In the continuing quest to catch the public fancy, the sport of archery has a special problem. More and more people—both sexes and all ages—are taking up the bow against game and targets, to be sure, but they are having a hard time living up to the embellished legends of English long-bowmen and the red Indians of the Western world. The manufacturers have refined fiber-glass bows and made tougher, straighter arrows of aluminum, but no one has hit upon a formula for turning out a hero who will attract and wow spectators.
When the 15th annual National Field Archery Championships got under way a fortnight ago amidst the oaks, maples and birches that grow close as bowling pins on the Michigan National Guard grounds in Grayling National Forest, there were 1,170 contestants, all of them armed far better than the English longbow-men at Crécy and Agincourt and most of them skilled enough to out-shoot any Indian. As this talented horde of archers moved against the 84 targets set at distances of 10 to 80 yards on the Grayling course, a hero did turn up, although nobody recognized him at first.
Dressed in golf shoes, bright slacks and a plaid snap-brim hat, Dr. Fred Simmons Jr., a 26-year-old dentist and university instructor from Houston, at the start seemed just another contender with an outside chance—a relative newcomer who took up bow hunting and field archery a scant five years ago while recuperating from a crackup in his outboard racer. In two previous tries, Dr. Simmons had placed 13th and 18th in the men's instinctive divisions. At the end of the first day of the three-day competition this year, the word buzzed around the archers' mosquito-plagued encampment: Simmons, the relative Johnny come lately, was in second place.
In national field archery tournaments there are two major titles at stake for both men and women: freestyle and instinctive. The freestyler uses a pin, or calibrated peep sight, adjustable to match various distances. The instinctive shooter uses no sight directly on the target but aims only with his arrow. It is the winner in this type of shooting who is recognized as the national champion. At the end of two rounds of the instinctive competition, Dentist Simmons had pulled within striking distance of 40-year-old Jim Palmer of Dansville, N.Y., a three-time national heavy tackle champion who was trying to make his mark now with a lighter bow.
In contrast to Palmer, who on the course exudes some of the joviality of old Friar Tuck, Simmons was a hero of a tight-lipped and determined sort. Before every shot he glared at the target, then stared stonily at the ground as he nocked his arrow (nocking it uncommonly above, instead of between, his three bow fingers). He took his success on target after target almost deadpan. If he missed, he would merely cluck, nudge his right hip with the heel of his hand as if to adjust an imaginary holster, then nock another arrow and line up his next shot.
Simmons' pregnant wife, Sharyn, carrying a folding golf seat, accompanied him around the brush-lined paths as silently and respectfully as a squaw trailing her untalkative buck. In the final round she saw Simmons whiz past Palmer to win the title by 59 points.
Field archery was devised as an offseason sport for bow hunters, but in the past three years four money tournaments have been held to promote it as a spectator sport in its own right. This year the prizes of the invitational tournament (starting the day after the nationals) totaled $10,000 donated by bow manufacturer Fred Bear and arrow manufacturer Doug Easton, in an attempt to raise the sport to the level of tournament golf. At first Simmons, the new national champion, declined the invitational, then he changed his mind and fought Palmer down to the last three targets before losing out for the $1,000 first place in the men's instinctive division.
With a national title and a $500 second prize in the cold-cash invitational to his credit, Simmons had proved to be a hero of a genuine sort, not a supernova suddenly flaring up and fizzling out.
"He's the Cary Middlecoff of archery," a bow hunting buff declared. "Maybe we don't have country clubs. But we got class." Champion Simmons draped an affectionate arm around wife Sharyn's shoulders and—at last—spoke. "I feel fine, Honey," he said. "I'm going to take that $500 and buy things for the baby. Then I'll get a new hunting bow made and kill something. I've killed all the targets I care to in the past few days."