going steady, or at least going around with some girl ever since the third
grade," says Jeff. "This fall I decided not to date anyone regularly.
Because of college, I need the time for studying. Also, I want to enjoy
football, and being the quarterback takes a lot of concentration. I don't have
a really strong arm. Coach and I have talked about it, and we'll probably use a
lot of short stuff and roll-out options if we have to pass. I'm big enough to
run, and I'd rather run than throw."
seniors are together this afternoon, a bit uneasy in each other's company,
because I had asked them to meet me after practice, and they had politely
agreed. Bruce Martens, the head football coach, and his two assistants,
Kachniewicz and Mike Blough, named them as five seniors who would play a lot
and whose play would be crucial to the success of the team. My reasons for
wanting to talk to them were more complicated but perhaps can be explained
I grew up in this
part of southern Michigan, mostly in Kalamazoo, which is 15 miles north of
Vicksburg. More than 30 years ago I played football for a Kalamazoo high school
that no longer exists. We did not play Vicksburg, which was a much smaller
school, but we did play some of the schools Vicksburg now plays. In the summers
my family lived at a lake four miles from Vicksburg, and that village became
the center of our summertime activities. Now when I return to the area, I find
I am fonder of Vicksburg than I am of my hometown. Kalamazoo has more than
doubled in size and has become a considerable industrial center. Most of the
landmarks that were important to me, even the field on which I practiced
football, have been obliterated.
On the other
hand, Vicksburg has not changed very much from what it was in the 1930s and
'40s. I still have relatives in the area, and during a visit a year before I
met the five crucial seniors, a brother-in-law who has two children, neither of
them football players, attending Vicksburg High School asked me to go to a
football game with him. I had not seen a high school game since the last one I
played in, as a senior in 1944, but I enjoyed this one very much and was moved
by it. The first impression was of how little things had changed. It was like
unexpectedly meeting an old friend. Not only were the play and players as I
remembered them, but also so were such ancillary phenomena as the mist (it
always seems to be misty on fall Friday nights in Michigan), the uneven turf,
the weak lights and other things I had not thought about in 30 years.
In the following
months I thought often about the game, how much football had meant to me, what
it had done to and for me; how, because it is such a common experience, it had
probably affected many others. I decided it would be satisfying and perhaps
interesting to go back and visit high school football again and report on how
things are with it now. I called Swift Noble, the Vicksburg athletic director,
a contemporary of mine and a high school athletic rival, and arranged to spend
several days a week during the 1976 season at the high school, talking about
and watching football, and other things as well.
For 60 years high
school football has been a serious matter in Vicksburg. Hundreds of people
attend each home game. Encouraging posters are displayed in store windows.
Merchants buy ads in the
Vicksburg Commercial, the town's weekly newspaper, to
praise or exhort the team. During the fall the weekly football story is the
biggest single article in the Commercial. The paper also publishes a weekly
feature in which the offensive and defensive players of the week, selected by
the coaching staff, are pictured and their feats of the previous Friday night
described. If the Bulldogs win, it is a matter of general elation in the town.
A loss produces community depression, as well as lots of postmortems about
coaching strategy and the lack of moral fiber in today's teen-agers.
Martens, the head
coach, is very familiar with the serious football tradition in the town. His
family has lived in Vicksburg for a long time, and he attended the high school
in the late '50s, quarterbacking the varsity. He went on to play at Albion, a
small Michigan college, and then he came back to his hometown to teach and
coach. This is his fifth year as head coach.
know this town pretty well," says Martens. "Football has always been
big, and everybody watches the coach critically. When I took the job the Rotary
Club asked me to speak at their luncheon. I told them if I were doubtful, if I
had questions about coaching, I knew where to get the answers. I'd just go down
to Marjo's." Marjo's is a main-street caf� where storekeepers, businessmen
and farmers gather for coffee, sweet rolls and far-ranging discussions.
Martens is a
bespectacled man with a serious, intense manner. He says that during a football
season he may lose 20 pounds, become more irritable than he usually is and
sometimes get stomachaches. "It's not so much outside pressure. This is not
the kind of school where you get fired for a losing season. And it isn't really
the community reaction. I can handle that Marjo's kind of criticism. It is
mostly me. I'm competitive, and I win and lose with the team. There is another
thing. I suppose deep inside I may be worried about whether I'm good enough to
be a head coach, and so I'm always trying to prove that I am."
The previous year
was a satisfying one for Martens. The Bulldogs had a 7-2 record, losing only
one game in the Wolverine Conference, an association of nine Class B (under
1,200 enrollment) schools. The record was good enough to make them
co-champions, the first time they had done so well in eight years.