Weekend essay: Home-field advantage

Weekend essay: Home-field advantage

MARTINS FERRY, Ohio

The old stadium had changed as much as it had remained the same, if that makes any sense. The assessment came the last Saturday in July during a visit to the old high school football field and track for the first time in – GULP! –42 years.

Gone, for the most part, is the school house-red brick wall (a haven for the poison ivy in which we encouraged visiting thinclads to lounge) that once encircled the stadium, replaced by a tall chain-link fence. Gone, too, is the cinder track on which I ran the half-mile, mile and two-mile runs between 1972 and 1976.

A new track – all-weather, of course – now is adjacent to a new hilltop high school that opened a few years ago, far from these banks of the more-lazy-than-mighty Ohio River.

It was on that same old cinder track in 1941 that the late old man is reputed to have run the first 10-second-flat 100-yard dash in the Ohio Valley. And, oh, what an odd track it was.

Because of space constraints, the Purple Riders’ home cinders were not a regulation 440 yards; they were something along the line of 385 yards with decidedly squarer turns at one end.

That not only made the 220-yard dash and hurdles run on the square-ish curve more than a bit interesting, pity the poor runner who drew the sixth lane. For jutting out halfway in that lane was the concrete base of the stadium flag pole.

The space where the track once traversed these days is a walkway between the grandstands and the artificial-turf field. The old visitors’ grandstand, a concrete behemoth, has been replaced with something of a more modern construction.

But with its demolition also went the smelly old (but somehow quaint) locker rooms, where the joys of victory were savored and the wounds of defeat were salved. The old locker rooms have been replaced with a modern field house, built where team heavyweights long putted the shot.

Amazingly, the large covered wooden home grandstands have survived. And what a treat it was to take in the raised front walkway to the 50-yard line, then head up into those stands to where paternal grandfather “Pop” would, for decades, take in football games.

I’m sure I could smell his pipe as I sat down in his usual spot to enjoy the view. Not long ago, brother Shannon gave me Pop’s old folding stadium seat, one that took at least a modicum of posterior and back pain out of sitting on the old wood bleacher benches.

Ah, those memories – and others …

Public address announcer Art Simpson telling runners to report to the east end of the stadium for the start of an event. Then adding, “If you don’t know where that is, listen for the waves” …

Track team “weight men” – shot putters and discus throwers – turning an assistant coach’s old beater of a sports car on its back end and up against the ticket office building …

The marching band on any given fall home football Friday night performing its signature “Swing March”…

A pretty girl donning a purple cape atop her beautiful white horse – a Purple Rider incarnate …

A high school graduation ceremony and a few hundred kids on the cusp of adulthood, convinced they had the world by the tail. Time shows more than a few did.

Indeed, the old mill town –the birthplace of bright luminaries from literary giant William Dean Howells to pro football legend Lou “The Toe” Groza — is longer in the tooth now than it was long in the tooth then. But folks are trying to bring it back. And some are succeeding. It’s proof positive that boot-strap pulling continues to have a pulse in this sleepy river enclave.

And for a certain scrivener, the values and the discipline instilled day after day (and sometimes night after night) on the stadium’s old cinders made all the difference.

Talk about a home-field advantage.

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).