Roger Marolt: Finding freedom chained together
I would give you my school board election endorsements this week, but for obvious reasons I can’t. As much as I’d love to join in arguing about rotten fish and who wanted to chop off whose head last year, I am a member of the high school football chain gang. We are trained to be seen and not heard.
We never applied for this job and have no specific qualifications to do it. The gig is not a resume padder. You get this position when an old chain-ganger dies or their knees get replaced, whichever comes first. Technically, I suppose, we work for the school district and had better keep our yappers shut about who we want to be our bosses, even though currently one of them is also one of us.
We get paid in hot dogs and Skittles at halftime, sometimes a bottle of Gatorade when the unpopular flavors begin to stack up in the concession stand and the booster club decides that inventory reduction is a smart business move. We are game officials, but we don’t carry whistles. Our bright orange vests are loud enough to pierce dogs’ ears. We brag and argue among ourselves, but when it comes right down to it, we are humble men pretending to be big shots, oblivious that we look like we were sentenced to do community service.
To give you an idea about what we do when everyone is watching, but nobody is paying attention to us, I confess a lot involves offering up small change on spontaneous bets. For example, I was walking with Bill toward the sideline, which doubles as our locker room, where our bright vests were wadded up next to the downs box and our fluorescent orange sticks connected by 10 yards of chain. As we approached the goalpost on the east end zone, I looked up and asked him if he thought he could touch the crossbar. He stopped, glanced upward, and then stared directly into my eyes, like I had just said the dumbest thing ever.
“Now, look,” he said, “when you get to be my age …” He paused. “… If I’m still alive. I’m going to drag you out here and ask you if you think you can touch the crossbar.”
There was no bet there, so I had to bide my time for another opportunity — maybe whether or not Ken would remember he forget the chain clips in his car again just before kickoff or whether Dwayne had actually given up shirtless hot yoga for real this time. He admitted he saw the contradiction of taking off his shirt to cool down during hot yoga, where one chooses to attend because they turn up the heat on purpose, but then we saw him at the Aspen Education Foundation fundraiser dancing bare-chested while swinging his shirt over his head and we had our doubts.
There are the expected hazards in chain-ganging, too. There was the time I took off after a punt in a playoff game and strode right into a loop of slack chain. Tim took off ahead and the chain wrapped my ankles together tighter than a bolo tie around a bronc rider’s rearview mirror after church. It was the hardest tackle of the game. But at least I didn’t pull a calf muscle and have to sit out the second half, like I did the following season.
Tim is the observant one on the crew. He has been since he broke his middle finger throwing the football around during our pregame tradition. Ever since, he has had to rely on verbal communication. He drips his words out slowly, like he’s brewing strong coffee with them. He stood there with his arms crossed, studying Chris and me playing catch. After a time he remarked, “You throw the ball like a Chinese massage.” We paused, hoping wisdom would come. “Too damn hard!” he exclaimed.
I reminded him this was not like a real football game where the pressure is on to complete passes. Here, before kickoff, when the crowd is wandering in, the taste of Hickory House hot wings is still on our lips, and the scoreboard is showing all zeros, the touch-pass counts for nothing. We play burnout, where the object is to throw as hard as you can. Accuracy counts, but only so there is no doubt whose fault it is when a ball is dropped.
While our hands are still stinging during the national anthem, we remember the real reason we are here. As the kickoff floats on the cold autumn breeze, for the next few hours we might be in any small town anywhere, under the bright Friday night lights. It’s a nice place to get lost for a while. These thugs are my friends. It’s enough to keep me coming back.
Roger Marolt is the weak link in the local chain gang. Email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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