For Arizona Natives Chris Brown and Doug Rappaport, It's Been A Long Journey To UMass
Oct. 4, 2005
Things are perfect in New England. The Red Sox are in the playoffs for the third straight year, the New England Patriots are beginning their annual struggle to defend their title and the leftover summer sunshine is receding in the face of brisk winds from the looming fall.
It is a scene to which New Englanders have become accustomed, feeling entitled not only to all four seasons but also to having perennial contenders on the gridiron and the baseball diamond.
It was a drastic change for Chris Brown and Doug Rappaport, who were born and raised in Tucson, Arizona - a mere 2,800 miles from Massachusetts.
They came to the University of Massachusetts to play soccer. It was an extreme departure from the part of the country that they knew - where their hometown temperature is still in triple digits and the biggest sports draw is the University of Arizona, which doesn't even have a soccer team.
Brown and Rappaport attended Salpointe High School in Tucson, meeting for the first time on the soccer field in their freshmen year on the varsity squad. It was a successful few years for the two 'Zona natives, who - with Brown on defense and Rappaport playing the left side of the midfield - went 24-0 in their junior year and went all the way to the state finals, before losing the championship.
But the tandem came back and won the state championship in their senior year, leaving nothing behind as the college coaches came knocking.
"It was a lot of fun to leave on a good note," Brown said.
It is an odd circumstance: two soccer players in Arizona, from the same high school and in the same grade, committing to a college in Western Massachusetts. When asked about picking UMass, both chuckled - probably at the idea of ending up in Amherst - then insisted that the thoughts about attending UMass came separately, only to escalate when they discovered what the other was thinking.
"I was thinking about it and he said he was thinking about it," Brown said. "It was nice to go somewhere and already know somebody."
Not only did they know each other, but the close-knit Minuteman soccer team was together on and off the field. Brown and Rappaport were roommates in the Emerson dorm in Southwest for their freshman year and the majority of the soccer team was just down the hall.
"Last year our whole soccer team, I think it was 16 guys, lived on the same floor," Rappaport said.
It was a big break for the two Arizonians, who saw familiar faces with regularity, a welcome sight after a dramatic social and cultural change.
"The team was awesome," Brown said about last year's squad. "The guys made it worth it."
They were a continent away from home, fortunate to have fellow athletes around, but the 2004 winter was harsh - even for people who knew it was coming - with the wind chill diving below zero for a good part of two months. Instead of dressing down in the hundred-degree heat, they were bundling up.
"It was gorgeous in December. The first snow ... you love it," Brown said. "Then you come back [from break] in April and there's still snow on the ground. I've never lived anywhere else in my entire life other than Tuscon. I've seen snow on rare occasions but -"
Rappaport interrupts him.
"It was a shock," he says, eyebrows raised with incredulity.
In 2004, the Red Sox won the World Series for the first time in 86 years and the Patriots won their third Super Bowl in four years. For a region that stays sky-high even when its teams are in the cellar, the winning was intoxicating, and UMass followed suit with some intoxication of its own - the American League Championship celebration, the World Series celebration and the Super Bowl celebration, all with thousands of inebriated students screaming at the tops of their lungs.
The Tuscon natives were stunned by the passion that is synonymous with Boston sports.
"Phoenix has the [Arizona] Diamondbacks and the [Phoenix] Suns," Brown stated. "But it's nothing like the Red Sox or the Patriots.
"It's kind of impressive," he conceded. "You go to class and 85 percent of the people are wearing Boston-something."
For two talented soccer players like Rappaport and Brown, one would think that there would be ample opportunity to play elsewhere, but UMass coach Sam Koch - on a west coast recruiting trip - stumbled upon Brown, and offered him the chance to play. Brown was sold.
"I was in a tournament in San Diego," he said. "And Sam [Koch] saw me play and just asked me if I'd consider [playing for UMass] and if I wanted to come out here. That was what I wanted - a chance to play - it didn't really matter where.
"I saw some other opportunities but they were mostly west-coast," he added. "And I came out [to UMass] and liked the guys mostly. It was a great team."
Brown arrived last year to some bleak news. His coach informed him that the defense was already set and there weren't going to be many changes. It left him with a couple of options: either play behind the starters for the season or redshirt for a year and learn from the sidelines.
He chose the latter. And it has proven to be beneficial for both Brown - who is starting and is a formidable presence on defense - and the team.
"It was one of those situations where we didn't know where he was going to play," Koch said. "He was open to [redshirting], learning the first year. We were fine with it. We were pretty deep at his position at that point, and we're real happy he did because now he's a freshman. And he's coming in as a starter where he wouldn't have gotten a lot of playing time his first year."
The road to UMass wasn't as straight for Rappaport, who had other Atlantic 10 schools calling.
"I was set to go to another school," he said. "And that kind of fell through and this was a college in the same conference so it just worked out really nicely."
In 2004, while Brown was on the sidelines observing, Rappaport was getting comfortable at Rudd Field, where he played the left side in the midfield and part-time defense. As Koch points out, he has developed a unique style of play.
"[Doug is] one of our best left-sided players," Koch said. "He's very dangerous going forward. He's good with the ball. He's very deceptive when it comes to winning balls. He has a Rappaport tackle that's a little bit different from everyone else. It's a poke tackle. He's very deceptive and I think it catches a lot of people off guard."
It has been a successful 2005 for both Minutemen - referred to as "Browny" and "Dougy" by teammates - who ended up with numbers 11 and 12, which is good for a few laughs when "Tuscon, Arizona" is announced back-to-back over the loud speaker before games. Brown and Rappaport were both oblivious to this - their attention focused on more urgent matters, namely getting the Minutemen back on track and ready for the conference season.
"It is fun for me just playing," Brown said. "It's been a frustrating season, but we still have the A-10 playoffs."
The Minutemen are 4-6-0 in 2005, and they endured a frustrating September, accented by scoring droughts and a three-game losing streak (that was snapped with a 2-0 win Saturday against Siena). The all-important conference schedule begins on Sunday against Rhode Island, and Rappaport is confident that UMass will be back in stride by then.
"We just need to score some goals," he said. "It's been a really bad stretch for [senior captain] Oral [Bullen]. It's only a matter of time before Oral gets his goals, same with [sophomore] Matty [Lemire]. Come conference time we'll be fine. It's true what they say: when you're in the conference [schedule] you're 0-0, there's no record. It doesn't matter what you've done throughout the year."
It's like it has always been for these two affable Arizonians - all about soccer. And nothing would make "Browny" and "Dougy" happier than for UMass soccer to turn things around.