RINGS: National champion footballers get rings

J. Michael Moore

Jason Michael walked into Smith Stadium as a civilian Saturday.

He wasn’t wearing a helmet or pads.

He wasn’t the field general fans remembered from last season’s national championship team.

But though he walked in wearing jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt, he walked out wearing gold.

The 2002 Division I-AA National Champion Hilltoppers closed out their celebration yesterday, getting their championship rings.

The 2003 season begins against Union in 123 days.

The large circles of gold gleamed all over the Smith Stadium track, drawing smiles, laughs and gawks.

The more than 130 rings for players, staff and administrators came in with a price tag of over $30,000.

Over 60 of the rings were sponsored by members of the community.

Head coach David Elson called the ceremony “the culmination of the greatest football season in the history of Western Kentucky football.”

“We’re going to commit to you that for the next 123 days, that we’re going to work harder than anyone else in the United States of America to come out here and defend the national championship,” he said to about 300 fans.

Current quarterback Casey Rooney was quick to put on his new piece of hardware.

It will be easy to recognize a Hilltopper player for the last two weeks of school, at least those like Rooney, who plan on wearing the ring as much as possible for the next several days.

“The seniors are probably mad,” Rooney said turning his hand to get an all-around look at the ring. “But I’ve got another year to show it off.”

Michael couldn’t help but flash his gold companion, especially since he’s no longer on campus. He graduated in December with an engineering degree.

“It’s still kind of hard to believe four years are gone,” he said. “It’s a tough transition, leaving yourself as a player.”

Michael is now a graduate student at Tennessee, studying civil engineering. He is also a graduate assistant with the Volunteer football team.

He was named Western’s Male Athlete of the Year last week.

Ever modest, Michael talks like he’s still the Hilltopper quarterback.

“Those individual things are great,” he said. “But none of those compare to what we did as a team last year.”

He said he’s honored to receive the award – the first awarded to a football player since Willie Taggart – but is quick to push the ability of the guys who played around him.

Michael, a Louisa native, tallied 2,303 yards of total offense last fall.

Even thought he was not included in the voting, Elson said he would have been upset if anyone else had gotten selected.

“This is an absolute no-brainer,” he said. “If he doesn’t get it, we might have the first controversy with me as the head coach.”

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