The Vicarious Life of a Sportswriter
The night started off simply enough. I headed to Colchester on Saturday night to do a rehearsal of sorts for WVAA’s broadcasts of the Vermont Ice Storm of the Empire Football League. Well, the boss called and told me he was sick, and the press box didn’t have a phone line, so we couldn’t test the equipment anyway, so I needed something to do while I was scouting the team. When I heard Linda, the team’s Game Day Operations Coordinator yell, “Hey Chris!!!”, I knew she would put me to work.
The task Linda asked me to do was to be a member of the “chain gang”, the guys who hold the first down yard markers. Ok, this seemed easy enough, hold up a stick and move ten yards when there is a first down or change of possession. I figured even a sportscaster/sportswriter could do this without much of a problem, so with the shot to have the best seat in the house, I readily agreed.
As I should have known, there is much more to this than it appears. I talked to the guys who would be with me for the game. As I had to get ready to do this in about two seconds flat, I couldn’t grab paper and a pen, so I am basically making up these guy’s names. The guy carrying the down marker is Pete, a longtime coach at Mount Abe and Otter Valley. Pete’s first piece of advice to me was, “Watch the guy with the white hat. When he signals first down, we move. Also, when you are the lead guy(where the original line of scrimmage is), place the stick right behind where I put the down marker. If you don’t someone can get hurt. Secondly, the guys on the opposing teams can be real jerks. One time when we were playing Worcester(MA), the game got so nasty, and the Worcester players were so rowdy, that with 30 seconds to go in the game, the officials told us to get off the field. The players were yelling at us, cursing the Ice Storm, etc, so they didn’t want us to get hurt. Once the final gun went off, everyone was fine, but that tells you how heated these games get.”
The man I will call “Coach” was a goateed individual with a wicked sense of humor. When I asked him what to do when a player came at you, he simply said, “Run and don’t get killed. Make sure you run AWAY from the field, and watch out, you might trip over one of the guys, and with as tiny as you are, we may need a coroner.” (I am a massive five foot eight and weigh in at a buck fifty.) Coach told me he had been taken out more than once by a player. He told me he was watching the ball carrier coming near the sidelines, and he was about four yards away, so no big deal, right? Well, a defender came flying right at him and Coach didn’t have a prayer and got taken out. He wasn’t hurt, but needless to say, I had one more thing to watch for.
The game got underway at around 6:30, and this was the Ice Storm’s first pre-season game before they start the league season against Saint Lawrence Valley. The Ice Storm play in the highest level of semi-pro football and are not paid a cent; in fact, they pay a hundred bucks a season to play. These guys practice twice a week, and hold regular jobs, so they are playing for the fun of the game. Coach told me this is a great way for the guys who are younger to keep sharp, and maybe they will get a shot at a college scholarship, or be able to play Arena ball, or head to Canada to play in the CFL.
Again, this whole holding the chains thing seemed easy, but of course I was wrong. You have to watch the ref and the linesman, keep up with the guy at the other end when a first down is made, you are keeping track of the players to make sure some 290 pound monster doesn’t turn you into compost, and are also making sure you are paying attention enough to know when to move and when not to move. I pulled about three different brain cramps in the first five minutes of the game when I didn’t set the post right, and then stopped about 20 yards away from where I should have after a Seacoast first down. “Stripes”(The linesman), then yapped, “Hey sportswriter, don’t they teach counting in journalism school?” When I yelled, “I was a social work major!!”, he just shrugged his shoulders and proceeded to throw a flag for a false start. The guy who got called for the penalty delivered the line of the night when he said, “I didn’t move!! I just moved my hand!!”
Thankfully I only made a couple of mistakes for the rest of the game, so I was able to enjoy the relentless amount of harassment I was getting from Pete, Coach, and Stripes. Stripes was just hysterical in his relentless barbs, and his explanations to coaches about calls. In the second quarter, Coach told me I was officially baptized as a member of the chain gang. On a Seacoast sweep to our side, I had three guys who hadn’t missed a meal in 30 years coming straight at me. I dropped my stick, moved back, and then almost got taken out by another defensive player coming in at about 200 miles an hour. I swear, if I would have moved three inches to the other side, I would have been in the hospital with multiple fractures and contusions. Of course, the guys were laughing hysterically, and Coach said, “I told you to watch the entire play!!” By the way, you are now an official member of the chain gang; you almost got killed.”
The Ice Storm ended up losing the game 21-18, but thankfully it was only a pre-season contest. With about three minutes to go in the game, Stripes asked me what I was going to title the article. I shrugged my shoulders and tossed some weak ideas out there, when he gave me the title. When I laughed, he said, “Hey, you are doing something most of you pansies don’t do.” Thanks for the title Stripes, and you had better be reading this thing or I will never let you blow a call without eternal grief ever again.