The trees were an orange and yellow blaze last Friday night in Bridgman, Mich. The air was crisp, the marching band loud and sassy. It was the night of the homecoming football game, just like always, just like at every other high school during every other autumn...except for one thing. There was no football game.
They played soccer instead, 22 kids in shorts running around for an hour and a half on a football field, 200 people in the stands trying to figure out why. Some blamed the overcompetitive twins and the meddlesome father, some blamed the hard-nosed football coach and the 60-point losses. But perhaps it would be truer to say that the football season at Bridgman High was canceled last week on account of society.
The dinosaurs, the men who have coached high school football in this country for 20, 30, 40 years, have smelled this coming. The kids have changed, they'll tell you. The kids won't run through walls anymore. The kids have four-wheel-drive Range Rovers in the parking lot or 57-channel TVs at home or four-hour shifts at Wawa to pay for the stone-washed jeans. Even the man who broke the national record for coaching victories with 406 two weeks ago in South Carolina, Summerville High's John McKissick, shook his head an hour after that game and said, "You have to be very careful anymore about telling a kid to either follow a rule or turn in his jersey—because he's as likely as not to hand you his jersey."
Ten players at Bridgman High as much as handed in their jerseys last week. Since there were only 17 on the roster, that ended the Bees' season with three games left—and ended community social life in Bridgman for the rest of the fall.
And to think, Bridgman's first pedestrian crosswalk signal was installed just four weeks ago. This is a town with no movie theater, three traffic lights, a 258-student high school and a McDonald's coming next month—but only after the city commission agonized over the ruffians liable to gather there. It is a town of 2,140 people nestled on Lake Michigan, living off summer tourists and the two nuclear reactors two miles away.
Boys in towns just like Bridgman all across America once pined to play high school football, and some still do. "But it's not the privilege it once was," says Ric Seager, the 28-year-old Bridgman coach without a team. "Not here, not in many places. Kids would rather watch TV or work so they have money for a car or tennis shoes or clothes. They have a lot more options than kids used to. It affects football the most, because football is the most arduous sport, the one that demands the most discipline. Lots of teams are eliminating their freshman or jayvee teams because of a lack of players. Our kids weren't lazy bums. They just weren't used to the commitment it takes to be a winning football team."
Seager, a former Albion (Mich.) College lineman, tried to crack the whip and flog alive a program that has known but eight winning seasons in 35 years. Fifteen 40-yard wind sprints was the punishment for missing practice and five push-ups for a missed snap count—small stuff compared with the grass drills and head slaps that high school coaches meted out during Vince Lombardi's day. Players complained that Seager demanded too much. As early as summer camp, there were sometimes only seven or eight boys on the practice field and nearly as many on the beach. "Doctors' appointments, dentists' appointments, family trips, bumps, bruises...they had reasons kids never would've dreamed of giving when I played high school ball," says Seager. "I tried to build team unity by having spaghetti dinners before a game. After dinner I'd look out on the baseball field and they'd be out there, hitting a football with a baseball bat. I've never seen that in all my years involved with football."
Somehow, the Bees won their opener. Then they suffered losses of 62-0, 64-0 and 44-0, and the student body grew surly. "If you're happy and you know it, stomp your feet," they sang during one of the blowouts. They walked out of pep rallies during the school fight song and taunted players in the halls. A math teacher began offering to bump up by half a percentage point the grade of any student who could properly guess the margin of Bridgman's next loss.
The uglier it became, the more desperate the Reimers twins and their father grew. Corey and Chris Reimers, the Bees' sophomore running backs, had been groomed for success by their father. Chris Reimers Sr., who owns a gutter-cleaning business, had raised the twins alone after he and his wife split when the boys were six months old. He had coached them in Little League ball, purchased a motor home one summer so that Corey and Chris and 11 other players could barnstorm the state for a series of all-star games wearing hot pink uniforms, and rented a cottage 30 miles from home so the twins could play for one of Michigan's best Babe Ruth teams. Now Chris Sr. prowled the sidelines and stands during football practices and games, offering advice and dissent, while his sons berated older teammates who didn't share their hunger.
It all came to a boil on Oct. 9 after a 16-6 loss to Lake Michigan Catholic, a school that had lost 22 straight games before bumping into the Bees. Bridgman's Mike Thornburg, a safety and tight end, later said that he had suffered dizzy spells during the game, that he had motioned to the coach to send in a replacement and that the team trainer had asked Seager three times to remove Thornburg. Seager says that his headset and the sideline chaos must have prevented him from hearing the requests and that he substituted for Thornburg the moment he knew. Thornburg was whisked by ambulance to a hospital, where he was treated and released.
On Oct. 11 in the school cafeteria, Chris Reimers Jr. informed senior lineman Josh Lomoro that the Reimers twins didn't need the offensive line—they could win without it. Seven players reported for practice that afternoon. Most of the others reported to the house of another player. Upon learning of their boycott that evening, Chris Reimers Sr. stormed into the Lomoros' house and, according to the Lomoros, chewed out Josh and his mother.
"I felt like nobody else was doing anything to keep football going," says Reimers. "I'm the only parent in this godforsaken town that cares about football on the varsity level. If the kids over at that house had told the truth, that Mr. Reimers is over there trying to get the team back together, my life would be easy. But now my name's been slandered and my kids are suffering and my business has dropped. I'm worried that this is going to hurt the kids' chances of getting athletic scholarships."
The next day, minutes before the 3:15 p.m. practice, the boycotting players approached Seager and demanded that he rein in the Reimerses or they would not suit up. Seager knew Reimers had gone too far, but the coach had had enough. "If you don't want to play football, then don't," he snapped. "It's that simple. We can talk about Reimers later, but right now it's time for practice. I'm sick and tired of having to treat you like a bunch of children. Make your choice."
The players walked. School administrators canceled the football season the next day. The cheerleaders stripped all the GO BEES! posters from the high school's halls. To prevent violence, police escorted Corey and Chris Jr. out of the homecoming dance after the soccer game on Friday night.
"I'm just sick about this," says Seager. "I still hope we have a team next year. I still want to be a coach. But if the kids here don't have confidence in me, I can't. It's going to take a lot of healing."
And perhaps something more. Newspapers across the country were printing a quote from Chris Reimers Sr. that appeared in the local newspaper, The Herald-Palladium. "My kids were the best kids on the team," he said. "The rest of them are a bunch of spoiled little wusses."
The old-timers in high school football coaching, just like everyone else, cringed. And wondered if Chris Reimers Sr. had just found a sorry way of spitting out a small grain of truth.