Only game in town

Friday, August 29, 2003

The passion that the residents of Jackson have for their football team cannot be measured in attendance figures.

It cannot be measured by statistics, by wins and losses or by the powerful cadence of the band's percussion section.

It is measured by goose bumps.

It's the physical response associated with the emotional attachment, the feeling people get when they recall the thunderous roar as Tyler McNeely sacked the Hazelwood East quarterback in the opening series of the state semifinal game in 2001.

It's the recollection of bruising fullback Nathan Norman pointing his finger to the sky while escorting running back Glen Brunke to the end zone in a state playoff game in the mid-1990s.

It's remembering your son's first game, your grandson's first tackle. It's watching your former middle school students going all out, in the name of the city, the school and the holy lore.

The high school football season unofficially begins tonight with players engaged in scrimmage jamborees all across the state, including one in Jackson.

Another season is under way. Another chapter is about to begin.

Feeling at home

The environment for Jackson's home football games is unlike any other in Southeast Missouri and, perhaps, the state.

RusBaer is a sportswriter for the Columbia Tribune. He covered Jackson for the Southeast Missourian in 1997 when the Indians went undefeated during the regular season. He has since covered high school football games all over the state, including traditional state powers like Jefferson City and Webb City.

"You hear about Jeff City and Webb City and how their fan support is, but from what I remember of Jackson, the whole atmosphere of that field is the best I've seen. At the bigger schools like Hickman and Rock Bridge, it's big-time football, but the atmosphere is lacking. At Jackson, it was big-time football with a small-town atmosphere. At Jackson, it's the only game in town."

On Friday nights in Jackson, the grocery stores are relatively empty. Traffic, except around the high school, is sparse. They don't hold football games in Friday nights in Jackson. They throw weekly town reunions.

Jackson's athletic director, Kevin Bohnert, estimates Jackson averages 3,500 to 4,000 people per game at home, or roughly one-third of Jackson's population.

The stadium seats 3,500 people. Many fans spread out blankets on the hill on the southeast quadrant of the stadium.

Jackson has largest draw of any team in the region, based on estimates by athletic directors from other schools.

Poplar Bluff, Sikeston and Cape Girardeau, all big high schools with proud traditions, average fewer fans than Jackson, even though Jackson has at least 4,000 fewer residents than any of those towns. Poplar Bluff is the closest in attendance, averaging about 3,200 per game.

Past and present players say playing in front of Indian Nation on Friday night is like playing in a college stadium. And they're right.

If Jackson is playing a rival or a playoff opponent, the Indians can outdraw Southeast Missouri State University. Southeast, an NCAA I-AA school, has about 6,000 per home contest.

Jackson averages more fans per home game than the average NCAA Division II college (3,323) and triples the average attendance of a Division III school.

High school football attendance figures are difficult to calculate because season passes, reserved tickets and gate tickets are sold at different prices and at different times. Athletic directors generally estimate attendance based on stadium capacity and how full the stadium is.

Rick Kindhart, a spokesman for the Missouri State High School Activities Association, speculates that stadium capacities may be a bit inflated.

For the 2001 state semifinal against Hazelwood East, fans were packed into the stadium. Hundreds of fans squeezed into every available space.

But MSHSAA statistics show that only5,234 people paid to see that game, which is still the fifth largest attendance on record for a state playoff contest. MSHSAA has kept playoff attendance figures since 1980.

The biggest crowd ever to witness a football game at Jackson Stadium, veteran fans say, was when Jackson played host to Mexico on a Saturday afternoon in the 1995 state playoffs.

"I looked around and there were people outside the stadium three to four rows deep peeking in," said long-time Jackson football supporter John M. Thompson.

Bohnert said some have estimated that crowd to be around 10,000, but he said a more realistic figure is around 8,000.

Profiling the fans

Jackson's fans range from small children to senior adults.

Bob Hanson, 71, loves the team so much he braves the heat and attends practice.

"I usually go twice a week," Hanson said. "On Mondays, they watch film and on Thursdays they just run some passes and more or less get their uniforms in order and everything. But on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, I go."

Those are the scrimmaging days when it's possible to see Jackson's offense and defense line up in formations that coaches anticipate the next opponent will use.

"They do heavy work on those days, and us old guys can figure out what the other team is running," Hanson said.

Hanson moved to Jackson 33 years ago. He never had a son play on the team. And he goes to the practices, the home and away games despite a leg condition that makes it hard difficult for him to walk.

But he's been rehabilitating.

"I'm getting in shape for the games, you know," he said wryly.

Likewise, Harvey Nischwitz, who celebrated his 79th birthday on Thursday, won't let his age keep him away from the stadium.

He has been a reserved-seat holder for at least 15 years.

"My kids weren't athletes, but I had some nephews who played and that got me interested," Nischwitz said. "I got a great-nephew in it now, but I enjoy the games even if I don't have a relative playing. I enjoy the atmosphere and the excitement of it."

On the other end of the age spectrum, senior quarterback Tyler Profilet came to his first game as a fourth-grader.

"I wasn't a big football fan back then," Profilet said. "But I couldn't believe how loud it was and how intense it was."

As with any program, Jackson has its fair share of fickle fans, the ones who stop coming when the team stops winning.

But there is a large core group of fans who attend games like deacons attend church.

Dan Stover is one of those guys. Stover, the public address announcer for the varsity, junior varsity and junior high teams, is the extreme fan. Also a sixth-grade teacher, he has not missed a football game since 1973.

One time, about 15 years ago, he probably should have missed a game.

"I was sick and my wife drove me to Dexter and I sat in the bleachers with a blanket wrapped around me," Stover said. "I thought if I was sick, I ought to be sick doing something I like to do."

In the stadium

Stover's announcing is one of the many elements that add to the atmosphere under the Friday night lights.

Stover's "How 'bout them Indians!" is a staple at the stadium.

Another ingredient of the atmosphere is the stadium itself. Unlike many newer stadiums, the Jackson stadium does not have a track surrounding the football field. The fans are on top of the action, so close they can sometimes hear heated conversations on the bench.

Then there's the marching band, which can be every bit as intimidating as the large crowd and close quarters.

The band plays fight songs and gets the crowd doing the tomahawk chop. An Indian dance ritual is performed before every game.

"I liked their band," said Baer, the sports writer. "The music was college-like with pizzazz to it. And I'm not really a band guy, either."

Chase Walker, a senior safety on the team, said he used to dream about running onto the field when he was a child.

"Growing up in a football town like this, you see what it's like to be in the spotlight," said Walker. "It's very inspiring to know that win or lose, they'll be here. The first time I ran out on the field, it was everything I thought it would be. It was worth the wait."

The football team represents the community and the community supports the team.

The booster club, called the Tribal Council, is very active and supports all the athletic programs at the school.

There is a football parents club that sponsors meals for the players and families after every game. Before every game, tailgaters throw some hot dogs and burgers on the grill.

Two radio stations cover the team.

Often, Jackson will have more fans at its away games than the home team does. Before a playoff road trip in the mid-1990s, someone placed a sign near Interstate 55 at the Fruitland exit.

"The last one to leave," the sign read, "turn out the lights."

Jackson will play host to Cape Girardeau, Perryville and Wentzville Holt in the jamboree tonight. A jamboree is basically a glorified practice where teams square off against each other.

Jackson's real season begins next Friday night at Sikeston. The Indians' first home game will be Sept. 12 against Rockwood Summit.

After a disappointing 2-8 season last year, many fans don't expect the Indians to win many games this year.

But there is always the hope that the underdogs will rise up and pull off some upsets on their way to a miracle season.

Some fans get goose bumps just thinking about that.

bmiller@semissourian.com

243-6635

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