Hinsdale football's death certificate was probably signed two years ago when die school started its boys' soccer program at die request of students who had played in the town's youth league. "Those were kids who I would have worked on to come out for football in the past," says Rohl, a man who seems to have popped from the womb wearing polyester coach's shorts. "Even when we had good numbers, I always had to sell the program. I'd say to kids, 'I've got 22 positions and a spot for you to play.' "
Yet soccer was only part of die story. After 13 seniors graduated from the '97 football team, die school held sign-ups last spring to gauge the students' interest in playing. Administrators breathed easier when 39 kids put their names on the list, but when practice started in August, 17 players showed up. Hinsdale had to forfeit its first game, and on Sept. 1, after one player quit and two others were injured, superintendent Ron DeCarli pulled die plug.
If there's a tragic figure in all this, it's Bill Clayson. A senior center, Clayson lifted weights three times a week last summer to prepare for his final season. His goal was to be one of Hinsdale's two players chosen for the Big 30, the annual all-star game among schools along the New York-Pennsylvania border. Yet as few players came out to practice, Clayson's dream began to die. "We called them," he says of the no-shows. "We got in cars and went to kids' houses or where they worked to try to convince them. A lot of them said they'd come, but they never showed up."
"These kids don't have the work ethic to play football," says Rob Blendinger, 27, who took over as football coach last spring after his predecessor, Dan Brooks, left to go back to college. "I actually had kids come up to me and say, 'I'll play, but only if I can start.' "
Blendinger's rules were hardly Draconian—"no swearing, no burping, no farting and come to workouts"—and yet they were constantly broken (most frequently the last one). Chris Grabowski learned what it meant to be a running back when Blendinger forced him to run 1,000 yards a day in August after Grabowski skipped too many summer weightlifting sessions. "I had other obligations," says Grabowski, a senior. "I had a job. I had summer school. Coach Brooks had more respect for the players. He never told me I had to be there."
Certainly the biggest blow came when Josh Luzier, last year's starting quarterback, decided not to play this season. Ask Luzier why he quit, and he gives you a couple of reasons: Last summer he found out he would have to pay his own way to college, so he works 40 hours a week at a greenhouse. He's also taking a course in U.S. history at nearby St. Bonaventure University, where he hopes to go to school next year. Dig deeper, though, and Luzier admits that he can't wait to play basketball this winter, and he might even take a crack at baseball in the spring. Football? "I never loved the sport," he says. "My whole football career was to please everyone else. All this town is about is football and the memories of it."
No kidding. While only a few parents bother to watch the varsity soccer team's games, 200 people came out to watch the first home game of the school's hastily assembled jayvee football team in October. "This was a last resort," Blendinger says. None of the 18 players had been on the varsity last year, which made their plays look a lot like Keystone Kops routines. ("Half of them don't know what a three-point stance is," Blendinger admits.) Yet somehow Hinsdale uglied out a 6-2 win, and the hometown fans left happy.
Five days later a white sheet is still hanging over the fence by the football field, so that anyone driving by on Highway 16 can read it: HINSDALE FOOTBALL IS BACK. COME SUPPORT OUR BOBCATS. "Like my sign?" asks a woman wearing a blue Hinsdale Cheerleading Coach jacket. She's Tess Deckman, a Hinsdale alum. Her son, Dave, played football before graduating last spring, and her daughter, Brandy, is one of a dwindling number of cheerleaders. "We have three left," Deckman says. "We started with seven, but we just lost another one who quit today."
Still, it was homecoming the previous week, and so Deckman and her girls bravely continued the old traditions. They made banners that said BIG BLUE WRECKING CREW and LET'S GO BLUE and hung them on the front doors of the jayvee players' houses. And they marched in the annual homecoming parade down Main Street, right in front of the football team and the old red fire engine that blows its siren so loud the dogs howl. Last year Main Street was filled on both sides with well-wishers. This year there were fewer than a dozen.
"I can't handle soccer, and I can't handle baseball. Give me football, and I'm cool," said Deckman. Her feelings are shared by many.