A month or two ago a friend (or nemesis, depending upon the day) gifted me with a photo that once appeared in the Journal, (probably on the sports' pages although it could have been printed for comic relief) in the early 1980s. The picture is in black and white, though color prints were available back then. I've decided to share it in this column, partially because it brought back a flood of good memories and partially because my beard had not yet turned grey.
That's a basketball team of sorts. We were the Teachers and Creatures, and in the three years of our existence, we won only our last three games. Earl Huston, not pictured, organized the league, and for those who played, it was a good thing. Games were played on Sunday afternoons, and the team pictured practiced Wednesday evenings after the high school teams were through with the gym.
All of the other teams took it more seriously than we did–we were past our primes if we ever had them. They were reliving their past; with the exception of a couple of our players, we had no past to relive. Our two big men, Steve Poznic and Greg Moore (his wife taught math while he worked at the Kincaid Power Plant) had never played anything but p.e. basketball, so they were rather hazardous to be next to on the floor. One couldn't tell what they might do next.
The other teams in the league were much more experienced (and talented) than we. Most were less than ten years out of high school, and many had had glory days. Nokomis had an Alexander, a Kimbro (the same one who's still racking up wins as the Redskins' coach), Marquess, Archibald, Clavin, Umberger, and Brett Tuetken, HHS' current girls coach. I hated to play them because they used the 1-2-2 press. I knew better than to dribble into a trap, but as in real life, knowing not to do something doesn't necessarily mean I won't do it.
Hustons (he organized the league, so he had the right to name the team for which he and his brother Gary played after himself) featured Tim Reynolds, one of the better players to ever don a Litchfield uniform, an Odle, a Jacobs, and Dave Hobson, our tall soil conservationist who made a name playing high school basketball in Carrollton. Because Jean taught in the district, he could have played for us, but he thought better of it.
The Farmers had a roster of ex-HHS standouts: Dave Schluckebier; Mike Homa; Roger, Larry, and Jim Reincke; and the Eickhoffs, Jim and Dan.
Fillmore Grain? They would have been the all-star team if we had one. The only one who played in all ten games for them in the first season was Mike Sommer, HHS assistant coach who could shoot well. Six-foot-eight HHS hall of famer Randy McCoy was in nine games; the one game he missed was not against us. I remember because I tried to guard him along the baseline; with both arms fully extended, I could reach his Adam's apple. That didn't bother him much. Dany Baker bounced a pass between my legs, and laughed–rather scornfully, as I remember. Mike McCoy, Tom Huber, and Duane "Mountain" Weller provided bulk if it were needed. In that first season Dyke Buerkett played in two games for the Farmers, and scored 61 points. Glen Hobbie played in one game, and Rich Stewart averaged 22 points a game to finish second to R. McCoy for total points scored. I suspect he led the league in shots taken. Sommer, citing a need for equality, played the last two seasons for us Creatures.
Woody's East had Greg, Tim and Glen Lipe, Big Marty Savage, Mike Rappe, Greg DeRight, Mark Leible, and the Schwartzkopf boys, Jim and Dave. Though I'd coached both at Coffeen Junior High, they were too competitive to have mercy in their vocabulary if someone were to be hip checked under the basket.
The Number Ones (long on talent, short on humility) coaxed Dale Wills to play one game with them; he too is a recent HHS Hall of Fame inductee who scored 18 points in that appearance.
Otherwise, Gary Zerrusen led them in scoring. Mike Long, Bob Mazzier, Mike Whalen, Jim Russell (yes, Todd's dad and the Schmidt twins grandfather–you'll hear of them on the court in the future), Brad Huber, and his brother Mark appeared most often for them.
Last but not least were the Orangemen. I have no idea why they chose that name, but they were professionals around town: Kent Lovelace, Dr. Bob Hamm (he worked well underneath the bucket), Mike Whitworth, Mike Whitten, Joe Boas, Dr. Kirk Hess, Bill Jones (who had a good career for Virden), Dr. Doug Johnson, and I believe Dr. Brian Cady suited up for them. Keith Broucht and a Mizera from Raymond also made some baskets.
The second season the prisoners at Graham had a team; they always had home court advantage. (Although that team didn't travel, I remember one time when they played someone in the Toppers' big gym; it was a fund-raising exhibition.) As the coach of the T&C, I was able to limit my exposure (Larry Hindle asked why I didn't play more minutes; it was because I was nearing 40 and didn't want my last hurrah to become my last gasp). Playing time was plentiful in several games however; usually only six or seven of us would show up at the gates of Graham. Numbers seemed scarce when we played one of the other good teams too.
Once at Graham–never were there any major incidents–they seemed appreciative of anyone who would interact with them, and it was before Graham became maximum security–their point guard walked up to me before the game to tell me how badly they planned to defeat us. He was taken aback when I said, "I reckon you're right; we haven't beaten anyone yet."
For us it wasn't about wins and losses. We hoped not to embarrass ourselves, but we wanted exercise, and we appreciated camaraderie. We learned much, about each other and about ourselves. For the most part, we relieved tensions the work week built. It was something we could do that our wives would support. Once Larry Ackerman, known on the floor as "The Hacker," pointed up in the stands where my wife was sitting with other wives. He said, "Hey, D, how many fans did you bring?'
There, peeking out from a blanket next to Judy, was her dog of the moment, a silly little ankle-biter that she was really attached to. I thought I'd receive one of his infamous "See me" notes, but he was laughing.
Causal chains are hard to follow and often inconsequential when jobs are assigned, but in retrospect I believe I was given the chance to coach the Topper freshman basketball team when Sommer became head coach because of the T&C team. Greg Matthews moved up to the junior varsity level. I didn't apply for the job, but Mike asked if I'd be interested.
For the first three years I taught I also coached junior high at Coffeen. Then I was Bill Dagon's assistant baseball coach at the high school for a year and became head coach of that sport when he gave it up the next season. Coaching against Don Dobrino at Gillespie, Don Stout at Greenville, and Roger Kratochvil at Mt. Olive, I was in a bit over my head, but we had fun and some success.
However, in the meantime Judy and I bought a small farm north of the 'Burg (my dream, not hers) and started a family (a dream we shared). Though I wouldn't have listened, someone should have told me that planting in the spring while teaching a full load while coaching a 20-game baseball season was too much. I began to realize the mistake when Judy and Lureta Satterlee met me as I was leaving the team bus after an away game at Taylorville (we won); shortly (30 minutes) after we arrived at the hospital, daughter Jenni was born.
Judy's message was clear; we had kids of our own and I needed to be with them. I continued to coach in the summer, but I had no more school coaching jobs until Mike approached me.
That started a long, enjoyable string; the farm had been sold (I wasn't a good farmer anyway, though I enjoyed the physical work), and we lived in town. Dawn was a sophomore, Jenni in junior high, so dear old dad was more appreciated in his absence than in his wants-to-be-controlling presence by that time.
When Judy was diagnosed with terminal cancer three years later, I offered to resign coaching duties again, but in her wisdom she laughed at me. She knew me better than I knew myself (I'd long suspected that). She was probably the most faithful non-parent attendee at Hillsboro freshman basketball games until her health failed completely.
When she passed, I might have lost all touch with reality had I not had a team to worry about. The girls were gone, the grandkids not yet born; I needed something besides myself to steer me away from self-pity. I hope the kids didn't know how stressed I felt, and by the time the freshmen tournaments were over, I was in recovery mode.
That part of the casual chain I'm sure of, and I'll be eternally grateful.