This is a story about a star and the galaxy in which he shines. It is about the very best all-round athlete in Yates Center, Kansas, the Hay Capital of the World.
You may ask—why? Well, one day a letter arrived at this magazine, unsolicited and buried deep in the envelope thickets of a mailbag, from a Yates Center barber. It was scrawled in ballpoint on lined paper torn from a spiral notebook, and it spoke glowingly of Michael Leon Peterson (see cover), 18, Yates Center's "once in a lifetime athlete." The barber wrote of how Mike Peterson, the football star, had been voted the most valuable player in the Tri-Valley League on both offense and defense, how he had scored 103 points and intercepted nine passes, how—as runner, passer, punter, placekicker and punt returner—he had led the Yates Center Wildcats to their first Tri-Valley League championship in history.
The barber wrote of Mike Peterson the basketball star; how he had averaged 21.2 points per game, how he had led Yates Center to its very first Tri-Valley League basketball championship, how Mike had subsequently made "everybody's" Class 2A All-State team in Kansas and was voted the most valuable Class 2A player in all of Kansas.
The barber told how Mike Peterson, the baseball star, last season led the Yates Center American Legion team to its third straight Class B state championship, how he was the No. 1 pitcher with a 9-2 record and a 1.21 ERA, how he batted .398 and how he was chosen to the All-Kansas team. The barber also threw in the fact that Mike Peterson ran a respectable, if not mind-blowing, 440 in track (51.8) and had been a member of Yates Center High School's record-breaking one-mile relay team. The barber failed to mention that Mike Peterson also played the saxophone and was president of the YCHS band.
August 8, 1971
Yates Center is out on the far prairies of southeast Kansas. It is about 100 miles from Wichita and at the end of an unremarkable two-hour drive from Kansas City, Mo. The roads to Yates Center pass many gnarled groves of blackjack oak and broad fields of soybeans, milo and, of course, hay—as well as a few billboards advertising a miracle fertilizer or plant food with the hardsell Words PUT MORE JACK IN YOUR BEANSTALK. As for Yates Center itself, a brochure map of the village was printed some years ago to guide and encourage an onslaught of commerce and industry which never materialized, except for one jacket factory that employs about 90 women. The map indicates that Yates Center is "Midway U.S.A." in that it sits 800 miles from both the Canadian and Mexican borders, and 1,400 miles from both the Pacific and Atlantic shores. The brochure also notes that 17 of the country's 55 largest cities are within one-day trucking distance of Yates Center, and it describes the village as "Crossroads U.S.A." because it is spotted squarely at the intersection of U.S. 54, which streams northeast to Chicago and southwest to E1 Paso, and U.S. 75, which flows north to Winnipeg and south to Houston.
Inside Yates Center proper, U.S. 75 is called Fry Street and U.S. 54 is called Mary Street. If someday you happen to be motoring along Mary Street on your way from El Paso to Chicago, you may wish to take notice of a small grayish asbestos-shingled house set next to the Standard Oil station. That is the home of the best athlete in Yates Center. And if you happen to glimpse a young blond fellow adrift on the wooden swing dangling from the front porch ceiling, you may want to wave or honk your horn or stop and get his autograph, because that will be Mike Peterson.
Perhaps you will not be awed by him. He is pleasant enough and good-looking, but you will probably not feel overpowered by the physical presence of a living legend. Mike stands but a brave 5'10" tall and weighs no more than a courageous 155 pounds. He is a lean and well-washed boy, with all that is open and innocent about the plains of Kansas showing in his face, in his summer-sky eyes and even in the comb-furrowed bangs that are bleached the color of corn from many blazing August days of helping in the hellish, itchy harvest of the celebrated local hay crop. He speaks in a high-pitched voice with the drawling twang of a plainsman. His grammar perhaps owes more to Wyatt Earp than to William Allen White. "It don't matter what game it is, I try to do as good as I can," says Mike Peterson.
They know that around Yates Center, all right. Mike is a paragon there. Some people—Gaylen Rodgers, the high school basketball coach, for one—offer him the ringing classic accolades such as, "If I had a son, I'd want him to be exactly like Mike Peterson." Some people, like Arylene Haynes, pretty wife of a state trooper and current president of the exuberant Yates Center Quarterback Club, are merely very, very complimentary: "Mike is a great player and an even greater person." Clarence Newton, assistant football coach and phys ed teacher at YCHS, awards him a kind of superstatus: "A boy with the talents and attitudes of a Mike Peterson might come along once in a man's coaching career—but more likely never at all." Dick Clasen, editor of the weekly Yates Center News, sees young Mike from an even broader perspective: "There is no doubt in my mind that Mike Peterson will be a legend around Yates Center and even Woodson County for years to come. The only thing that could ever stop it is his lack of The Big Head. The boy just will not brag about himself."
That is true. Mike is modest, very modest. In Yates Center that trait seems almost requisite to his prowess at sports: to hear people talk, the lack of The Big Head is perhaps third only behind godliness and cleanliness in the book of virtues. For example, Mike's widowed mother, Doris Peterson, a cheery matronly lady who works for the newspaper, said, "The veterinarian here in town said to me just the other day that to him the nicest thing about Mike is that his honors have not gone to his head. This is the best thing a mother could hear, of course." Jack Gibbs, a friendly sunburned fellow who is an engineer for the Kansas highway department in town, said that he had lived in perhaps half a dozen different towns in his life and that he had yet to see an athlete as modest as Mike Peterson. "Why, I've sat in the barbershop here time and time again," said Gibbs, "talking about things Mike did in games, with Mike setting right there, too. But he don't brag, he don't even help carry the conversation when you're talking about him. You can make him smile, but not talk about himself. The Big Head never hit Mike."
The Big Head is not unknown in Yates Center. Wayne Jaynes, an insurance man and P.A. announcer for 20 years at YCHS football games, recalls a classic pre-Peterson case. "This one boy—oh, he was a star, all right—he and his father used to call me up after games and bawl me out for not announcing the kid's plays with more excitement in my voice. They'd chew me out, too, for not giving the boy more adjectives in my write-ups in the paper. Oh, they were a surly lot. But Mike? He's the nicest, most modest boy in town."
Possibly he is. A stranger came to Yates Center recently in a rented car and drove through the green and leafy streets with Mike at his side. Almost everyone walking the sidewalks or driving by peered intently at the rented car, then waved enthusiastically at Mike. The visitor remarked to Mike that he must be a dazzling celebrity indeed if people sought him out even when he was concealed in a strange car. Mike flushed. "Naw, when a car they don't recognize comes into town, people look real close to see who's sittin' in it. When they seen me ridin' with you, they just waved. They'd do it for anyone in town."
Perhaps they would. Yates Center is a snug little island in the Kansas seas. There are 2,178 souls in residence, and their lives are pretty much directly focused on each other. The politico-socio-economic center of town is the square, a grassy, tree-shadowed patch of ground graced by a fine old prairie-Victorian grandma of a building, the Woodson County Courthouse. It is a doughty, nostalgic, red-brick pile of the kind too often torn down now and replaced by a cold and up-to-date thing made of tinted glass and glazed beige bricks. The Woodson County Courthouse lends a style and dignity to Yates Center and to the shops and offices and stores lined up across the street around the square. The people on the streets do not hurry. Many of them are farmers in sun-clean bib overalls, lounging on benches at the edge of the square. And many of them do look up and scrutinize every car that cruises by.
Anonymity is unknown and privacy seems to exist more or less to be invaded. People say that locked doors are a rarity day or night, and most everyone has become accustomed to knowing an enormous amount of detail about everyone else. Yates Center knows who ate supper in the backyard last night, who had a new thermostat installed, who did or did not make his contribution to the Quarterback Club for buying films of the high school games, who takes cream in his coffee. Yates Center knew all about it a year or so ago when Mike Peterson temporarily quit going steady with cheerleader Rhonda Hanson because a friend told him that a steady girl might weaken his concentration on basketball. Yates Center knew all about it this spring when Mike rode his beloved Honda motorcycle off a steep drop at the quarry and escaped with a few scratches. Yates Center knew all about it a few weeks ago when Mike's mother ordered him to get his hair cut because it had begun to crowd the tips of his ears.
It is probable that Yates Center would have known all these things even if Mike Peterson weren't the best athlete in town. But fame and acclaim have followed at his heels like a devout (though rather small) dog for most of the years of his life in Yates Center.
He began playing in the peewee baseball league at the age of seven, a year before he was really eligible. In his scrap-book there are yellowed clippings from days when Mike Peterson was a mere wisp of a child who still could lead the local midgets to a state baseball title by pitching the same game he won with a two-run homer. Mike has two older brothers, both fair athletes in their day, and two older sisters. His father, Paul Peterson, died three years ago, and the kids of the high school dedicated the yearbook to his memory. He had been many things in his life, the last few being a salesman of cemetery monuments, a school bus driver and the director of Yates Center's summer recreation program. "Paul Peterson was 10, 15 years ahead of his time," says Jack Gibbs. "He was a pitterer and he never cared much about money or having a big house in the suburbs. There are lots of pitterers now, they come out of college that way. They don't care to set the world on fire. Money don't matter. Paul Peterson was that way, a pitterer."
Especially since his father died, Mike Peterson has been the apple of Yates Center's eye, a boy to watch, a boy to emulate. And now his name has come to be a power among the children of the town. Many little boys can see no better future in all the years ahead than to become the world's next Mike Peterson. Some include his name in their prayers, and many young Yates Center mamas habitually use his name to persuade stubborn children to take their naps or wear their galoshes or swallow their rutabagas, because Mike Peterson takes, wears or eats his. Few men in town—preachers or politicians or the Rotarian dedicated—have had their pictures in the paper as often as Mike Peterson. There he is—No. 22 leaping for a rebound: No. 24 looking bemused yet rakish in football togs, eye lamp-black and the football Homecoming King's crown. There he is, the boy with the big grin behind the big trophy or the stiff and grim-looking fellow posing in the formal picture with his team. Perhaps no one in town has been talked about as much as Mike Peterson—in the barbershops, the gas stations, at morning coffee sessions in Baker's Drug Store, at lunch at Woody's.
Doesn't being in a constant spotlight bother him a little? No. it does not. "The pressure of being well-known don't get to me," says Mike. "I'm used to it. I know people used to watch me when I was settin' in the bleachers during B team games. They'd watch my leg to see if it was jigglin'. See. I got in the habit of jigglin' my leg before a game, and people'd look at it and they'd say, 'Well, Mike's ready for a good game tonight because his leg's goin' real good.' That never bothered me. I just always try to be myself."
Mike's fame has spread, of course, beyond Yates Center. "Sometimes I go over to a town before a game, you know, and I'm on the street and kids I never seen before come up to me and say, 'Hey, why did you come here? We was hoping to win.' " In Garnett and Humboldt and Cherryvale, in Fredonia and Eureka and Neodesha, they know Mike well. His face is familiar and so is his jump shot and his quick curve and his famed "limp leg" (not to be confused with his famed jiggling leg) which he used often to maneuver through broken fields for touchdowns. Mike even recalls, reluctantly and red-faced, the night someone from out of town asked him for his autograph. "It was over to Hutchinson during the state basketball tournament, and some kid—must've been a junior, even—come over and asked for an autograph. I tried to talk him out of it for a while, but then I give it to him. Then he said some guys had bet him 50¢ he didn't dare ask me for it. He said, 'But we all think you're a pretty good player, anyway.' "
Besides the clippings from the Yates Center News, Mike's scrapbook contains stories from the Chanute Tribune, the Coffeyville Journal and the Iota Register, as well as the Wichita Eagle, which relayed word throughout the state of Kansas that "with another player like Mike Peterson, Yates Center would be unstoppable." Among his most prized mementos is a collection of tape cassettes, the broadcasts of Yates Center's basketball tournament games as they were beamed out last winter over KKOY in Chanute. Again and again, now in the hot, slow dog days of summer, Mike can sit dangling on his porch swing, his tape recorder blasting at his ear, gazing happily into the past as the authoritative voice of KKOY's Jerry Pryor shouts: "...the ball goes to Mike Peterson! He dribbles twice! He's in the corner! He jumps! He shoots! It's good! It's good, and Yates Center regains the lead...."
So he is canonized in newsprint and on electronic tape. But being a Mike Peterson in a town like Yates Center goes farther than that. For Yates Center has a deep and abiding civic commitment to sports, even an obsession. "This town is so sports-oriented," says Arylene Haynes of the Quarterback Club, "that you'd think that's all there is to do—and maybe it is." Last year the Yates Center News frequently printed stories about its teams on Page One with thick black headlines that were two or three times bigger than other front-page headlines such as GOVERNOR TO BE IN COUNTY or SHERIFF'S CAR GOES OUT OF CONTROL or HORSE KILLED ON HIGHWAY. "We print what we think is important," says Dick Clasen, "and even though we got some letters complaining about our emphasis on sports stories, we felt they were damn important."
Indeed, the whole town habitually mobilizes as if it were going to war when a sports project is under way, and there are countless stories about the Jaycees building baseball bleachers and the Jaycees, the Lions and the American Legion playing benefit games to buy a new P. A. system and whole platoons of town fathers pitching in to carve a sleek new baseball diamond out of a rocky pasture. Just this spring the football coach, Marvin Dodd, let it be known that the team could use a new Gladiator weight-lifting machine—price: $2,575. No sooner said than the town turned out en masse to pick up metal beer cans that could be sold for reprocessing. In a short time there were 76,100 beer cans on the courthouse square, plus another 2,500 returnable beer and pop bottles and hundreds of aluminum TV dinner trays. "I know of no other community in Kansas," says Marvin Dodd, "that would show that kind of spirit in supporting its football team."
So it is no small thing to be a star like Mike Peterson in a town like Yates Center. Even now there are unofficial keepers of his legends all over town, each polishing some unforgettable tale of his prowess for retelling to the wondering children of some future generation. Some will tell of the 1970 football game against Neodesha when Mike, defensive halfback, stole a pass from an enemy's very fingertips and raced 85 yards for a touchdown. And then, in that same tense game, with only seconds remaining and Neodesha having just scored to slip into the lead 22-21, the enemy kicked off to Chuck Mossman, a fleet and sturdy Yates Center halfback who is ranked close to Mike for all-round heroics. Mossman tucked the ball to his chest, looked upheld and saw Mike calmly waving him to his side of the field. Mossman veered toward Mike and Mike set out ahead of him to throw one fierce block that felled the only man who could have put a finger on Chuck Mossman. Mike lay stunned on the ground, but Chuck streaked across for the touchdown that gave Yates Center a splendid 27-22 victory.
Some will tell of the night last winter in nearby Burlington when Mike turned into a blond tornado with a basketball and shattered Yates Center's alltime individual scoring record with 43 points, while the team, inspired, raced on to score 100, yet another record. Some will tell of last year's Legion baseball championship in Ransom when Mike batted 3 for 5 and pitched a seven-hit game to win the title.
Some will recall moments which simply reflect a small but brilliant facet of Mike's skill. Jack Steiner, the barber who wrote the letter about Mike, remembers: "He was a lefty, but the sonuvagun could play second base like a dream. And he was even a catcher! And we didn't have no left-handed mitt for him, so he'd catch wearing a right-handed mitt. He'd have to whip off the mitt to make a throw, but they never stole a base on him, not once."
Editor Dick Clasen recalls: "In a game against Sedan, Mike was the deep man on a punt, and the ball was short. It rolled and rolled. A bunch of their boys gathered around it, but the referee hadn't blown it dead. Suddenly Mike jumped in and—oh, his hands were so quick—he snatched up the ball, burst right out of that crowd and went for a touchdown. A little later the same thing happened with a punt and their boys gathered around it again. This time Mike just made a fast little fake toward the ball. My gosh, there must have been six or seven kids from Sedan all floundering around on the ball."
And Jack Gibbs tells in hushed tones of a certain baseball game he remembers: "Mike was playing center field and a guy hit a terrific smash out toward center and Mike started running. We didn't have no fence then and Mike run and run and run. He jumped a little ditch, run across a road, jumped another ditch and, by God, he caught that ball for an out. There was a light mist falling, too, as I remember. And, yes, I believe that game turned out to be a no-hitter for our pitcher after that, too."
If the village of Yates Center had sprung up in some earlier age of man, the legends of Mike Peterson would even now be depicted indelibly upon the walls of a cave or baked in pictures for all eternity upon the polished side of some great urn. But what now? Will the legend live only as it is passed on by word of mouth through Yates Center barbershops of the future?
Not entirely. There are still men who believe in recording history in a more endurable manner. The Woodson County Historical Society has a fine, sunny museum on Mary Street, not more than half a block east of Mike Peterson's own home. The museum is freshly painted white, and its antique displays sparkle as if they had just been put down by their original owners. The Osage Indian arrowheads and the great old hay sickles and the pie crimpers once manufactured in Yates Center, even the huge old turkey platter owned by town founder Abner Yates himself, all seem in mint condition. Lester Harding, the sun-wrinkled farmer who is president of the historical society, says, "A museum don't need to look like someone's attic, you know."
The society has seen fit to preserve, in framed photographs and monographs, certain events in the past of Woodson County—such as the birth of Buster Keaton in 1895 and the visit of President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1879 and the arrival in the county of Thurlow Lieurance, the composer of the song Falling Leaves, in 1885 and, most impressive of all perhaps, the sighting on the night of April 19, 1897 by Captain Alexander Hamilton of a brightly lighted, reddish airship with a cigar-shaped cabin 300 feet long. This, it is recorded, was "UFO #1" in U.S. annals of unidentified flying objects, and Captain Hamilton swore that there were six "strange" beings aboard and that they dropped a red lasso over the neck of a 3-year-old heifer and floated away with the cow while the captain, his son and a tenant looked on helplessly. The heifer was later found butchered in a neighbor's pasture. At the time Captain Hamilton resided on a farm 10 miles outside of Yates Center, and several citizens of the village signed an affidavit testifying to his veracity shortly after he reported seeing the strange ship.
The collection at the Woodson County Historical Society is, then, maintained with an eye for thoroughness and a respect for detail. A few weeks ago Walter A. Bowers, 72, a member of the society's board of directors, added to the museum's collection a thick scrapbook filled with photographs and newspaper clippings of Mike Peterson's athletic career. Bowers said, "There is no doubt in my mind that Mike Peterson is the greatest athlete ever to perform in 100 years in Yates Center. I felt that we should capture his achievements right now and put him on record at the museum as being the best in our history."
Walter Bowers brings to that judgment of Mike's prowess a bit more insight than the average Yates Center citizen might be able to muster. For even though he is gray-haired and a bit paunchy now, with rimless spectacles and the dignified mien one might expect of a retired engineer from New York, Bowers was once a member of the University of Chicago's world-record two-mile-relay team that was coached by Amos Alonzo Stagg. He was an extremely gifted athlete in a number of other events, too. Indeed, in 1924, Bowers finished 11th in the U.S. Olympic trials for the decathlon.
"I considered myself perhaps the best 145-to-l55-pound athlete in the world at that time," says Bowers, with a light, modest chuckle. "Since then I have developed many other interests besides sports, of course. For example, I am right now in the midst of preparing a paper on the life of Michelangelo for delivery to the Rotary Club next week. But I have enough background in sports, I think, to know that Mike Peterson is a brilliant young performer. I knew Red Grange when he was at the University of Illinois and I saw him play often. Mike Peterson has Red Grange's same unearthly capacity for breaking tackles. I saw Walter Eckersall play for the University of Chicago, and he was one of the greatest open-field runners ever to play the game. Mike Peterson has the same footsteps and the same tricks as Walter Eckersall. I have seen every basketball game Mike Peterson played, and many baseball games. There is no doubt in my mind that in the full century that Yates Center has existed there has never—never—been a better athlete. And I have seen to it that it is so recorded in the history of this village."
So much for the past. Now what of the future for Yates Center's greatest athlete? Well, despite the high marks issued by Walter Bowers and most everyone else in town, there was no heavy campaign from college recruiters to sign him up. Almost certainly that is because of his slight size. Mike will enroll in the fall at the Kansas State Teachers College at Emporia, and he plans to play basketball and baseball. "I hope someday to get to be a pro baseball player," he says. "I probably ain't fast enough to be a pitcher but I figure with some breaks I could make it as an outfielder. If I don't make that, I'd probably want to coach or something like that."
There is, of course, intense interest in Yates Center in what will happen to Mike now that the magic days of high school heroism are at an end. One fellow who could be a little closer to the truth of it all than others is Gary (Hutch) Dixon, 27, another barber in Yates Center. In 1963, Hutch Dixon was graduated from Yates Center High School, an athlete of great repute. As a quarterback he had made All-League, All-Southeast Kansas and honorable mention All-State. He was one of the few boys in the village ever to have won 17 letters from the sixth grade all through high school—a feat Mike Peterson accomplished, too, of course.
"Well, those were about the greatest years I can remember, those high school games and all," says Hutch. "I was going to go on to college, but things got tight and I decided on a trade school instead and I opened up my barbershop here. I've never regretted staying in Yates Center. Hell, I was Mike Peterson's first coach—in peewee baseball. I think Mike is going to do all right from now on. It'll be hard for him in college, maybe. He's never been away from home, you know. He's used to the way it is in Yates Center where everybody knows him and everybody remembers all his big moments in sports. Mike Peterson's a great man in Yates Center—even I tell my 4-year-old he's gotta take his nap because Mike Peterson takes naps. My little boy will do almost anything to be like Mike Peterson."
And that, whatever happens, is a particular slice of immortality that no one else can ever have. It is reserved for the greatest athlete in the history of the Hay Capital of the World.
YATES CENTER ASSESSES ITS FAVORITE SON
Insurance Man Wayne Jaynes: "Mike is the nicest, most modest boy in the town."
Club President Arylene Haynes: "Mike is a great player; an even greater person."
Museum Director Walter Bowers: "He's the greatest in 100 years in Yates Center."
Newspaper Editor Dick Clasen: "He'll be a legend around Yates Center for years."
Highway Engineer Jack Gibbs: "He don't brag. The Big Head has never hit Mike."
Coach Clarence Newton: "A Mike Peterson might come along once in a man's career."