Club football open doors for unfamed footballers in fourth year


Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor

Pitt club football is in the National Club Football Association in the Mid-Atlantic West conference.

By Michael Elesinmogun, Staff Writer

Most students on a Tuesday or Thursday night are winding down for the night — but not senior Tyler Spalt. He’s warming up for two hours of full-contact practice ahead of his next football game. But he won’t be playing under the bright lights of Heinz Field on Saturday.

He’ll be on a beat-up back field, tucked away from the pageantry of NCAA football. Spalt is an offensive lineman and captain for Pitt’s club football team and the only player remaining from the team’s inaugural season at Pitt in 2016. The co-ed club team is in its fourth year and serving a new role as a springboard for varsity team walk-on’s. 

When he arrived on campus as a first-year, Spalt was itching for contact and found just what he was looking for at the club sports fair.

“My parents thought it would be a good idea to get involved with something that didn’t involve the people I know already,” Spalt said. “I went to the fair with the intention of signing up for rugby, but I saw the team president, Aly, standing at a table with football equipment. I asked her if this was full contact, she said yes, and I was sold immediately.”

Senior Alyson Kornberg, Pitt’s club football founder, had started the club as a first-year and has continued playing to this day. She had found herself reflecting on her football career at Edgemont High School and decided she didn’t want it to end when she started attending Pitt.

“Honestly when I first came to Pitt, I missed playing the sport I love,” Kornberg said. “So, a few weeks after being here I wanted to start a team I could play on. After that interatrial motivation, I then wanted this to become an opportunity for others at Pitt who felt the same.”

As with starting any club, Kornberg was faced several hurdles while trying to start a club from scratch. Fortunately, she had some outside help.

“It was a lot of work in the beginning,” Kornberg said. “Paperwork, conference calls and in general figuring things out. It was new to me but thankfully I had the support of the [National Club Football Association]. I did get some initial pushback from people working at the school because I was a girl who wanted to start this with the hopes of playing.”

Kornberg said she also faced other roadblocks because of her gender and it was difficult at first for her to rally support. 

“Just a lot of disbelief that people would want to join, that I wouldn’t be able to raise enough money and that it wouldn’t become legit,” Kornberg said. “Once the fall of 2016 hit, we had a team and it died down for the most part.”

One of the most significant trials that arises when starting up a team is acquiring funding. For the budding football club, it was especially difficult because not only did they have to buy jerseys, but they also needed to find regulation pads and helmets.

“There wasn’t a lot of funding coming from the school which meant most had to come from dues,” Kornberg said. “I wasn’t thrilled about having high dues … since it was going to limit some people from joining for financial reasons.”

Pitt club football was able to overcome those financial hurdles, and now has a place in the NCFA in the Mid-Atlantic West conference. Each year they play the other club teams in their conference — Ohio State, Miami Ohio and Wright State — and they also play out-of-conference games against different clubs in the NCFA, like Michigan State, George Mason and Sacred Heart.

The first couple of years have been tough for the Panthers. In year one of the program the Panthers won only one game — via forfeit — and in the past two years have won three games combined.

Although the record hasn’t been stellar, each year the number of club football players has increased. As the team grows, so do the motivations for playing.

At first it simply offered players an opportunity to continue playing football after high school, but it has since slowly turned into an opportunity for players to get recent film to send to the Panthers varsity team. Two club players have so far gone onto the Pitt varsity team — senior Drake Toto and junior Anthony Scott-Naji.

Toto, who transferred from East Carolina University with the intention of walking on the varsity team, used club football to bridge the time while he was waiting to walk onto the varsity team. Toto got an opportunity to walk onto the Pitt football team for spring ball last year and play in the spring football game.

“I knew that would not be an immediate process. I saw a flyer for the club football team and I knew when I got to Pitt that was something I wanted to do, while I waited to hear back from the varsity team,” Toto said.

Scott-Naji’s path to the football team was a little different. With little film coming out of high school, he got some D3 schools to contact him about playing football, but he wanted to go to a big school.

“I had tried everything to get in contact with the varsity team with email and phone calls, but I couldn’t get a response back,” Scott-Naji said.

Scott-Naji always had the goal of playing at the next level but didn’t know how it was going to come through at Pitt until he was at the club sports fair.

“I saw the club football booth at the club fair and knew this was the best opportunity for me now to get film and use that to send it to the varsity team,” Scott-Naji said.

After his second season playing with the club team, Scott-Naji finally got his opportunity to try out for the varsity team and achieve his goal. He said he also believes other players on the club team are capable of playing at the next level.

“There are a couple players on the team that could walk onto the team,” Scott-Naji. “Once I get situated with the team, I would definitely advocate for other players I believe have the talent to help this team.”

And when they’re not competing on the gridiron, the entire team is a part of a tight social circle that has expanded their social lives beyond classes and dorms.

“I didn’t realize the social aspect and benefits it would have,” Toto said. “Everyone on the team is my best friend and I transferred into Pitt, so it was the best way for me to make friends and to get active in the social life at Pitt.”

Spalt echoed how football, an inherently violent game, can bring a group of people together. When the game is eerily similar to a battle, teammates have no choice but to watch each other’s backs.

“These are friendships I am going to keep for the rest of my life. When you spend so much time with a group for so long, they become bonds that will never break,” Spalt said.