Sunday, February 11, 2007

A Barometer for Innocence

Number 40 & Uncle Jim
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
Not long ago, a friend challenged me to explain "innocence" and "grass roots" as it relates to small town high school football in Wyoming and Montana. Initially my incorporation of these two terms has come from listening to my father talk over the years about how the game was played in his home town of Akron, Ohio—as a member of the Ellet High School football team back in the early 1940s.

I called my Dad the other day to get a refresher course on his version of high school football. Although Akron was considered one of the country's larger cities back then, football at the high school level was relatively small-time compared to today's version. The same is true even when contrasting it to present-day towns where far fewer people reside.

Listening to him, I looked for common attributes between what he described and what I've seen over the past ten years during my travels to football's smallest venues. And so, here's what I learned… one more time.

No one was a celebrity. It truly was a team sport back then and people didn't carry on about the skills or talent of any single player. Few players went on to play college ball because of the war, and if they did no one really paid it much mind.

There were no two-a-day practices, but typically the coaches would not allow them to drink water during practices—the rationale back then was that water would slow down the athlete.

No playoffs. There wasn't a great emphasis on having a winning season. Undoubtedly everyone wanted to win their games, but no one's life, football career or even weekend was ruined if a game was lost. You just had your season and it was over when the last game ended and everyone moved on to something like basketball. Parents didn't get overly involved in their kids athletics, much less pressure them to play or perform well.

My father and his teammates knew several players from the competing schools. In fact, it wasn't uncommon to hang out with their nearby rivals they played every year. Rivalries back then were few and were mostly in good sport, rather than the bitterness and harsh exchanges of today's rivalries.

Most of the people that attended games were either family or good friends of the players. There were no seats and the spectators (not fans) either stood along the sidelines or walked up and down the sidelines behind a rope to follow the play.

The field was hardly manicured like today's gridirons. They practiced on the same field as their home games. The only grooming the Ellet football field received back then was when someone would remove the cow manure off before a game. In places like Dubois, Wyoming, and Absarokee, Montana, you'll find plenty of deer and elk manure on the gridiron and in Gardiner, Montana, bison "remnants" are common too.

The gridiron wasn't next to the school. They had to walk about a half mile to their games and practices wearing their gear. One guy on the team lived between the school and the football field and they would always stop and get cigarettes at his house to smoke on their way to practice. Today, you'll find football teams in Rosebud and Alberton, Montana making the regular treks from their school-based locker rooms to the gridiron down the road, although I doubt you'll see any of them smoking along the way.

Everyone played on Saturday afternoons back then because no one had floodlights. This is still the case in many of today's smaller classes in Wyoming and Montana, but many schools aspire to get floodlights if they don't have them already.

I recall someone once telling me how small town teams in Montana would meet in a vacant field located between the two schools because it was so cost prohibitive for one team to drive the entire distance. Is there anyone out there who knows of such events?

As long as I'm asking, in the reader's mind, what represents "grass roots" and "innocence" in the game of football—whether it be years ago or today?

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