High school football practice has been under way in West Virginia for over two weeks now, and because the opening day of the fall season comes a week earlier this year, Maryland football practice has been going on since Friday, August 11. Yet seemingly from the beginning of time, without fail, today’s date, August 15, was the date that was burned into the mind of every person who experienced high school football, for the first day of summer football practice marks the beginning of time.
August 15 — it was just automatic; its purpose unstated. No vacation time was taken after August 14, for renewal, rejuvenation, all things important, the reason for waking up in the morning began on August 15. Each day and each step fueled by extra bounce, the beginning of summer practice provides more zeal and purpose than the previous day. Not for the football players who are actually out there practicing, mind you, but for the guys who stand along the fence or on the sideline at every high school in America for the sole purpose of watching summer football practice.
It’s a wonderful thing that so many adults take such an interest, and that interest is a huge part of what makes high school football here in our area everything that it is — including not perfect. But as my old friend Kevin Royce, who was a pretty darn good football player, once told me, “The only thing I can think of more boring than practicing football is watching football practice. I don’t get it.”
Certainly, with Kevin’s old high school football coach, the late Charles E. Lattimer, running things, practice was often times very unboring, but his point was always understood. Watching a scrimmage, I understood. But watching grass drills and conditioning, something all Maryland public schools are limited to doing until Friday? I never understood that. And I assure you, while they are likely grateful for the interest and support of the respective communities, neither do most high school football coaches because high school football coaches are, by nature, acutely suspicious.
I know this firsthand because a big part of my job this time of year involves working with high school football coaches. And while I was a student manager for the Fort Hill teams Royce played for, part of our job was to find out, in the words of Coach Lattimer, “who the hell that guy is and what the hell he wants.”
Coach Lattimer’s suspicions were never directed toward the regulars who stood along the backside of the press box taking in the day’s drills, although the presence of a few of them were just barely tolerated. No, the security checks, we, teen-aged boys at the time, had to administer were usually saved for the 50-something year-old man Coach Lattimer did not recognize, who would invariably be standing 173 yards away from the actual practice, which is likely what made Coach suspicious to begin with.
“Excuse me, sir,” we were instructed to say, “Coach Lattimer would like to know how you are affiliated with Fort Hill and the Fort Hill football team.”
Most of the time, the guy would simply turn around, get in his car and drive away without saying anything because Coach Lattimer’s poker skills were usually spot on. One time, though, the object of the Lattimer inquiry dug in.
“You tell Lattimer,” he said quite indignantly, “it’s none of his (darn) business.”
Right. To this day I have a picture of my telling Coach Lattimer that anything was none of his (darn) business.
“You tell that (so-and-so) I graduated from Fort Hill.”
At this time, as practice had been suspended until I could run (not very fast, I might add) the 173 yards to conduct the investigation, then run the 173 yards back to file my report, a voice from afar came booming through the summer humidity.
“Well!!?? We’re waiting! We don’t have all day, son!”
It was Coach Lattimer.
Deciding it would be more economical, and less stressful, for me to yell back than to run back, I yelled, “He graduated from Fort Hill, Coach!”
From 173 yards away came “Hell’s fire, son! So did George Stimmel. Get him out of here!”
George Stimmel, of course, was the Allegany football coach at the time. I, on the other hand, was on quite the spot. So I turned to the man on the other side of the fence and said, “Do you see what I’m working with here? Please help me, sir. If practice doesn’t start again, it’s going to be my (arse).”
To which the man shook his head, harrumphed and walked away mumbling some words I would dare not repeat to my commander, and it was at that moment I decided that for the rest of my life, I would never attend a high school football practice I did not have to attend.
Mike Burke is sports editor of the Cumberland Times-News. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org