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"I've been 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."
These five 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 briefly.
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.
"Obviously, I 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.