, he worked with 92 Q, a Baltimore hip-hop station. That was his final foray into radio.
“I’d rather be on the inside than on the outside,” he said, cracking a smile. “If I get successful, and then I get fired like everyone else does, then maybe I could go into the media.”
This summer, John Dame will work with the Towson University football staff, absorbing all he can before he returns to Civetti’s program. He’ll then welcome in the Class of 2016 – a new crop of Jumbos, a new crop of friends.
John Dame is sitting in the middle of a green, L-shaped sofa between a running back and an offensive lineman, elbows dug into his knees, staring at a wall-mounted television in a third-floor bedroom at Delta Upsilon. A defensive end spreads out on another couch, wearing boxers and a bathrobe. A dark brown lab-shepherd-collie mix alternates between lying prone on the windowsill and peeking out the door.
Today is Wednesday. Wire Wednesday, as they call it. They gather to watch the Baltimore-based HBO drama, but the tradition’s official moniker makes it seem like John Dame is the main attraction. Wire Wednesday with John Dame. This is John Dame’s third time through the series. The wildly popular character Omar is the background on his iPhone.
“There’s a reason why Omar’s so popular: He kills dealers to steal their drugs,” John Dame said. “At the same time, he’s very philosophical. Like he says, ‘You come at the king, you best not miss.'”
Every week, John Dame walks to the Professors Row fraternity to watch “The Wire.” He knows the front door’s access code by now. Walking up to the white porch, he notices new pillows on the second-floor balcony. It’s pledging week. The house should be clean today.
Not one step into the room, he’s greeted by a chorus of full-name cheers. Today, they’re on season four. Once his red-and-black book bag hits the floor and he plops into that green L-shaped sofa, the players begin talking about the show, its characters, plot and John Dame’s city.
At sporadic moments throughout the episode, the idle chatter shifts to football.
It always shifts to football.