IN SMALL-TIME FOOTBALL, THE MAN IN THE BOOTH RUNS A THREE-RING CIRCUS

September 15, 1985

The quarterback throws the ball deep downfield, and as I turn my head to see if it will be caught, I stare directly into the face of a cheerleader who has somehow invaded the press box. She's holding a large cardboard carton. Somewhere out there, beyond the carton and the cheerleader, a wide receiver has a gaggle of tacklers in hot pursuit.

"Will you draw for our raffle and announce the winner?" she asks.

"What raffle?" By peering under the carton I'm able to see part of the action. The receiver goes down close to the goal line.

"The junior class is raffling off the game ball," she explains. "We thought if we did that...."

The ball appears to be rolling away from the pile of players.

"Fumble," I intone into the mike.

It's a helmet.

"It's a helmet," I intone.

"...so they'll pick one of the footballs to give away, but they have to come to the dance to get it, so could you announce that, too?"

"What dance?" I stand up with mike in hand, trying to see over her head and the carton. The ball is now back near midfield. How did it get there? What in hell is happening?

In the magnificent stadiums of our football-crazed land, towering steel-and-glass shrines shield public-address announcers and other media types from cheerleaders pushing raffle tickets. On infrequent trips to big games in really big stadiums, I stare enviously at their elaborate digs. I hear they have electronic gizmos that show each player by position. A glance at the board shows who's playing where. No. 75 made the tackle? A little light blinks beside his name, number, class, physical dimensions, father's occupation and girl friend's major.

In my press box there is seating for three. Last year's cigar butts litter the floor. A chicken-wire fence is all that separates the booth from the fans below; one must vault the fence to enter and leave. A huge wooden shutter swings up from the glassless window and hangs perilously over the top rows of fans; it is held open by a rope capable of withstanding winds of at most 12 mph.

The booth shivers in the wind. Through the holes in the floorboards, you can see small boys firing rocks, trying to hit our feet. I pour coffee on them, and they go away.

It is homecoming day at our high school. Snow is falling steadily. The football coach has skipped history class to plow the field with his Jeep, and the bench warmers are standing on three-foot snowbanks. The chain-gang members are stuffed into snowmobile suits. Somewhere beneath the snowbanks are the sideline markers.

We devise a system by means of which the public-address announcer—me—can advise the crowd where the line of scrimmage is: A small boy is sent to the sidelines to hold up fingers indicating the yard line. He keeps his mittens on.

"Will the boy indicating the yard lines take his mittens off?" I implore. Everyone laughs. I squint through binoculars to see how many fingers are displayed. Is that a five and a one, or a one and a five? A six or a 15? It doesn't matter; there is a fumble on the play and the other team recovers.

"Christ, another fumble," I say into an open mike. The parents of the fumbler stand up in the stands and glare at me.

The home team scores with seconds to go; we now trail by a point. Our big fullback, the first all-stater in the school's history, has ground out 274 yards and will try to punch in a two-point conversion. Prowling the other side of the line is an all-state linebacker; if it weren't for his dogged tackling, the fullback would have over 500 yards. Their collisions have been awesome.

Uniform numbers have been obliterated, but they see each other. In approaching darkness and swirling snow, the only light is from the few scoreboard bulbs that haven't yet been shot out by bird hunters.

The halfback plunges left without the ball. No takers. The fullback heads for a hole off right tackle. The snarling linebacker claws him to the ground six inches short. Five hundred people hear me utter a mild oath. We push some cigar butts through the floorboards, take down the rope and go home.

And so it goes. You want to talk spotting? You grab whom you can, hand him the binoculars and say, "Just tell me who made the tackle."

First play: "Tackle by 44."

I check the roster taped to the counter. The numbers, of course, are not in order. "There is no 44."

"There is now. Look." Sure enough. A kid is dispatched to the other bench to find out 44's name. He returns breathless.

"I couldn't find 44," he says, and disappears.

One spotter was the father of a player. Instead of spotting, he screamed at his kid. "Get him! Get him! Get him! Get him! Nice tackle! Nice tackle!" I had to put my hand over the mike.

Another was the father of a running back. He was just starting to do a decent job when his boy went down with an injury. "You'd better go with him," I said, and he ran across the field to the hospital.

Some vignettes:

•As an injured player groans on the field, the crowd watches the ambulance being jump-started in the hospital parking lot, only 500 feet away. Two nurses and an orderly finally get it going by pushing it down a slope, and the fans cheer like crazy.

•The home team, leading 13-12, punts as the final gun goes off. The victorious players hug each other and throw their helmets into the air, while the punt returner runs 45 yards through the celebrating players for the winning touchdown. Behind the goal post, the church bell peals.

•The opposing halfback is stopped upright at the five as the halftime horn sounds. As I start to announce halftime festivities, the tackier gets up and runs off the field, and the runner trots in for a touchdown.

•It is the season opener, a beautiful fall day in the north woods. Because school isn't open yet, there is no band. A record player has been brought in.

"Will you please rise for the playing of our national anthem," I intone.

Hundreds rise to their feet, hands over hearts, facing a flagpole that unaccountably has no flag. The music crackles out. Halfway through, people begin to catch one another's eyes, and there is some scattered giggling. Something is wrong. Below the booth, a wag starts to sing loudly in tune with the music: "God save the Queen...."

ILLUSTRATIONRANDALL ENOS

Larry Chabot, a copper company executive, sees less action because the town team's gone.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)