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IN THE END, DEFEAT AND PAIN
Bil Gilbert
November 21, 1977
Injuries and bitter losses dampen Vicksburg High School's elation, anti-football voices are heard and the long season comes to its sad, sweet conclusion
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November 21, 1977

In The End, Defeat And Pain

Injuries and bitter losses dampen Vicksburg High School's elation, anti-football voices are heard and the long season comes to its sad, sweet conclusion

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A good many parents profess to be horrified at suggestions that Friday nights involve anything other than a very occasional beer, a lot of Cokes and pizzas and a little bit of something that is more or less post office. They and the coaches and the faculty must surely know better, but any acknowledgment of this reality would upset the unspoken arrangement between adults and adolescents. All this may be considered deplorable, but for me the tenacious existence of the old hypocrisy was a source of pleasant nostalgia. If nothing else, Friday night parties after Friday night games would be far less satisfying and therapeutic for the participants if the exciting sense of breaking the rules were removed.

On Saturday morning, before most of the players are up, a number of Vicksburg townsmen gather for coffee and sweet rolls at Marjo's, the caf´┐Ż that serves as a male morning club. The debacle at Hackett is the principal topic of conversation, and the consensus is that Bruce Martens had not prepared the team adequately, he had not coached smartly during it; the players had not tried hard enough to win; they were not as manly as players once were; it was unfair for Vicksburg to play a Catholic school like Hackett, which recruits big, ugly foreigners from a wide area; and, in any case. Catholic schools should not be permitted to play honest public schools.

The complaints against Martens escalate sharply the next Saturday after Vicksburg loses another game, this one to Plainwell. The loss is a kind of mirror image of the earlier win against South Haven in which Vicksburg beat what seemed to be a slightly better team. Against Plainwell the Bulldogs appear the stronger squad and dominate the game for long stretches. But with five minutes to play, the score is tied, and in overtime Vicksburg fails to score. Plainwell does and wins 20-14.

During the week after the Plainwell game Martens decides a change is needed in his attitude toward his team. "I'm going to ease off," he says, "make practice more fun and see what happens. A good part of coaching is adjusting to your personnel, and maybe I've been at fault in that respect."

But it is not personnel changes that turn things around for Vicksburg. The Bulldogs' next opponent is Otsego, and throughout a scoreless first half the Otsegos have a bit the better of it. Then, midway in the third period an Otsego lineman kicks Kent Weisenberg, a 6'5", 200-pound junior tackle, who is Vicksburg's largest player, and Steve Hunt goes wild. He picks up the offending Otsego and throws him on his back. He and Weisenberg, who has regained his feet, jump on him, and it takes all the officials and Bruce Martens to separate the three, who are ejected for the rest of the game. Vicksburg fans are aghast at the loss of their biggest and best linemen, but their alarm is unfounded. What follows proves again that while maybe it shouldn't be so, there is nothing like a good fight to stir up a little enthusiasm.

On the sidelines Steve Hunt is gripped by an apparently uncontrollable fury. He races up and down raving, shouting encouragement at his teammates and obscenities at Otsego. The character of the game changes. Cree and Jensen, who have been bickering about defensive assignments, put aside their differences and begin racking up ballcarriers. When Vicksburg gets the ball, Schutter moves his team briskly down the field, in the course of things hitting Noel with a 30-yard pass. Cree is given the ball on the 10-yard line. He starts inside, stumbles, tries to run wide and is hit behind the line by a tackier. Chip goes down almost to his knees, and the other players slow or halt their offensive and defensive activities, assuming the play is dead. However, Chip recovers. For a moment he and the defender stare at each other in something of a daze. Then at no more than a medium jog. Chip starts toward the goal line. The Otsegos recover from their surprise in time to tackle him at the one-yard line. Vicksburg scores on the next play.

It is a lucky and freakish play, as Chip gleefully admits. Nonetheless, he has come through again, the touchdown is real, and it is how the game is won 7-0.

One lovely Saturday morning, when someone from virtually every house in Vicksburg is raking and burning leaves, a good many Vicksburgers find time to watch Rocket football, tackle football for little boys dressed in full, if miniaturized, uniforms. Schutter and Dave Crotser, an offensive guard and linebacker, are serving as officials in one of the games, apparently an important one on which final standings, awards and trophies hinge. The adult coaches and the child players are tense and emotional. So, too, are many of the spectators. A woman holding a 2-year-old girl by the hand is screaming at one of the tiny players, who has dropped back to receive an expected punt. "Don't drop it, goddam it," she cries. "Don't drop it!"

Across the street, Swift Noble, the Vicksburg athletic director, is in work clothes, preparing his backyard swimming pool for the coming winter, and he is not paying much attention to the game. "Frankly, Rocket ball turns me off," he says. "It puts too much pressure on children who are too young for it. Pressures are increasing in every community and every school. Each year it seems like it is more important that kids win and a bigger disaster if they lose. The kids are tired because they are under tension all year long. They get numb, immune to excitement, turned off by athletics in general because they have had too much, been asked to do too much."

For the older, wiser Bulldogs, the best tension reliever is playing Allegan High School, the weakest team in the conference, which they defeat 46-0. A lot of people get a chance to do easily what they have been wanting to do all fall. Noel catches a touchdown pass. Schutter completes 50% of his passes. Brown kicks two extra points. Jensen gains 157 yards and scores a touchdown. Cree gains 58 yards on only four carries. When they don't have the ball, everyone gets satisfying handfuls of tackles.

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