August 14, 2019

FTV: Coming Full Circle


     It was great to see the Ontonagon/ETC football cooperative claw their way to a spot in the 8-man football playoffs in 2017.  The 2018 season was a little rockier, but Coach Ben Mayer’s charges still played some good football. Scoring in 8-man football can come in bunches, but there were enough golden moments to give all involved a good feeling about the season.  Like the old adage says, one can play a terrible round of golf, but it only takes one great shot to make one keep coming back even if the scorecard reads more like a bowling score. If I hadn’t hung up my coach’s whistle seventeen years ago, I could bask in a little of the glory because I spent nearly 30 years involved with 8-man football.  Okay, my experience was with 8-man flag football, but other than coach Mayer and the parents of some of the current players who played the game back in the day, few on the more recent squads would have a reason to know that. From 1975 until the early 2000s, the Ontonagon Area Schools JH played intramural 8-man flag football, not 11-man or 8-man tackle.

     My first exposure to flag football was in fifth and sixth grade.  Whitman Elementary School in Marquette had enough bodies enrolled to field at least four 11-man teams that were organized by a couple of Middle and High School teachers.  They helped us get organized and then officiated the games that were played on an unlined patch of grass next to the school gym bordering Fair Avenue. The field had a bit of a slant that turned into a big slant as one got closer to Fair which meant if you ran away from the street, you experienced a different definition of ‘running downhill’.  It would be a lie to claim I remember any league standings or the scores from any of the games, but there are selected plays that comprise my mental highlight reel that pop to mind when I think about those days. My few attempts at playing running back are not included in the highlights for good reason (no yards gained on the ground and one bloody nose after catching a pass), so I was happier playing center and defensive line.  There are two reasons that they let me play center: 1) I wanted to and 2) I was one of the few players who could hike the ball in a spiral back seven yards to the punter (no shotgun formations were used on offense in those days).

     The next time I played organized flag football was in high school gym class.  The games we played in my freshman and sophomore years were two hand touch/tackle.  By this I mean, the ball runner was considered down if the defense touched them with two hands, but more often than not, that two hand touch involved driving the ball carrier into the ground.  I am not sure we could have had less body contact if we had just played tackle football without equipment. By my junior year, the PE Department had upgraded to actual belts with flags so our gym class games became a little less like tackle, but they were still rough and tumble affairs.  Having discussed this portion of my athletic career previously (FTV: Athletically Speaking 11-28-18), we can leave the rest of my football career in the dustbin of history filed under ‘sandlot’ and ‘we had fun’.

     When school began in the fall of 1975, financial considerations triggered a transition from 11-man tackle football (playing other schools) to 8-man intramural flag football between mixed teams of students in grades 7 and 8 with in the Ontonagon Area Schools.  When asked, “Do you have any experience with flag football and would you be interested in being one of the four volunteer coaches?” I said, “yes” and “yes” (‘yes’ is a word first year teachers use a lot if they want to get rehired for a second year). Thus began my coaching career – it may have been an intramural program, but it was coaching just the same and it also sounded like it would be fun! 

     As with any new program, there were wrinkles we had to iron out.  The official rules called for an 80 yard field and even though we put cones to mark the endzone, most players wouldn’t stop until they got to the ‘real’ endzone.  We quickly abandoned that concept and decided to just use the standard 100 yard field that was lined for JV and Varsity play. There were days when the field would already be set up for a Varsity game, so it saved us set up time.  The first set of belts that were ordered used velcro to attach the flags and sometimes the act of running caused enough flapping in the flags to make them fall off. It took but one season of using these inferior belts to convince us to spend a little more and get the ball and socket kind that were marketed by the Flag-A-Tag company.  Unlike the velcro models, the ball and socket type required a pretty firm grip to dislodge them from the ball carrier. The players adapted to them with no problems.      

     Another wrinkle we had to solve involved the officiating.  During the first couple of years we used a stripped down crew of officials who normally reffed 11-man tackle football.  Some of the rules used in flag football were contrary to their experience. For example, in flag football, a fumble was ruled a dead ball at that spot to limit injuries caused by players sans equipment piling on the loose ball.  We had more than one instance when someone would scoop up a fumble and rumble for a touchdown that didn’t count because the officials forgot to blow the play dead. We also instituted what we always called ‘The Polakowski Rule’ which outlawed stiff arming a would be tackler (deflagging a runner was still called ‘tackling’ in flag football).  The Polakowski family raised tall children with long arms and every time the oldest Polakowski boy got the ball, he would stick out his long arm, thus preventing shorter armed defenders from reaching his flags. This is another rule that drove the real officials nuts. Then our budget was reduced further, we had to make other arrangements in order to get our games officiated. 

     At the same time we needed to figure out the officiating problem, the program evolved again when we couldn’t find enough volunteers to coach all four teams.  We solved both problems by having the two of us who remained with the program prep two teams each and then let their elected captains coach during the game. We asked for a parental volunteer to help ref games and we ended up with the best and longest serving volunteer of all time, Cliff Guilbault.   Cliff was an outstanding athlete himself and his boys followed in his footsteps. Having a ref of Cliff’s qualifications made the job much easier for those of us who were new to the whistle blowing biz. Cliff interpreted all of the difficult calls and let me handle the ones specific to flag football as well as running the game clock via a stop watch hung around my neck.

     When the program dwindled to just me organizing the teams, I more or less forced Cliff to take half the stipend I received in return for all the time he spent being my ref guru.  We made a great team and when he moved from the area, we presented him with a varsity jacket as a token of our appreciation for his time and expertise. The last years I ran the program with various other helpers manning the other whistle (and on occasion, reffing a game solo).  It was a good thing that I had many years to learn the tricks of the reffing trade from Cliff and I often asked myself, “What would Cliff have called on this play?”

     We had a ‘no cleats’ rule in place early on when we discovered those who had them had a major advantage over those who did not.  Without cleats, I was also reluctant to play games on rainy or snow days. The kids didn’t like it, but it goes back to my older brother sustaining a terrible broken leg while we were playing backyard football on my ninth birthday.  It was a drizzly day and it took but a twisting slip of the foot on the wet grass to snap his femur. Having watched my brother (and whole family) adjust to at full leg cast that weighed almost as much as he did was enough for me to say, “Nope, we won’t play on a wet field.”  After back peddling into a muddy spot during one game (and slip sliding away to a muddy, wet rear end), I joined Cliff in donning spikes. There were only two of us covering the whole field so I pulled rank if any of the players complained that it was unfair that I could wear cleats and they could not.

     Working around the bad weather days as well as the high school JV and Varsity team schedules meant it took most of September to get the teams organized.  Games would typically start about the time the fall colors arrived and by the time we ended the season in late October or early November, the trees would be mostly bare (except for those stubborn oak leaves still holding on for dear life).  We had years when we would miss a block of time due to early wet October snow, and then come back to finish the season in drier (and colder) November weather. There were more than a few years when we were the last ones using the field, but not during those years in the late 1980s and early 1990s when Ontonagon’s varsity team frequently made the playoffs.  Iwas a chaperone with the band the year Ontonagon played in the finals at the Silverdome, but I was still proud as punch that every player on our sideline had played flag football in our program.

     Technically, I was the coach of all the teams in the program for enough years that I could make the point that I retired with a .500 record, however, I will go out on a limb and say I retired with a winning record having at least one more win to put me slightly over .500.  In the first year we began playing our games at the new football field (now named the Bob Carlson Memorial Field), Cliff called and asked if I could get an all star team together to play a traveling team. Cliff’s boys had played baseball against a team from Grayling, MI that summer.  The Grayling team found out that we played flag football and talked their coach into arranging a game with us when their team took a fall camping trip to the Porkies. We hadn’t even started our season yet, so I arranged a quick practice with some players from each of our four teams. When the Grayling team arrived, our kids were a little intimidated because they all had matching gray sweatsuits that said ‘Grayling Athletics’ on them.  We were sporting the generic red and white reversible singlets we wore for our league games. As I recall, I told them, “Yes, they look like a ‘real team’, but wait until we play the game before you lose it based on what they are wearing.”

     We found out soon enough that appearances aside, flag football isn’t played the same everywhere.  We kicked off and on their first offensive play, their coach came running onto the field yelling, “Hey, your defense didn’t count to four before they rushed!”  I said. “Ah, no, we don’t do that, we just play off the snap like real football.” We compromised and had our kids count (one thousand one, one thousand two) before they could rush the quarterback but we let their players rush at the snap of the ball like we were used to.  In reality, our kids had a hard time blocking if the other team didn’t rush at the snap so we were fine with tweaking the rule for them. A short time later, he again ran back out on the field hollering, “Hey, that guy dove at the runner to grab the flag!” I said, “Ah, yes, that is allowed.  If they jump into the runner, then we call a penalty but the defensive player can make a play like that as long as they don’t land the runner.” He didn’t like this at all. I told Cliff, “The next thing he will want is a ten point touchdown.” Our kids took this all in and finally figured out that our version of flag football was ‘real football’ and what they played was closer to ‘powder puff football’.   We won and the kids had a fun time, so I still say that no matter how many games we played, my teams won one more game than they lost.

     Speaking of ‘powder puff’ football, an annual grudge match flag football game between the junior and senior girls used to be part of the fall homecoming activities.  I was asked to ref the game once. With a certain amount of ‘coaching’ from the boys on the varsity team, the girls involved in the homecoming game played a version of flag football that reminded me a lot of our old ‘two hand touch / tackle’ games from gym class.  When the game ended, I told the homecoming advisor, “If you continue playing this game, please don’t call me to ref again. They were vicious out there tonight!” Maybe if they put the girls in full pads and helmets and upgrade to the kind of 8-man football that is being played today I would reconsider, but then again, maybe not. 

      After 27 years with the program, it was not hard to get used to the title ‘retired coach’.  At times I wonder what it would have been like if our program had been a feeder program into an 8-man varsity program.  In the end, as long as the kids were playing football, they had no trouble making the transition to 11 man tackle. Good luck to this year’s edition of Ontonagon 8-man football under new coach Ray Bramlett.

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