SI Vault
 
THAT SENIOR SEASON
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
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
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

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

In the locker room at South Haven, Martens has gathered his team around him. "All right, people," he says slowly, solemnly and resonantly. "We have worked hard. Now we are going to find out how tough you are. Hit! Hit! Hit! Play the game the way you have learned to play it. Hold those blocks. No arm tackling. Fire off the ball. No mistakes. Think, no mistakes. Technique and think.

"We are going to see who wants this game the most—you or them. If they want it more, they'll take it away from you. You have got to want it more than they do. All right, people—let's go!"

Toward the end of his short speech, Martens' voice has risen and the muscles in his face and the vessels in his neck have become taut and visible. The players, who often do not seem to follow his speeches during practice with much attention, are rapt. When he finishes they give a loud, unexpected, wordless shout and sprint down the hallway of the locker room and onto the field.

The first impression of the game is that desire, thought and technique will not bear heavily on the outcome. The more important factor is that South Haven seems to have larger, quicker and more numerous players. South Haven scores once in the first half and would have scored oftener had it not been for several penalties, a fumble recovery and an interception by Rick Jensen.

On defense, Vicksburg hangs on—Hunt and Jensen will make 30 tackles between them in the game—but on offense the team is erratic. Schutter, in his first game as starting quarterback, is having trouble, not just in completing passes, but also in passing at all. Three straight times he rolls out, cocks his arm but cannot pull the trigger and ends up eating the ball for losses. "I couldn't get set," he explains clinically. "When I did get set, I couldn't see anyone open."

Essentially, Vicksburg's offense in the first half is Jensen. The fullback carries the ball 20 times that night for 90 yards, more than half Vicksburg's total. He is not fast, but he is strong and determined, and he fights his way for four or five yards a play, often carrying tacklers on his back the last few feet. Only in a game does it become apparent why Rick Jensen, a casual practice player, is so admired by his teammates and coaches.

A number of parents and other Vicksburg adults have driven to South Haven for the opening game. By and large, they are silent as they watch their team being pushed around the field. An exception is the father who had complained earlier that the coaches were not working the players hard enough in practice. He sees the first half as vindication of his opinion and is loud and sarcastic about how weak and badly coached the team is. Al Dekker, a small, feisty, gray-bearded man whose son is John Dekker, the center-tackle, is retired because of his years and a heart condition, but he turns on the critic and tells him he should be ashamed of attacking his own team, his own town. He says that if he doesn't shut up, he, Dekker, will fight him. Cooler heads prevail, and the confrontation is avoided.

In the locker room at halftime Martens tells his troops that the game can still be won if they want it more. Then he goes to work at the blackboard with the Xs and Os. Schutter, Cree, Noel and Mark Brown, an offensive end, take part in this strategy discussion, making suggestions. Jensen, soaked with sweat and with a trickle of blood on the bridge of his nose, goes to the far end of the locker room and flops down on the floor between two of his friends, Dekker and Mike Simmons, a 140-pound defensive end. Hunt is in another corner of the room. He has more than held his own against several tough opponents but feels that the best is yet to come. "I'm going to take that turkey the rest of the way," he says of a big South Haven lineman.

Whether it is the rest, the pep talk or coaching instructions, Vicksburg comes out strong in the second half. Hunt is as much responsible for the turnabout as anyone. He indeed begins to handle not only his own turkey, but also several other South Haven linemen. His defensive ferocity blunts the opponent's running game, and increasingly the South Haven quarterback has to pass. He proves to be less accurate than had been feared. With Hunt leading the blocking, Vicksburg's attack becomes more diversified. Jensen continues to gain on his short plunges, and Cree begins to contribute yardage around the ends. Schutter, more confident, completes passes to Brown, and, finally, to Noel, who has been insisting all night he can beat his man deep.

There are many theories about motivation and momentum, but there is also an observable fact—high emotion has an analgesic and anesthetic effect, enabling people to ignore pains and disabilities they ordinarily could not. Hunt comes out of a pile of bodies limping badly on what later proves to be a fairly severe ankle sprain. Martens removes him from the game, and Mike Blough, the assistant coach, tapes the ankle. Soon Hunt is back in the game, still limping but as active as ever. Cree gets hit in the head but sits on the bench for only four plays, until his senses clear. Brown, leaping high for a pass, is belted in midair by two defenders but holds on to the ball. He lies gasping for breath on the ground, and the next day his chest is blue from the blow, but he does not miss a play.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8