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Possibly he is. A stranger came to Yates Center recently in a rented car and drove through the green and leafy streets with Mike at his side. Almost everyone walking the sidewalks or driving by peered intently at the rented car, then waved enthusiastically at Mike. The visitor remarked to Mike that he must be a dazzling celebrity indeed if people sought him out even when he was concealed in a strange car. Mike flushed. "Naw, when a car they don't recognize comes into town, people look real close to see who's sittin' in it. When they seen me ridin' with you, they just waved. They'd do it for anyone in town."
Perhaps they would. Yates Center is a snug little island in the Kansas seas. There are 2,178 souls in residence, and their lives are pretty much directly focused on each other. The politico-socio-economic center of town is the square, a grassy, tree-shadowed patch of ground graced by a fine old prairie-Victorian grandma of a building, the Woodson County Courthouse. It is a doughty, nostalgic, red-brick pile of the kind too often torn down now and replaced by a cold and up-to-date thing made of tinted glass and glazed beige bricks. The Woodson County Courthouse lends a style and dignity to Yates Center and to the shops and offices and stores lined up across the street around the square. The people on the streets do not hurry. Many of them are farmers in sun-clean bib overalls, lounging on benches at the edge of the square. And many of them do look up and scrutinize every car that cruises by.
Anonymity is unknown and privacy seems to exist more or less to be invaded. People say that locked doors are a rarity day or night, and most everyone has become accustomed to knowing an enormous amount of detail about everyone else. Yates Center knows who ate supper in the backyard last night, who had a new thermostat installed, who did or did not make his contribution to the Quarterback Club for buying films of the high school games, who takes cream in his coffee. Yates Center knew all about it a year or so ago when Mike Peterson temporarily quit going steady with cheerleader Rhonda Hanson because a friend told him that a steady girl might weaken his concentration on basketball. Yates Center knew all about it this spring when Mike rode his beloved Honda motorcycle off a steep drop at the quarry and escaped with a few scratches. Yates Center knew all about it a few weeks ago when Mike's mother ordered him to get his hair cut because it had begun to crowd the tips of his ears.
It is probable that Yates Center would have known all these things even if Mike Peterson weren't the best athlete in town. But fame and acclaim have followed at his heels like a devout (though rather small) dog for most of the years of his life in Yates Center.
He began playing in the peewee baseball league at the age of seven, a year before he was really eligible. In his scrap-book there are yellowed clippings from days when Mike Peterson was a mere wisp of a child who still could lead the local midgets to a state baseball title by pitching the same game he won with a two-run homer. Mike has two older brothers, both fair athletes in their day, and two older sisters. His father, Paul Peterson, died three years ago, and the kids of the high school dedicated the yearbook to his memory. He had been many things in his life, the last few being a salesman of cemetery monuments, a school bus driver and the director of Yates Center's summer recreation program. "Paul Peterson was 10, 15 years ahead of his time," says Jack Gibbs. "He was a pitterer and he never cared much about money or having a big house in the suburbs. There are lots of pitterers now, they come out of college that way. They don't care to set the world on fire. Money don't matter. Paul Peterson was that way, a pitterer."
Especially since his father died, Mike Peterson has been the apple of Yates Center's eye, a boy to watch, a boy to emulate. And now his name has come to be a power among the children of the town. Many little boys can see no better future in all the years ahead than to become the world's next Mike Peterson. Some include his name in their prayers, and many young Yates Center mamas habitually use his name to persuade stubborn children to take their naps or wear their galoshes or swallow their rutabagas, because Mike Peterson takes, wears or eats his. Few men in town—preachers or politicians or the Rotarian dedicated—have had their pictures in the paper as often as Mike Peterson. There he is—No. 22 leaping for a rebound: No. 24 looking bemused yet rakish in football togs, eye lamp-black and the football Homecoming King's crown. There he is, the boy with the big grin behind the big trophy or the stiff and grim-looking fellow posing in the formal picture with his team. Perhaps no one in town has been talked about as much as Mike Peterson—in the barbershops, the gas stations, at morning coffee sessions in Baker's Drug Store, at lunch at Woody's.
Doesn't being in a constant spotlight bother him a little? No. it does not. "The pressure of being well-known don't get to me," says Mike. "I'm used to it. I know people used to watch me when I was settin' in the bleachers during B team games. They'd watch my leg to see if it was jigglin'. See. I got in the habit of jigglin' my leg before a game, and people'd look at it and they'd say, 'Well, Mike's ready for a good game tonight because his leg's goin' real good.' That never bothered me. I just always try to be myself."
Mike's fame has spread, of course, beyond Yates Center. "Sometimes I go over to a town before a game, you know, and I'm on the street and kids I never seen before come up to me and say, 'Hey, why did you come here? We was hoping to win.' " In Garnett and Humboldt and Cherryvale, in Fredonia and Eureka and Neodesha, they know Mike well. His face is familiar and so is his jump shot and his quick curve and his famed "limp leg" (not to be confused with his famed jiggling leg) which he used often to maneuver through broken fields for touchdowns. Mike even recalls, reluctantly and red-faced, the night someone from out of town asked him for his autograph. "It was over to Hutchinson during the state basketball tournament, and some kid—must've been a junior, even—come over and asked for an autograph. I tried to talk him out of it for a while, but then I give it to him. Then he said some guys had bet him 50� he didn't dare ask me for it. He said, 'But we all think you're a pretty good player, anyway.' "
Besides the clippings from the Yates Center News, Mike's scrapbook contains stories from the Chanute Tribune, the Coffeyville Journal and the Iota Register, as well as the Wichita Eagle, which relayed word throughout the state of Kansas that "with another player like Mike Peterson, Yates Center would be unstoppable." Among his most prized mementos is a collection of tape cassettes, the broadcasts of Yates Center's basketball tournament games as they were beamed out last winter over KKOY in Chanute. Again and again, now in the hot, slow dog days of summer, Mike can sit dangling on his porch swing, his tape recorder blasting at his ear, gazing happily into the past as the authoritative voice of KKOY's Jerry Pryor shouts: "...the ball goes to Mike Peterson! He dribbles twice! He's in the corner! He jumps! He shoots! It's good! It's good, and Yates Center regains the lead...."
So he is canonized in newsprint and on electronic tape. But being a Mike Peterson in a town like Yates Center goes farther than that. For Yates Center has a deep and abiding civic commitment to sports, even an obsession. "This town is so sports-oriented," says Arylene Haynes of the Quarterback Club, "that you'd think that's all there is to do—and maybe it is." Last year the Yates Center News frequently printed stories about its teams on Page One with thick black headlines that were two or three times bigger than other front-page headlines such as GOVERNOR TO BE IN COUNTY or SHERIFF'S CAR GOES OUT OF CONTROL or HORSE KILLED ON HIGHWAY. "We print what we think is important," says Dick Clasen, "and even though we got some letters complaining about our emphasis on sports stories, we felt they were damn important."