August is the beginning of the end of summer but the start of one of the great seasons of the year. While weather is certainly involved, it is not any of those 4 seasons that I am writing about. The one season that involves all the temperature extremes of the traditional 4 is the high school football season. Players, coaches, parents and whole communities will be gathering, cheering, debating and counting off each week one opponent at a time. For me, it is also a time to once again dust off the memories of the past. Those memories of Timber Lake Panther football in the 1970s always begin and end with one person, Mr. Ehly.
I don’t remember him as “coach” or “Ben”. It was and still is MISTER Ehly. Some 25 plus years later, I think if I had to say “Ben” it would come out as B..B..Be..Ben! While I may not call him coach when I hear the word I immediately picture him. There he stands in a maroon and white hat with a simple “TL” on the front, 70s vintage glasses, maroon windbreaker, a TL tee shirt, grey sweat pants, cleats, an ever present clip board and a voice that never ceased to make you understand EXACTLY what he wanted from you at any given moment. His wife, Bonita, once commented at a pep rally that he had gold underwear but I have to take her word on that one! I get the urge to drop and do pushups just thinking about him striding around the practice field.
I didn’t watch the first high school game I can remember going to in Timber Lake. It was early in the early 1970s (’74??) and Richard Kraft and the Reinbold boys were annihilating Faith by a score of 72-0 if I recall correctly. I heard about it after the fact because I was in the shadows of the lights that night beyond the cars encircling the field directly involved in a grade school pickup football game of much more importance. We only listened to the announcer long enough to discern whether or not it was half time or the end of the game. That team went on to a 9-0 undefeated season and the glory of TL Panther football crept into my young world of playgrounds and backyards.
Those early years of football were semi-organized, hotly argued contests at recess and after school. The after school games are what I remember the most. George Stavnes, Kelvin Lawrence, Scott Cudmore and I had many two-on-two games. My front teeth on the bottom are crooked to this day because of a missed tackle introducing them to Scott’s foot. Then there would be bigger games involving wider age ranges with boys from all around town. Anyone was allowed to play as I don’t remember any boy being turned away. I do remember nobody really being excited when Jan Linderman would show up because we all feared that he would not get picked for our team. Jan was too fast, too strong and too hard to bring down. We never imagined playing flag football but I have to believe the sport was later invented by a runt like me who was run over by his neighborhood’s version of Jan. The best two fields in town for these pickup games were the lots behind the Stavnes and Cudmore homes. Shirts were torn, pants were dirtied and feelings sometimes hurt but all recovered. We had to quit at dark because the high school field was the only one with lights. While we didn’t talk about it, I believe we where all thinking about those lights on Friday night.
Mr. Ehly did something wonderful my eighth grade year. He started the first ever eighth grade team. We finally had pads of our own! We went through practices and drills under the direction of Steve Reed and Mr. Ehly’s watchful eye. We played a scrimmage at half time of a varsity game finally getting under the lights. We even got to suit up and stand on the sidelines for a high school game at Isabel. We had visions of getting “some action” but we were there just for the sideline “experience”. It was the end of the backyard pickup games and the beginning of real Panther football.
The fall of 1976 was the start of my freshman year and an introduction to high school football practice “Ehly” style. You must remember that in those days we didn’t workout in the off season, the school had no weight lifting equipment of any kind and salt tablets with water were the only sport drink available. So, to say Mr. Ehly started from scratch each year would be just a bit of an understatement. We ran from the locker room to the practice field just west of the cemetery every day regardless of the weather. The later you got dressed the faster you had to run in order not to be late and dear lord, don’t let him catch you walking to practice. At the time the run seemed like 3 miles but in reality it was probably just over a mile.
When all had gathered, lines were formed and the “warmup” for practice began. Pushups, situps, jumping jacks were the tried and true traditional exercises. There were a few “extras” that I have tried to block from memory but which reappear in the occasional nightmare. Squatting on our haunches, butts just above the ground, the 50 yard duck walk made the thighs scream. Gut busters involved lying on your back and raising your feet six inches off the ground and holding it until he blew the whistle. As this went on for what seemed like an eternity, your knees would bend and slowly the fetal position would evolve easing the pain in your abdominals but not in your ears as bended knees were good for a tongue lashing, a restart of the process and eye daggers from the rest of the group. Finally, there was the running exercise referred to as the railroad drill. In single file one boy would lie down and the next would run over him immediately dropping with just a stepping space in between so the line could continue. Those on the ground resembled railroad ties and those running would be high stepping it to the end of the row. When the last boy passed over top of your position, you had to jump up and chase him down to the end. You also had to watch for the occasional butt that would rise with the clear intent of tripping you up and sending you flying before the end of the line. If you got caught from behind, you were at the mercy of the individual and depending on the day, mercy was often in short supply. In the end, we learned to push ourselves farther than we thought we could go and I never saw an Ehly team that was out of shape.
Actually running the plays in practice seemed to be an afterthought because that was the “easy” part of this after school “bonding” experience. In my case it was only easy every other year. Being a player of marginal talent, I was a practice dummy for the sophomores my freshman year and the seniors my junior year. Somebody had to step in against the starting group to help them get ready for the next game and those people were the non-starters. It was actually an interesting time because nobody wanted to get yelled at and we all craved the occasional “atta boy” he would hand out. So, if you successfully stopped the starting group, you only felt good until the very next play when they put out the extra effort demanded and really kicked your butt. I still hated it when Jan was on the other side of the line and when he wasn’t there my junior year Dale Crance hurt just as bad. But they only hurt if I could get around Keith (forever named “Speed” in my book) Scott, Pat Quinn or Lori Rice which was a somewhat discouraging effort. I either got run over by the big and slow or the big and fast. I saw a commercial recently with a pro ball player talking about getting up one more time than you get knocked down. Hell, I think that’s all I did in ’76 and ’78.
The games my first three years of high school are somewhat of a blur to me now. I guess I should have paid more attention as I stood on the sidelines. I did start a few JV games in that time but our success was marginal and may have a bit to do with the memory loss. What I take from those years is the discipline learned at practice, never entertaining the thought of quitting, and realizing what a team was really about at practice, on the field and from the sidelines. I was a “Panther” on Mr. Ehly’s team and damn proud to be there in whatever capacity.
I do have a few memories of some individuals that I carry with me still today. I was a scared freshman at my first practice when Doug Maher, a senior, walked up to me and simply welcomed me to practice. I had never talked to him before that and still don’t know why he did it. It sure took the edge off the start of my high school years as I realized there was class in the upper classes. It is a simple lesson in leadership and common courtesy that I have looked for ever since in other high school seniors.
Roger Aberle put a hit on an opponent in a JV contest in either our freshman or sophomore year that today would be of the Ronnie Lott variety. I only forget the year because the look on the two referees that day has remained priceless. Those referees were Mr. Ehly and Lloyd Kjellson. I was on the field as well contemplating what in the heck I was going to do if the ball carrier got close to me as was often the case in the early years and possibly why I never played defense my last year. Regardless, they looked at each other with smiles only football coaches who found a new gem could have. We never saw Roger on the JV team ever again.
With no disrespect to anyone in my class, Speed Scott, playing center in his senior season in the fall of ’78, was the best leader I saw in my four years of Panther football. He had an intensity and desire to win in the locker room, on the practice field and under the lights that I have measured many high school players against since. He wasn’t afraid to verbalize it either unlike so many teenagers. He also wasn’t the most athletic, strongest or fastest but he had so much heart it didn’t matter.
In a game against Faith, Jan Linderman broke his wrist and our quarterback, Steve Jewett, was knocked out of the game with a concussion. We were so desperate for warm bodies I even got some playing time (whiffed a tackle on a punt return!). For more than half the game, the only play on offense was Speed hiking to Dale Crance in shotgun formation. I will never forget how bad Speed wanted to win and how hard he fought that day. Dale Crance endured repeated punishment that game and others such as Greg Mowrer on defense certainly made large contributions. For me, the 24-22 road victory Mr. Ehly and the Panthers achieved was because Speed had a heart big enough to carry us all.
On the lighter side, I also remember a wet and sloppy practice on a day in the fall of ’77. Mr. Ehly’s practices were tough but there were some days more relaxed than others where kids got to be kids as long as work was getting done. On this day, Jim Maher and Scott Enright began to enjoy the sloppy practice field by slipping, sliding and rolling in the mud between plays. Laughing and muddy, they did bring a smile to Mr. Ehly’s face. Two friends and teammates being small kids one more time, it was fun to see.
Eventually, the fall of 1979, my senior year arrived. Back then it seemed to take forever but now it seems like just an instant in my life. I would be the starting varsity center as long as I performed on the field. We had only three guys with a significant amount of varsity experience, Roger Aberle, Jan Linderman and Tim Quinn but we had a large group of seniors whose time had come. Those seniors were Kelvin Lawrence, Benton Salzer, Wayne Aberle, Kip Marshall, John Winterberg, Faron Schweitzer and Pat Schweitzer. Juniors I recall making a contribution in some games and certainly the practice field were Chip Long, David Lawrence, Mark Schweitzer, Carl Salzer, Marty Quinn and Richard Rice.
Sometime that first week of school in ’79, Mr. Ehly gave me a gift I still have to this day. I had been bashful and shy my whole life, walking around with my head down unconsciously avoiding eye contact with others. Mr. Ehly with Bonita asked me to meet with them in his American Government classroom. In that meeting, he told me that he expected big things from me on the field that year and more importantly he wanted to see me walk with my head up. He said I had nothing to be afraid or ashamed of and should not act like I did. Then, when I picked my head up, he said it was important to look people in the eye to show that I believed in myself. They believed in me and wanted good things to happen. Hands down the best conversation I had had with any adult at that point in my life.
I struggle to find the words to explain what a huge thing that was to me at that time in my life. I was 17 years old and had never had a man, any man, tell me that he believed in me. Without talking, I knew my grandfather did but to that point I had been only clinging to that one feeling. Mothers and grandmothers are great but at some point in each boy’s life, they need to hear that a man believes in them. At Mr. Ehly’s retirement celebration a few years ago, I was lucky enough to be able to express my appreciation but ironically, I could not look him in the eye much of the time without getting choked up. That one conversation made me a better football player that season but was also the springboard to a better life that carries on today.
Now, let’s take a look at that football season of 1979. It was finally our turn to be announced on the loud speaker and battle under the lights on Friday night. Our parents were now the ones parked in their cars surrounding the field. I don’t think many people expected much from this group but we all knew that Mr. Ehly was expecting our best. It was our turn to get his full attention, good or bad. Practices went well and we all accepted our roles whether it was on offense, defense or both. I can’t recall any bickering or complaining the entire season.
We started on the road east of the river against Selby. I had sprained my ankle on the run in from practice the day before and limped around school that day. Mark Schweitzer teased me about not wanting to play that night but he could not have been more wrong. A little tape job by Mr. Ehly, a few encouraging words and a great pre-game speech had me ready to run on a bloody stump. We played a solid game and won 20-0. The first game jitters were now behind us.
Next up was another road game against Dupree who TL had not lost to in many years. Well, I don’t know if Mr. Ehly was over confident or didn’t know what he had in us but he decided to install a new offense to be used in that game. The ends were spaced far out from the guards and I guess we were supposed to pull, trap, whatever.
We arrived at Dupree and apparently nobody told those boys they were supposed to roll over because we ended up in a dog fight. The new offense didn’t work and the evening was an overall slap upside the head. Luckily for us, Jan was on our team. He broke off on a run that I still see vividly as I looked up from the pile at the line of scrimmage. He shook a tackler on his right, another on his left and found his way to the end zone virtually on his own. We won 6-0. I remember being chewed out at half time (mostly because we almost always were, an Ehly tradition), chewed out after the game and chewed out on Monday. We never ran that offense again.
Finally, we were at home against Bison another team TL had dominated for years. There was no dogfight this time. We scored early and often. My best memory of that game was the wide eyes of some really small kid I blocked (really just stood in front of!) while Jan returned a kickoff for a touchdown. We won 52-14. Monday practice was much better than the week before.
Next up was Faith, the team that had been such a struggle the year before. The offense matched the previous year’s point total and the defense, strong as always, held them to 7 points to secure the 24-7 win. More importantly, nobody got hurt! We were picking up momentum and beginning to realize we had a shot at the conference title.
McIntosh had handed the Panthers a stinging defeat the year before and would not be an easy task. The game went back and forth a bit. Mr. Ehly gave his usual dressing down at half time. You think we would have been used to it by now but as always we went out in the second half trying even harder than the first. We won 28-14 remaining undefeated.
Harding County had also beaten us the year before and was also currently undefeated. This was the last conference opponent on our schedule making it our shot at the conference championship. Harding County didn’t have lights on their field of sage brush and gumbo so we were up and on the bus early that Friday. It was a “high noon” showdown against our arch rival to the west. We had a sack lunch with an Ehly speech for desert in the shadow of the Slim Buttes as much in the middle of nowhere as you can get in western South Dakota. We had a good following of fans at the game and it was even on the radio. It had been several years since TL had won a conference title. We didn’t have the size, number of stars or expectations as that 9-0 team but here we were on the doorstep of putting a title next to theirs.
Both teams did nothing with their first possessions. Defenses held strong and offenses were not taking chances. Then we learned what “being in the zone” was all about. We ran off 30 unanswered points, clicking on all cylinders. At one point, we ran Kelvin Lawrence up the middle 4 or 5 times in a row for 10 plus yards at a crack. I can still see the sweat on Kelvin’s face in the huddle as he repeatedly asked Jan for the ball. Jan would smile and say, “Okay, let’s do it again”. Jan lead the state that season in rushing but that day Kelvin led the team with something like 160 yards and Jan willingly took a backseat.
Pine Gilbert was the Rancher’s middle linebacker that day, their leading tackler and Mr. Ehly’s biggest concern on defense. He had challenged us in practice that week to be ready for him in the middle. Between Tim Quinn on one side, John Winterberg on the other and me in the center, Mr. Gilbert didn’t get many tackles and we finally saw a smile on Mr. Ehly’s face at half time. Amazingly, we didn’t even get our regular half time butt chewing.
We went out and scored 12 more points in the second half, winning 42-0. On another day, they certainly had the talent to beat us as our scores against common opponents indicate. Unfortunately for them, it wasn’t another day. It was our day, one of those rare times in sports when you can do no wrong. To this day, that half of football still brings a chuckle to my belly, a smile to my face and a warm feeling to my heart. If I had one wish for all high school football players, I would ask that each boy to wear a uniform be given just one game “in the zone” like we experienced on the prairie in Buffalo.
Now, we had to come down from the Buffalo high and protect our title from a non-conference foe, McLaughlin. They wanted to beat us badly so they could claim our championship and rub it in our faces. It was a battle throughout but in the end we prevailed by the extra point kicks of Tim Quinn, 14-12.
Our last opponent of our season and for most of us, our lives, came on the road at Eagle Butte. They were a larger school that played 11 man football. This required us to add tackles and make some changes to the offense foreign to our 9 man roots. Well, Dupree had taught us a little about offensive formation changes and we weren’t looking forward to it. Eagle Butte also had guys that were well over 200 pounds (maybe even 300!; they were huge) while I was 150 with my pads on, Tim, our biggest lineman, maybe 190 and Kelvin probably the only one of us that broke the 200 pound mark.
We were optimistic at the start but it quickly faded as we couldn’t stop them. Mr. Ehly coached his heart out but he definitely had a “knife at a gun fight” as the old saying goes. What I remember most about that game is a timeout he called during which he walked out on the field into the huddle. He was spitting his usual words of encouragement, trying to call upon whatever sense of pride he thought we had left and suddenly just stopped, walking off. After the game, he told us that he walked away because as he looked at each of us in the huddle, we met his stare, looking him square in the eye. He said that’s when he knew we really were giving it our all. We lost that game 42-6 and felt darn lucky to get the 6.
Just like that it was over, I haven’t done the duck walk, gut busters or put on a football helmet since. I also haven’t forgotten the feeling of Friday night and the pride of being a Panther on Mr. Ehly’s team. It sounds fitting to talk about going to “battle” with classmates and more importantly friends that will never be forgotten. However, in today’s world, the word “battle” now takes on a more real meaning and those times become simply what they were, “games” played by boys. It was a great run that I hope everyone who was a part of it remembers and appreciates how special it was.
The Little Moreau All Conference honors came out a month or so after the season. It would be the only sporting honor of my high school career as I made the team with Jan, Kelvin, Pat, Roger and Wayne. I had less talent than most but Mr. Ehly helped me squeeze the most out of what I had. I am forever grateful for that. I never had a letterman’s jacket to put it on. Over the years, I have watched high school boys walk by with seemingly hundreds of medals clinking and clanking proudly on their shiny lettermen coats. I just smile quietly remembering that in a dusty corner of a box in basement storage is a medal with an inscription that reads “LMC 1979”. It is enough.
Today, Mr. Ehly’s greatest lesson lies in the fact that he taught me to believe in myself. This only happened because he took the time to believe in me. I haven’t faced a difficult time in my life without remembering that one talk containing a lifetime worth of advice. I don’t sit in the bleachers or watch a sports movie without thinking of that ’79 season. Attempting to coach my kids and their friends in little league baseball and pop warner football, I have tried to pass on his lessons to others. Good things will not happen until you believe. Be sure to “look’em in the eye”. Life really can be that simple.
I hope that when Ben Ehly looks back at his coaching years, he doesn’t look at the wins and losses. I want him to see all the boys he helped turn into men simply because he believed in them. I am sure mine is but one story of many in which he made a difference. With a smile on his face, pride in his heart and that coach’s fire in his eyes, he needs to know…..it was enough.