We landed at the small airport, rented a car, and drove through the darkness. It was late and it was cold. There was a McDonald’s and a Burger King and then there was nothing.
“We take this road 30 miles to the traffic light,” I said to Mary Schroeder, the photographer, who was driving.
“Which light is that?” she asked.
I looked at my notes.
“They only have one light,” I said. To tell you the truth, when you called to say you were coming out to do a story on us, I thought someone was playing a practical joke.” -Tim Klein, football coach, Frankfort High
Surely this was the end of the earth. Frankfort, Mich.? Population, what– 1,600? A car ferry used to run here across Lake Michigan, but it doesn’t anymore, and the railroad is gone now too. There’s the Pet Frozen Foods plant and a Five-and-Ten, owned by the mayor, and a few small motels.
And the high school.
We had come for the high school. This was the opening weekend of the high school football playoffs, and the idea was to see what a small town was like the day of the big game. Frankfort seemed perfect. It was obviously small, it had won its conference title six years in a row, and was playing Lake City Friday night in the first round of the Class D playoffs.
“Coffee?” asked the waitress.
“Eggs and bacon?”
“These people are up here from Detroit.”
“Gonna do a story about our team.”
“Who’s gonna win the game tonight?”
“Oh, the Panthers, of course.”
We were sitting in a booth inside Fav’s Grill, a formica joint where the football talk begins each morning before work. “Fav” — a grizzled fellow name Don Favreau — has a son who was once the school’s star quarterback. Around us were several of the current players’ fathers. Like most men in this town, they played for Frankfort at one time.
“How’d your kid sleep?” someone asked Jim Martin, whose son, Todd, is the Panthers’ quarterback now.
“Better than me,” the father said.
“Anybody hear the weather?” someone asked.
“Thirty percent chance of rain.”
“Lake City doesn’t throw much, do they?”
“Well, that’s not good.”
“Better than snow.”
“Remember last year?”
Everyone nodded. Last year, it snowed the night before the playoff game. Six inches. The people of Frankfort got up early, brought shovels and snow blowers to the field, and went to work.
“That field was green by noon,” someone said.
“We won too,” said someone else.
“I had a son who played here, and a nephew, and now I have friends whose grandchildren are playing. My dear, I’ve been watching these games for 40 years.” –Elsie Gilbert, the town librarian
The kids at Frankfort High School look, well, like high school kids — jeans, Reebok sneakers, combs in their pockets. On Friday the players all wear their football jerseys and if they have girlfriends, the girlfriends get to wear a jersey too. Half the males in the high school are on the team. That is a lot of jerseys.
The hallways are a gallery of pep art: posters on the walls, little purple footballs taped to the lockers, purple and gold streamers hanging from the ceiling in neat lines.
During a study hall, a handful of players filled Tim Klein’s classroom, and immediately set up a TV set and a VCR. Study hall on Friday means game films. The quarterback, Todd Martin, the starting center, Mike Nigh, a starting guard, Elwin Farnsworth, watched the Lake City highlights silently.
“What are you guys thinking about right now?” I asked them when the tape was over.
“My blocking assignments,” said Elwin, the guard.
“Number 99 on Lake City,” said Mike, the center.
“Winning,” said Todd, the quarterback.
The last answer intrigued me. I asked Todd — a tall kid with a pageboy haircut and a shadow of a mustache — if being the quarterback of the only team in town gave him any special privileges.
“I have a pretty big scrapbook,” he said, shrugging.
“Do people treat you differently?” I asked.
“Not really,” he said. “Sometimes when I go to get groceries, it takes an hour. Everybody wants to talk about the game.”
“If the Detroit Lions were playing down the street, I’d still be watching Frankfort.” –Sonny Nye, 46, sheet metal worker
We were sitting in Mike’s Pastry Shop on Main Street just before lunch. Mike has a son on the team. His place, therefore, is a good spot to get a scouting report, or listen to the story about the playoff game a few years ago where the score changed four times in the last minute.
It is also — because it looks out onto the street — “a good place to watch for new cars in town,” according to an old man in a cap and red plaid jacket, who did just that.
And in walked Sonny Nye.
Sonny Nye once played for Frankfort. He also coached the junior varsity in the days when they had to go door to door to recruit players. He is a name in this town, a big man, with a bulging belly and a few teeth missing. He gets sheet metal work from the union halls, and has to go where they send him.
“What time you get in?” someone asked him.
“About 4:30 this morning,” he said.
“Where were you coming from?” I asked.
“Flat Rock,” he said. “Been doing work down there lately.”
“You don’t have to work today?”
“I took the day off,” he said grinning.
“To see the game?” I asked.
“Yeah,’ he said. “I wouldn’t miss this.”
Frankfort is in Benzie County, one of the poorest counties in the state. Unemployment can run as high as 30 percent up here. Most of Frankfort’s economy is based on tourism, and most of that is in the summer. I knew that. Sonny Nye knew it better. He took the day off.
“Why is football so important?” I asked.
“That’s the way it is here,” he said. “It’s a community thing. Everybody knows the kids. It’s either your kid, or your brother’s kid or your neighbor’s kid.
“We all went through it. When you’re growing up in this town, you can’t wait to be a seventh grader so you can get on the junior varsity. When you’re a seventh grader you can’t wait to be a 10th grader. When you’re a 10th grader you can’t wait to be a senior. That’s the way it works.”
We took sips of our coffee and looked out the window.
“What if they told you no?” I asked. “What if they told you, ‘Sorry, but if you take off today, you lose your job?’ ”
“I’d have to lose the job then,” he said.
“I ‘m sorry, I won’t be at the pep rally. I have a funeral.” – Elsie Gilbert
This is what playoff Friday means in Frankfort. It means the art classes go outside in the morning and decorate the stands with purple and gold construction paper chains. It means the giant banner — “BEWARE! YOU ARE ENTERING PANTHER COUNTRY” — is hung on the side of the Pet Frozen Foods building in front of a spotlight.
It means the pep rally.
It began at 3 and it was packed — and not just with kids. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, charter boat captains, painters, electricians, the guy who owns the Amoco station, the school superintendent. The local radio station, WBNZ, was there and their sportscaster put on a Frankfort jersey and raised his hands and the place went wild. The cheerleaders wore yellow outfits and had purple paw prints painted on their faces.
HEY YOU PANTHERS IN THE STANDS,
STAND UP AND CLAP YOUR HANDS! . . .
The cheers rang loud for a solid 20 minutes. No let-up. No end to the drumming. The band blasted along and the freshmen and sophomores and juniors and seniors all got a chance to bust a gut screaming. That wasn’t surprising. What was surprising was that everyone took part. Usually in high school there are pockets of kids who just will not participate, who find school spirit boring, who simply don’t care.
I looked around. I didn’t see a single one.
“WE SAY PURPLE! YOU SAY GOLD!
PURPLE! GOLD! PURPLE! GOLD!” . . .
“Nobody thought they’d miss the ferry boats. But they do.” –Jim Ricco
After the pep rally the kids went home and the whole town seemed to close for an early dinner. With an hour to kill, Mary and I drove to the bay where the car ferry used to board. More than 100 jobs were lost when that closed down, a considerable amount in a town this small. Someone said that once, as many as seven ferries ran in these waters. But that was a long time ago.
The terminal building was boarded up, its white paint peeling. There was a string of railroad cars, now darkened with rust. One large ferry, called The City Of Milwaukee, still sat in the water. It was to be turned into a museum, but a legal battle fouled that up, and now it just sits there, a hulking reminder of better days.
We saw a small office open, something called Koch Asphalt, and we walked inside. There was a young man and an older woman behind two desks.
“Excuse me,” I said to the man, introducing myself. “Was that one of the ferries they used to use?”
“Yeah,” he said, “for a little while.”
“When did it stop running?”
“Four or five years ago,” he said.
We talked a little bit about the town. His name was Jim Ricco and, like most people there, he was surprised we came all the way from Detroit. He said he’d be at the game and I said maybe we’d see him there.
“Did you play football for Frankfort too?” I asked.
“Sure did,” he said. “Early ’70s.”
We drove away, past the rusting boxcars and the ferry. It was cold and quiet. I thought about something Sonny Nye had said about the young people needing to look elsewhere for work, and why the adults clung so to football.
How sad, I thought. The town was dying.
“We were one win away from the Silverdome last year. I tell the kids I want this season to last two hours longer than the last one.”–Tim Klein
By 5:30, Tim Klein was already in the locker room dressed in his coaching outfit; gray pants, purple shirt and white shoes. He is a trim man in his mid-30s who came here eight years ago planning to stay just a few seasons.
His current team is undefeated. Their goal is to make it to the Class D finals, which are played Nov. 29 at the Silverdome in Pontiac. Friday night was Step 1.
“Are you nervous?” I asked him.
“Hell, yes,” he said.
Only 195 students attend Frankfort High School. None of Klein’s players are particularly big, or outlandishly gifted. But they have something, they take it seriously, and as 6 o’clock came around, they wandered in and they were dead silent.
They stripped out of their jeans and T-shirts and Reeboks and sat on the trainer’s table, one at a time, as Klein taped their ankles. They placed Styrofoam pads over their thighs and plastic pads above their shoulders. They grew bigger. Thicker. Moment by moment. Little men turning to bigger men. One by one.
They walked out to the gymnasium and waited. Some lay on the stage. Others just sat on the bleachers. A couple tossed a football back and forth. They didn’t peek outside to see the people coming. They didn’t go looking for their parents.
Suddenly the corner door opened and there stood a player from Lake City, in full uniform. The whole Frankfort team turned to look. The player — who clearly had been directed to the wrong door — let it close very softly. A few Frankfort players glanced back and forth at one another, and then it was quiet again.
Nothing left to do but do it, so let’s . . . — Final words between Klein and his players before the game
By 7:15, the field was mobbed. Cars and vans enveloped the area. If there was a store or gas station left open in town, it was by accident. Everyone, it seemed, was there. Grandmothers wrapped in blankets and construction workers still in their boots and children in pink and blue winter jackets hanging from the railing. There was room for about 200 people to sit in the wooden bleachers and the rest stood along the field. The “rest” numbered at least 2,000, all the way around, sidelines and end zones, four and five deep. A couple of bikers hoisted each other up on their shoulders for a better view. Several students climbed the side of the bleachers.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” was played and then, instead of sitting down, the fans ran on the field and formed a human tunnel nearly 50 yards long. This is how they welcome their team. One by one the Frankfort starters were introduced and ran through this tunnel, a tunnel of their families, friends, their town. How could you not give a kidney to win with so many eyes on you? One boy, a 260-pound sophomore named Bubba Banktson, ran through the tunnel with his eyes squinted closed and his mouth clenched in a roar and he looked frightening.
“F! . . . H! . . . S!” hollered the cheerleaders.
The band sounded a drum roll. The few people left sitting rose to their feet. So here was the moment, the kickoff, the culmination — and if there was ever a mystery to the frenzy of Friday night it was gone when the foot hit the ball. Football here is less a game than a birthright. These sons of Frankfort fathers do not play just because they are athletes.
They play because it is their turn. Two hours later, Frankfort had won the game. It was a good win, 28-7. It had been close at halftime after a long pass by Lake City with less than two minutes left had let them close the gap to 13-7.
“Damn, we don’t need that!” Sonny had screamed.
“COME ON FRANKFORT! GET TOUGH!” cried the fans.
No worries. Frankfort took control in the second half. By the end, a fullback named Scott Parsons would have 238 yards rushing, including a 64-yard touchdown. Todd Martin, the quarterback, would throw for a touchdown. The cheerleaders would be hugging one another. The fathers would be waving their purple hats.
When the final gun sounded, the fans ran on the field and made another tunnel, and the team charged through again. In the locker room the players celebrated by spilling cola on one another, until Klein told them to cut it out, and to remember they had more games yet to play.
After the game the kids and their families gathered at a designated house, the adults upstairs, the kids in the basement. There were ham sandwiches and potato chips and coffee and pop and everyone crammed around the TV set to watch the highlights on the local news. When the screen replayed Parsons’ touchdown the living room crowd let out a whoop and Dell Parsons, the proud father, sat in the middle of it, his mouth half-opened in a smile.
“Way to go,” someone said to him, raising a can of beer. It was getting late. Mary and I said goodbye. We drove the 30 miles to the airport, slept a few hours in a hotel, and by 9 o’clock Saturday morning we were landing back in Detroit.
And now, hundreds of miles away, I am still thinking about that Friday night. It was crazy and strange and maybe way out of proportion — I mean the whole town was into that football game — but there was something quietly right about it, too.
At one point during the game, Sonny Nye, the big man who was sacrificing his day’s wages, found me on the sideline.
“You know,” he said, yelling to be heard over the crowd, “a few years ago, I went to Tim and said, ‘So, when are you going to leave us?’ And he got all upset. He said, ‘Why do you say that?’ I said, ‘Well, you’re a young man, a good coach. You won’t want to stay in a small town like this for very long.
. . . ”
He tucked his hands deep in his pockets, and laughed.
“But now,” he continued, “well, now I know he’ll stay at least five or six more years. I’m sure of that.”
And then he stopped. He didn’t explain.
So I asked.
“How do you know that?” I said.
He pointed across the field to a skinny 12-year-old boy who was watching the game with wide eyes and a frozen smile.
“His son,” Sonny said. “He wants to be quarterback.”