Football is physical. Just look at the velocity that BJ Stewart ’25 reaches on punt returns, or the perfect angles at which Tucker Horn ’23 launches his throws, or the force Carson Byrd ’24 uses to sack opposing quarterbacks.
It only makes sense, then, that Dennis Ugolini, Ph.D., and Jennifer Steele, Ph.D., two Trinity University physics and astronomy professors, were part of the chain crew at home football games during the 2022 season. Ugolini carried the box that displayed the down and moved to wherever the line of scrimmage was, while Steele held one of the chains that shifted only on first downs.
Ugolini and Steele have been on the opposing sidelines for some thrilling games as the Tigers advanced to the second round of the NCAA Playoffs for the first time since 2002. This opportunity gave both professors the chance to live out their gridiron dreams while building a deeper connection with student-athletes.
Growing up in Illinois, Ugolini thought he would play football because of his big frame. At just 14 years old, he was already 6’2” and 230 pounds. “I really thought I was going to be a monster,” says Ugolini, who was recruited by his high school football team.
However, fearing potential injuries, Ugolini’s parents refused to let him put on a helmet and pads. “I always wanted to play, but they were adamant, so I never got to be on a football sideline,” Ugolini says. Steele, meanwhile, did get to play football as a student at Rice University. Competition occurred between residence halls—known as colleges at Rice—and Steele became part of a league that featured eight women’s flag football teams. In those games, Steele was tasked with containing the run and going after the quarterback as a defensive end. She even played on the offensive line her senior year, meaning she stayed on the field the whole game.
“I have just really liked football for a while. I mean, I went to high school and undergraduate school in Texas, so it’s hard to escape,” Steele says.
Once they both reached the physics and astronomy department at Trinity, Ugolini and Steele played fantasy football together for many years. Life got busy, though, so they dropped out of the league and watched football less often than before. Despite this, an itch for being around the game remained. When Quin Patterson, Trinity’s head athletic equipment manager, sent a message asking for volunteers at football games, both professors pounced.
Patterson put the request on TigerTalk, an online forum where faculty and staff can connect with other employees across campus. However, Ugolini is not subscribed to the message board. His wife, Rebecca, who works at Trinity as a program assistant for the McNair Scholars Program, forwarded Patterson’s request.
“I was always curious about what the coaches were yelling, how they work out the system of who’s getting on the field when, and the interaction with the referees, so I signed up for it,” Ugolini says. “Then I ran into Dr. Steele in the hallway, and she said, ‘You’re not on TigerTalk, but we got this request.’ It turned out she had signed up for the same thing independently.”
Patterson says roles like the chain crew used to be filled by external volunteers until COVID-19 forced him to keep those jobs within Trinity Athletics. This meant asking people such as injured athletes, who already had COVID-19 testing, to help out on the sidelines. Entering 2022, Patterson wanted to open things up again.
“We want a lot of activation across the entire campus, not just Athletics, so it’s nice to have people who are interested in this from other areas across campus,” Patterson says. “Especially with the physical divide in the campus in Cardiac Hill. Whatever we can do to bridge that gap and have that involvement between north campus and south campus is a great thing in my mind.”
Jerheme Urban ’03, head football coach, agrees. “It is a really cool experience for the players to see a familiar face from north campus taking an added interest in them as a football player. I know that when I was a student, I had a little extra motivation when I saw my professors at my games, and I know that we have young men who are taking notice and doing the same thing today.”
Hitting the Sideline
“I think the first game was maybe not my best, but I got the hang of it,” Steele says.
As the box man, Ugolini flipped the down marker on every play and constantly moved alongside the line judge. The most crucial instruction he received was to never move unless he was instructed to do so. If not paying attention, it might be easy to start walking as a play ends, but Ugolini learned to always look for penalties.
“One time, the referee missed it. He waved me over, and I said, ‘No,’ because there was a flag, and he hadn’t seen it,” Ugolini says.
Steele’s job was to hold one end of the chains that shift only after teams earn a first down. She also helped the line judge spot flags, but the most difficult part of her job was being physically linked to another person.
“You have to work out a system,” Steele says. “The other team is supposed to not be in our area, but they inevitably get there. So there were times when I looked over and I couldn’t see the other holder through the sea of bodies, but we had to pick up (the sticks) at the first down and then run at about the same speed.”
As Steele describes, she learned to be more assertive. “At first I was like, ‘Excuse me; excuse me,’ but now I’m like, ‘No, I’m supposed to be here.’ They’re supposed to get out of my way, so I just take up space and see what happens,” Steele says.
Everything the professors do takes place on the opponent’s sideline, making things all the more interesting. Ugolini describes the shift in emotion he observed during some of the Tigers’ biggest moments.
“There were two times where [the opponents] were yelling and singing, and then all of a sudden, I could hear myself breathe,” Ugolini says. “Once on the blocked extra point [against Wheaton College] and once on the touchdown against Birmingham-Southern.”
Impact in the Classroom
Even though the chains are operated on the opposite sideline, Jonathan Nwobodo ’25 and Jaden Powell ’26 suspected they saw their “Introduction to Mechanics” professor from a distance during a game.
“We were just sitting on the sidelines, and we saw someone that looked like our teacher, but we were like, ‘Yeah—no way,’” Nwobodo says. “I got in the game, and then between downs I looked over to my left, I saw him, and I knew it was him.”
After making the discovery that it was really Ugolini that day, Nwobodo and Powell began trading stories with their professor in class about what they each saw from their respective sides during games. Nwobodo, an engineering science major, confesses having his professor on the field has increased his motivation in the classroom. He says that this reciprocal relationship, with both student and teacher investing in the other’s success, has pushed him to try even harder in Ugolini’s notoriously difficult class.
Nwobodo even wonders whether something that happens in a game could end up on a future assessment.
“He has so many sports examples,” Nwobodo says. “He’ll be like, ‘Do you know how fast this guy is going at this point?’ So now whenever I’m out there, I say, ‘Maybe this will be a physics question; maybe he’ll use this one.’”
Steele didn’t have students on the team last season, but she has been impressed in the past by the academic success of student-athletes, including those on the football team. A few years ago, she had what she called her “pack” of football players—they would sit in the front row of her class, visit office hours together, and support one another throughout the course.
Their dedication to the class prompted Steele to email Coach Urban to tell him how she enjoyed their unity and teamwork during the semester. According to Steele, Urban was grateful to hear his players were working well together in the classroom.
“I like the fact that the football team [takes] physics classes,” Steele says. “When I went to Rice, almost the entire football team was in one or two majors, and it was very rare to see them in any science classes. What I like about Trinity is that I do have these players in my classrooms. I get excited when they do well.”
Steele believes helping move the chains has provided her with another meaningful way to connect with students. It is exactly the type of activity that led her to a school like Trinity.
“The vast majority of our faculty chose to work at a residential, liberal arts undergraduate school for a reason—we wanted to have these kinds of relationships and a supportive environment for our students even outside our classroom,” Steele says. “If we were not interested in having in-person office hours that students actually come to, working with students on our research projects, or being a club faculty sponsor, we might have chosen to go to another university. This, to us, is part of the whole Trinity teaching experience.”
Over the past two years, Ugolini missed being in front of his students. During the pandemic, Ugolini held classes via Zoom for the 2020-21 school year, and then he took a yearlong sabbatical to work on his research during the 2021-22 school year. Stepping onto the field has been one way of linking back with campus now that he has returned to teaching.
“I’ve been gone for two years, and I wanted to reconnect with human beings again,” Ugolini says.
Like Steele, Ugolini appreciates the variety that comes with being a member of the Trinity community.
“That’s one of the reasons I came here,” Ugolini says. “My wife took a creative writing class with Dr. (Andrew) Porter, and I’ve taught a first-year experience with (retired) Rev. (Stephen) Nickle. To be able to easily cross those barriers is part of why I ended up in a place like this.”
The professors joined a season that carried the Tigers all the way to the end of November. Trinity defeated Hardin-Simmons University, earning the program’s first playoff win in 20 years. Steele missed that game, but the next home playoff game against the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor Crusaders gave her and Ugolini one last chance to walk the sidelines.
“It was very exciting,” Steele says. “Everything was more professional. We needed passes to enter the stadium, and the officiating crew spent more time with us before the game going over how they wanted us to run the chains.”
Early in the game, the officials needed to measure a spot to see whether a first down should be called. The fans were focused on the outcome, but Steele was out on the field involved in the process.
“The very first game, I told Dennis I really want- ed there to be a measurement, so it was a thrill when it happened. The refs did most of the actual measuring, but it was still amazing to run out there,” Steele says.
The Tigers and Crusaders battled down to the final play, but a timely sack by Mary Hardin-Bay- lor ended the season for Trinity. It was a stressful ending to a thrilling year—which Ugolini compares to the television series Friday Night Lights.
“People used to criticize the show because of how cliché and unrealistic it was that every game came down to the last play,” Ugolini says. “Well, I worked seven games this season, and five came down to the last play, including both playoff games. Can we have an easy one, just once in a while?” Ugolini says with a laugh.
Once a season ends, it is impossible not to think about the next one. So, will the physics professors be back on the sidelines?
“If they need me, I’d be happy to come back. But if someone else wants the experience, I would never stand in their way,” Ugolini says. “I enjoyed the season, I took pride in my job, and I accomplished my goal of getting out again after two years of COVID-19 lockdown.”
Whether they come back or not, Steele is happy with the role she played in a magical campaign for Trinity Football.
“It was a pleasure and an honor to be a very, very small part of the football program,” Steele says.
So, next season, when the Tigers complete many more first downs, keep an eye on who is physically moving those chains.
Photos by Cade Bradshaw ’14 and Anh-Viet Dinh ’15