SI Vault
Bil Gilbert
November 14, 1977
A nostalgic visit to a Michigan town, where the author follows the high school team and has old memories rekindled
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November 14, 1977

That Senior Season

A nostalgic visit to a Michigan town, where the author follows the high school team and has old memories rekindled

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Years ago most of the students at Vicksburg High were either children of farmers or of those who dealt with farmers and depended on agriculture for their livelihood. In those days students from more sophisticated places, like Kalamazoo, thought of Vicksburg as a hick school, attended by hicks who wore farmwork clothes to school. I learned what a sore point this was one summer in the '30s, when a friend of mine from Vicksburg and I hunted lost golf balls to sell at a nearby public course. Golf-ball hunting was fun for me, but it was serious business for my friend. He worked on his family's farm but got no cash for his labors, there not being much money in farming or anything else in the Depression. He hunted golf balls to earn enough money to buy two sweaters and two pairs of pants at J.C. Penney's, so that he would not have to wear bib overalls to school, as he and so many of his classmates had to do.

Nowadays there is more money around Vicksburg, and farming is not so important as it was. Among the senior football players, only Steve Hunt is a farm boy, and his father is not a full-time farmer. However, as the student body troops into the pep assembly, probably a third of them are wearing the once-despised bib overalls. The costume is now ultra-fashionable, and Mary Wagner says overalls may cost $30 in a sports shop.

Mary Wagner is the energetic mistress of ceremonies at the assembly, leading songs and rousers, deploying the under-cheerleaders and the pompon girls to incite louder yelling. Robin Niewonder is the second senior cheerleader behind Mary Wagner. She is a very blonde girl, always stylishly made up and turned out. Unofficially, she is accepted as the class beauty, just as Steve Hunt is the strong man. She says, "I like watching all sports, but football is special. It's the biggest sport in school. The fall feels different. It's more exciting because of football. Football is traditional, I guess. It's something you are expected to do."

"What are the other traditional things?"

"It's hard to explain. Just expected things. In a way, it's like you are expected to get married and have children."

At the climax of the rally, Martens is introduced. He reminds the school that in the two previous years South Haven was favored, and both times Vicksburg won. He says Vicksburg can win again if the team plays its best and if the students yell their loudest. He says he remembers the cheer he likes best, and he then leads the school in it. Punching the air with his fist, he shouts, "Hit! Hit! Hit!"

The student body responds—except for half a dozen of the senior football players behind the coach. They are yelling, "Buffalo CHIP! Buffalo CHIP! Buffalo CHIP!"—a needling of Chip Cree.

Generally, the senior players are disdainful of the pep rally, claiming it is Mickey Mouse. "The teachers like it, not us," says John Dekker, a 170-pound center-tackle and one of the hard guys in the Steve Hunt-Rick Jensen axis. "If they didn't make everybody come, there'd probably be about 20 people there—some freshmen, the cheerleaders and the coaches."

"It's O.K.," says Chip Cree. "It gets everybody together. But I don't think it gets us thinking about football that much. All the girls there in those short skirts—what do you think we think about?"

A good many memories came back for me during the fall, but none is stronger than the one I feel when, having followed the team to South Haven, I step onto the playing field there. The weak lights have been turned on, and the mist is rising. Suddenly, an extremely vivid recollection of the place erupts. Thirty-one years before, probably almost to the night, I had fumbled while fielding a punt on that same field, in the same sort of mist, under the same kind of weak lights. I cannot quite conjure up the face and name of the South Haven player who bore down on me out of the past, but everything else is very clear—like a thing happening for the second time. Feelings, more or less in order, of shock, disbelief, anger, humiliation, self-loathing and self-pity flowed again from that ancient disaster.

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