This is a story about a star and the galaxy in which he shines. It is about the very best all-round athlete in Yates Center, Kansas, the Hay Capital of the World.
You may ask—why? Well, one day a letter arrived at this magazine, unsolicited and buried deep in the envelope thickets of a mailbag, from a Yates Center barber. It was scrawled in ballpoint on lined paper torn from a spiral notebook, and it spoke glowingly of Michael Leon Peterson (see cover), 18, Yates Center's "once in a lifetime athlete." The barber wrote of how Mike Peterson, the football star, had been voted the most valuable player in the Tri-Valley League on both offense and defense, how he had scored 103 points and intercepted nine passes, how—as runner, passer, punter, placekicker and punt returner—he had led the Yates Center Wildcats to their first Tri-Valley League championship in history.
The barber wrote of Mike Peterson the basketball star; how he had averaged 21.2 points per game, how he had led Yates Center to its very first Tri-Valley League basketball championship, how Mike had subsequently made "everybody's" Class 2A All-State team in Kansas and was voted the most valuable Class 2A player in all of Kansas.
The barber told how Mike Peterson, the baseball star, last season led the Yates Center American Legion team to its third straight Class B state championship, how he was the No. 1 pitcher with a 9-2 record and a 1.21 ERA, how he batted .398 and how he was chosen to the All-Kansas team. The barber also threw in the fact that Mike Peterson ran a respectable, if not mind-blowing, 440 in track (51.8) and had been a member of Yates Center High School's record-breaking one-mile relay team. The barber failed to mention that Mike Peterson also played the saxophone and was president of the YCHS band.
Yates Center is out on the far prairies of southeast Kansas. It is about 100 miles from Wichita and at the end of an unremarkable two-hour drive from Kansas City, Mo. The roads to Yates Center pass many gnarled groves of blackjack oak and broad fields of soybeans, milo and, of course, hay—as well as a few billboards advertising a miracle fertilizer or plant food with the hardsell Words PUT MORE JACK IN YOUR BEANSTALK. As for Yates Center itself, a brochure map of the village was printed some years ago to guide and encourage an onslaught of commerce and industry which never materialized, except for one jacket factory that employs about 90 women. The map indicates that Yates Center is "Midway U.S.A." in that it sits 800 miles from both the Canadian and Mexican borders, and 1,400 miles from both the Pacific and Atlantic shores. The brochure also notes that 17 of the country's 55 largest cities are within one-day trucking distance of Yates Center, and it describes the village as "Crossroads U.S.A." because it is spotted squarely at the intersection of U.S. 54, which streams northeast to Chicago and southwest to E1 Paso, and U.S. 75, which flows north to Winnipeg and south to Houston.
Inside Yates Center proper, U.S. 75 is called Fry Street and U.S. 54 is called Mary Street. If someday you happen to be motoring along Mary Street on your way from El Paso to Chicago, you may wish to take notice of a small grayish asbestos-shingled house set next to the Standard Oil station. That is the home of the best athlete in Yates Center. And if you happen to glimpse a young blond fellow adrift on the wooden swing dangling from the front porch ceiling, you may want to wave or honk your horn or stop and get his autograph, because that will be Mike Peterson.
Perhaps you will not be awed by him. He is pleasant enough and good-looking, but you will probably not feel overpowered by the physical presence of a living legend. Mike stands but a brave 5'10" tall and weighs no more than a courageous 155 pounds. He is a lean and well-washed boy, with all that is open and innocent about the plains of Kansas showing in his face, in his summer-sky eyes and even in the comb-furrowed bangs that are bleached the color of corn from many blazing August days of helping in the hellish, itchy harvest of the celebrated local hay crop. He speaks in a high-pitched voice with the drawling twang of a plainsman. His grammar perhaps owes more to Wyatt Earp than to William Allen White. "It don't matter what game it is, I try to do as good as I can," says Mike Peterson.
They know that around Yates Center, all right. Mike is a paragon there. Some people—Gaylen Rodgers, the high school basketball coach, for one—offer him the ringing classic accolades such as, "If I had a son, I'd want him to be exactly like Mike Peterson." Some people, like Arylene Haynes, pretty wife of a state trooper and current president of the exuberant Yates Center Quarterback Club, are merely very, very complimentary: "Mike is a great player and an even greater person." Clarence Newton, assistant football coach and phys ed teacher at YCHS, awards him a kind of superstatus: "A boy with the talents and attitudes of a Mike Peterson might come along once in a man's coaching career—but more likely never at all." Dick Clasen, editor of the weekly Yates Center News, sees young Mike from an even broader perspective: "There is no doubt in my mind that Mike Peterson will be a legend around Yates Center and even Woodson County for years to come. The only thing that could ever stop it is his lack of The Big Head. The boy just will not brag about himself."
That is true. Mike is modest, very modest. In Yates Center that trait seems almost requisite to his prowess at sports: to hear people talk, the lack of The Big Head is perhaps third only behind godliness and cleanliness in the book of virtues. For example, Mike's widowed mother, Doris Peterson, a cheery matronly lady who works for the newspaper, said, "The veterinarian here in town said to me just the other day that to him the nicest thing about Mike is that his honors have not gone to his head. This is the best thing a mother could hear, of course." Jack Gibbs, a friendly sunburned fellow who is an engineer for the Kansas highway department in town, said that he had lived in perhaps half a dozen different towns in his life and that he had yet to see an athlete as modest as Mike Peterson. "Why, I've sat in the barbershop here time and time again," said Gibbs, "talking about things Mike did in games, with Mike setting right there, too. But he don't brag, he don't even help carry the conversation when you're talking about him. You can make him smile, but not talk about himself. The Big Head never hit Mike."
The Big Head is not unknown in Yates Center. Wayne Jaynes, an insurance man and P.A. announcer for 20 years at YCHS football games, recalls a classic pre-Peterson case. "This one boy—oh, he was a star, all right—he and his father used to call me up after games and bawl me out for not announcing the kid's plays with more excitement in my voice. They'd chew me out, too, for not giving the boy more adjectives in my write-ups in the paper. Oh, they were a surly lot. But Mike? He's the nicest, most modest boy in town."