Fenway Bowl brings college football back to historic stadium


Players and fans gather at Fenway Park for the first Fenway Bowl. The University of Louisville Cardinals defeated the University of Cincinnati Bearcats 24-7. Photo courtesy of Ellie McMurtrie.

Amelia Ballingall, deputy sports editor

From baseball to hockey to soccer, Fenway Park has hosted many of the nation’s most popular sports, and the morning of Dec. 17 was no different. That Saturday, the inaugural Fenway Bowl brought college football back to the stadium for the first time since 2018. The matchup between the University of Cincinnati and the University of Louisville marked the first bowl game at Fenway and a new tradition for the city of Boston. “Boston has always been known for its passion for its professional sports brands. And for us, this game presents a tremendous opportunity to extend that passion to a college bowl game that’s going to take place at one of the most historic ballparks in the world at Fenway Park,” said Julie Barry, the vice president of global brand and communications of Wasabi, a cloud storage company and the title sponsor of the event. 

The Fenway Bowl was first announced in 2019 and originally set to kick off in 2020, but after facing pandemic concerns that year and a COVID-19 outbreak the next, the many months of planning were finally able to come to fruition in 2022. 

“It’s been a rough couple years, and we were really heartbroken to have to cancel this game just a few days before it was set to kick off due to COVID last year,” Barry said. 

Rather than featuring a local team like Fenway has done with other events in years past, the new tournament nabbed teams from both the American Athletic Conference and the Atlantic Coast Conference. Selection was based on a variety of factors, including regular season record and previous matchups. With a long-standing rivalry and a close record this year, the University of Cincinnati and the University of Louisville were chosen to compete in the inaugural game. 

“Being a Cincinnati kid, growing up hearing about the Keg of Nails and then finally getting the opportunity to play in it, I’m just extremely excited and never thought it would be in Fenway Park,” said Evan Prater, a junior quarterback of the Cincinnati Bearcats. 

The two teams have been passing the Keg of Nails back and forth for nearly 100 years, and the game at Fenway Park was just the latest battle in a long and ongoing fight. 

Although the execution of the game was a success in itself, the road to the 2022 Fenway Bowl did not come without struggle. Both teams lost their head coaches in the offseason — Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell to the University of Wisconsin and Louisville’s Satterfield to Cincinnati. When the matchup between the schools was then announced, Satterfield made the decision not to coach against his former team and Louisville had not yet found a new head coach, which left coaching gaps on both sides of the field. 

“We’re just continuing to move forward and not focusing on who’s sitting at the end of the hall … it’s a lot about the players and the things that we do and that we need to get done. So just making the most of these opportunities and going out and putting your head down and just working,” Prater said. 

Each team named an interim head coach from their current staff. Cincinnati selected Kerry Coombs, cornerbacks coach and special teams coordinator for the Bearcats, as well as former defensive coordinator of the Ohio State University Buckeyes, while Louisville chose director of player development and former Patriots wide receiver Deion Branch. 

“It’s a weird game,” Coombs said. “You’ve got two coaches who weren’t the head coaches of this game so it’s certainly different and unique, but our kids have handled this transition in a fantastic manner. They’re prepared diligently and with energy and passion and I’m excited to watch them play.”

Although they ended up in the same position, the two coaches took very different paths to get there. Coombs spent much of his adult life as a football coach, leading high school, college and NFL teams to various victories before heading into his second stint at Cincinnati. Branch, on the other hand, played college football at Louisville and professionally with the Patriots and the Seahawks. The Fenway Bowl was Branch’s first ever coaching experience. 

“It’s a dream for every collegiate athlete, every professional athlete, to always go back to your alma mater,” Branch said.

Branch, a Super Bowl XXXIX MVP, experienced that trip to the past in more ways than one; by bringing his college team to his professional city, he combined two major parts of his athletic career to assist in his coaching. 

On both sides, the selection of an interim head coach may have come as a surprise to many, but the players took the change well.

“It’s more than coaching leaves, coaching hires,” said Wilson Huber, a senior linebacker for Cincinnati. “It’s really about the guys in the locker room, because at the end of the game, those are the guys that are gonna go out and determine the win or loss of that game.”

With an 11 a.m. kickoff and little publicity preceding the event, the stands were less than half-full as the two teams battled for the trophy, but that didn’t stop the players from putting their all on the field. 

“Something beautiful about college football — you got guys coming from everywhere and they get put into this culture so you kind of just take the energy from the fans and roll with it,” said MoMo Sanogo, a senior linebacker for Louisville. 

Despite coming into the game with a record of 7-4 against Cincinnati’s 9-3, Louisville was slightly favored to take home the Keg of Nails, which is exactly what they did. After a hard-fought battle, the Cardinals came away victorious with a score of 24-7, drawing the first ever Fenway Bowl to a close. 

“Getting out on the football field fixes everything,” Huber said. “The couple days that we were all sitting at home, unsure what was going on, those were definitely the toughest days. But as soon as we were able to figure out where we were going to play this bowl and got back on the field, everything felt normal again.”