Archive for Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Week with Chieftains opens writer’s eyes to more than game days

November 19, 2003

Nick Stein rarely washed his football garb.

Tim Hopkins always watched Denver's Super Bowl games on Thursdays.

Billy Baska never went through pre-game without honey-roasted peanuts and Gatorade.

Justin Walker absolutely had to wear special boxer briefs for every game.

These obscure tidbits never will assist a contestant on "Jeopardy!" but they did give me a more in-depth look at the Tonganoxie High football team. After attending practices for a week with the Chieftains in early October, I learned plenty of intriguing nuggets. Unfortunately, a game-story radar screen never could detect those sidebars.

The game story, although important, is simple. Team A played Team B. Team A did this, this and this, while Team B did this and this, but should have done this. So, Team A improves to X and X, while Team B falls to Y and Y.

Certainly games and events can provide so much more spice and color than that, but by spending a week with the THS team, I discovered another world of stories.

For instance, Nick Stein and Shane Howard were the odd couple of the THS football team. Stein was the messy Walter Matthau; Howard was the tidy Jack Lemmon. Stein had his superstitions about not washing his clothes frequently, while Howard's locker required organization every day.

I realized that Zach Ditty clearly has the biggest gift of gab on the team. The junior could carry on a plethora of conversations -- with or without others being involved.

I also discovered Tim Hopkins spent some of his life in Germany because his father is in the military. When he came to Tonganoxie, he started playing football.

Dustan Sprowls spoke candidly about praying each night to his deceased mother to guide and protect him and his teammates.

Other players just discussed what aspect of the game they enjoyed most. Matt Weyer and Stein, meanwhile, talked about those challenging drills in practice they could have done without.

Then came game night on Friday. Pre-game warm-ups were finished and the team headed back into the locker room.

THS coach Mark Elston said some words to the team, then instructed the seniors to go around the room and shake everyone's hand.

"He said shake everybody's hand," Matt Weyer told me as he extended his palm for a shake.

Other seniors then followed suit.

Sports writers can form good relationships with their players and coaches, but they also must keep the pompoms at home. But after spending a week with the team, I was ready to grab a megaphone.

And then, after the game, seeing a dejected and silent locker room and eyes soaked with tears, the view from the outside became a glance into the past. Many have played high school sports. For most, that's where it ended, but even though that time drifts further into the past, we catch ourselves remembering both the fond times and the less-than-fond times.

The week I spent with the Chieftains concluded with a 17-14 overtime thriller, with Piper pulling out the district win. As the Chiefs fell to Cincinnati on Sunday after being on the Sports Illustrated cover, I worried whether the Chieftains endured a similar "Mirror Jinx" after I covered their every move for a week. Nah, SI surely has cornered the market on that phenomenon.

I hope this isn't the only team profile I report on at Tonganoxie. If other coaches are willing to invite me in for a week, I will be glad to tag along again and again if schedules can be arranged.

Football lends itself best to the story -- detailed day-by-day preparation each week leading up to one game every Friday.

But as it is unique, so are other sports. Volleyball teams must prepare for triangulars and quadrangulars during the week before heading to all-day tournaments on many Saturdays.

And don't forget soccer, which usually has one or two games a week. Some seasons, that schedule becomes more hectic. This fall, rain postponed a handful of games, which forced the Chieftains to play three games some weeks.

As for cross country, I'll most definitely need a golf cart to keep up with the runners if I observe them.

Through covering area sports, I've become quite familiar with some athletes. The week with the football team allowed me to know a few more a little better, although with around 50 team members, that can be a chore.

A week with the Chieftains was a change of pace that showed a more intimate side of high school athletes.

It also told me that some players should invest in laundry detergent before they head off to college.

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