SI Vault
Don Parker
November 11, 1957
The hoop-la of high school football is the game at its gayest—except perhaps in a few towns where it has become big business
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November 11, 1957

Football In The Backyard

The hoop-la of high school football is the game at its gayest—except perhaps in a few towns where it has become big business

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High school football is one of the happiest continents in the world of sport. It is the area of the unexpected. It can make you laugh till your belly hurts but it can also make you suffer the anguish of the bereaved. It is the neighbor's dog running across the field in the middle of that 99-yard touchdown run. It is the pretty baton twirler who misses the catch five times in a row at the half-time show and the exuberant musician who punches a hole through the band's only bass drum during the fight song. It is Junior out on the field missing tackles, forgetting signals and blocking his own teammates with all the élan of a spring foal which has just found its legs. It is that moment when the kid next door, the one with the two left feet, is suddenly in the wrong place at the right time and saves the day for hundreds of squealing bobby-soxers who will worship him in memory evermore for the winning touchdown.

It is backyard football, but it is such a bargain of fun that 60 million people will pay this year to see 666,000 teen-age players do things on a football field that would make Walter Camp roll over in his grave—with delight.

Hempstead High School on Long Island, whose football delirium is shown on the following four pages, is typical of the teen-age tempest which explodes throughout the country each fall. At Hempstead everyone has fun, even the coach, Bob Schussler, who at $800 a season can't afford to get too upset. Schussler is Hempstead's science teacher, and he coaches the team on the side.

"We don't feel we have to make money, or draw big crowds or even win ball games," says Hempstead's athletic director, Alfred Vorhies. "We draw maybe two or three thousand if the weather's nice, but really we're just out to give the kids a good time. And boy, they have it."

The ebullience at Hempstead is endemic in all high school football. The town or the neighborhood is proud of its squad. The team carries the community honor on the football field. In some cases a community will let chauvinism run away with it and the high school team becomes an important symbol of identification. It becomes very urgent that the community have the very best football team it can possibly have. One case in point is Massillon, Ohio, where the local team is just about all there is for athletic entertainment during the autumn months.

Lee Tressel, head coach at Massillon High School, stood on the bluff adjacent to Massillon's 22,000-seat brick and concrete stadium. He gazed on the sprawling practice field where his seven assistants were getting the afternoon practice session started. Already they had split the team into five units and had begun double-team blocking drills.

"What makes us so good?" he asked himself.

"Well, I guess you could say there's a football tradition here in Massillon that's as old as the game. Ever since Paul Brown was coach here we've had winning teams. It gave this town something to be proud of. A kid grows up here with a football in his hands from the time he's big enough to hold one. Fathers live for the day when their sons will be old enough and big enough to play on the varsity. It's kind of an honor for the fathers, you know. This pride for the team is one of the biggest reasons we're so good.

"Look at these kids," he said, pointing to a beefy youngster playing middle guard in one of the cluster of scrimmages taking place all around. "That one there, he's 15, a sophomore. Weighs 225, stands about 6 feet 2. That's why we're so good, too."

Tressel's material comes from three junior high schools in Massillon. Each of the junior highs has two coaches and Tressel has the authority to hire and fire them. In effect, they are part of his staff. When a football player comes to Massillon High he has already had three years of coaching under the Tressel system. What is a coach worth to a system like this? "I make $8,000 a year," said Tressel. "If I win the state championship I get a new car. If I don't I still get awfully nice presents at Christmas."

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