Tradition never graduates in Keystone State

Game time was 15 minutes away now, and the players from Manheim (Pa.) Central High School massed on a walkway outside their school and waited on this Friday night to make the 150-yard trek to their stadium.

Dressed all in maroon, they had emerged from their locker room and walked past a display detailing the program's many accomplishments. Fifteen championships in District Three, a 10-county chunk of Central Pennsylvania.

Eighteen titles in their division (called a section) within the Lancaster-Lebanon League. A 2003 state championship in Pennsylvania's second-largest enrollment class. And all this in just over a quarter-century beginning in 1980.

"Tradition Never Graduates," says one sign in the Barons' locker room.

"Play Like a Champion Tonight," says another, just over the exit -- an homage to a placard hanging in Notre Dame's locker room in South Bend, Ind.

A misty rain was falling as the players filed out of the building, the downpour from earlier in the day having slacked off (if only for a while).

Over in the stands all the fans were wearing foul-weather gear or brandishing umbrellas as they listened to Manheim's band complete its pregame show, a tribute to Arlington National Cemetery.

Leading the players out into the night was Central's head coach of 28 years, Mike Williams. He is 63, and like most of his staff is a graduate of the school (Class of 1963). The program has enjoyed its greatest success on his watch, bringing renown to a blue-collar town of about 5,000, halfway between Lancaster and Lebanon, in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch Country.

Williams likes to portray his players as gritty overachievers. There is a great deal of truth in that, but he has also had his share of blue-chippers. One of them is Dan Kreider, who is in his first year as the St. Louis Rams' fullback after eight years with the Steelers. Kreider, reached on the phone recently, said that while nothing compares to winning a Super Bowl, as he did with Pittsburgh three years ago, he has never had more fun playing football than he did in Manheim.

"It's a unique atmosphere," he said. "It was a special time."

Central's greatest star was Jeff Smoker, a quarterback of such skill that every big-time college wanted him. He ultimately went to Michigan State, a choice he announced at a Manheim-area restaurant that served bread filling, shoe-fly pie and the like. While he was sidetracked by substance abuse during his time in East Lansing, he went through rehab and ultimately enjoyed a productive collegiate career. And after a couple of NFL looks, he is trying to make a go of it in arena ball.

But Central's focal point remains Williams. He is a small man, a shade over 5-foot-6, but driven.

"I always wanted to do my best, for my town and my school," he said a few days before the game, over lunch, in a place at the southern end of town called the Barons Diner.

He demands the same of his team. There are stories that many Barons players hit the weight room the day after tough postseason losses.

"I have mellowed a little bit in that we give them a few days off," Williams said.

He was kidding. Probably.

There have been times when others have wondered if he might be better off giving an opponent a break, times he has caught flak when his team appeared to run the score up on a weaker foe. The most extreme example was a 96-0 victory nine years ago, a game that even left Central's principal at the time feeling uneasy.

Williams, who let his starters play a half that night (at which point it was 76-0), said then he was hurt by the criticism he received and was confused as to what the proper course of action might be.

"I don't think a half is an unreasonable amount," he told a reporter from a Lancaster paper. "I don't know if that's right or wrong. I'd do it again [play the kids a half]. I'm not happy with the score, [but] I'm not apologetic. I wish it would've been closer.

"Am I satisfied with what occurred? No. I know there's nothing I can do or say to avoid criticism in the game. As to what we did, I'd like to know what I should've done. Players have one game a week. If they don't play there, when do they play?"

So Fridays are a very serious matter in Manheim. And when it was suggested to Williams as he sat in the diner that he gets a rush from the games, he practically choked on his cheeseburger.

"I don't know if 'rush' is a good word," he said. "'Rush' means you're happy. It's stressful."

No surprise, then, that he said little as he stood there with his players, waiting to take the field. Or that they were similarly silent. But then came the click-clack of cleats. Their opponent on this night, Lancaster Catholic, had emerged from its locker room and was proceeding down a nearby sidewalk in the direction of the stadium.

Lancaster Catholic, while not enjoying the years-long success of Manheim Central, has fielded strong teams in recent seasons, and its players carried themselves confidently, whooping and hollering as they went. Then one of the Crusaders -- whap -- reached up and pounded on a street sign.

Another followed suit. And another.

"They hit our sign in our town," one of the Barons muttered. "Who do they think they are?"

Dynasties die with similar subtlety. The Crusaders dominated on this night, building a 21-0 lead before allowing the Barons a touchdown and two-point conversion with a little under a minute left, resulting in a 21-8 final score. It was the second straight loss for Central after a season-opening victory, coming on the heels of a 6-5 finish in 2007.

"We knew we could hang with them, and that they were beatable," Lancaster Catholic two-way tackle Nick Schmalhofer said afterward.

"We kept on hitting them and hitting them," said another Crusader, Tyler Purvis. "It seems like we crushed their morale."

For years the Barons had ruled Friday night. But not this one.

To get from Lancaster to Manheim, the Crusaders' team bus would have had to proceed 11 miles north on Route 72, the two-lane highway connecting the two towns (and ultimately, Lebanon). Along the way it would have passed the massive auto auction south of Manheim, gone over a hill and then down into the borough itself.

Among the things the players might have seen were Jimbo's Deli ("Eat here or we'll both starve," the sign out front advises); the sign in front of the firehouse welcoming Cpl. William McFalls III back from Iraq; and the plaque on the town square honoring Baron Stiegel, the glassmaker and ironmaster who founded Manheim in 1762 (hence the school's nickname).

And tacked up everywhere were handmade placards.

"Crush the Crusaders," had been written on one.

"Get R Done," had been written on another.

Elsewhere, a group known as Mothers Of Barons (M.O.B.) had hung signs honoring each of the 55 players on the team; the seniors have their pictures on their signs, the underclassmen their name and uniform number.

The Crusaders arrived at the school at 4:30 p.m., two and a half hours before game time, then busied themselves with their pregame preparations.

And slowly the stadium -- Elden Rettew Stadium, named for the department-store owner who years ago developed the park where the stadium stands -- came to life, the fans and the cheerleaders and the bands filing in.

A little earlier, right at the end of Central's school day, the junior and senior members of the band, along with the cheerleaders, had led the junior and senior members of the football team around the hallways, playing songs as they went.

"It gets a little crowded," acknowledged one of the cheerleaders, Emalee Hribick.

"We've done it for 15 years," band director Jim Metzger said. "In fact, there's a superstition. [The coaches] get worried if we don't do it. If it's a holiday [resulting in a shortened week], they're calling me and saying, 'We've got to do this.'"

Nor would the band be deterred from playing at the game, despite the iffy weather.

"We're tough," said Steph Bruckhart, who doubles as a trumpeter and drum major. "If there's no band, everybody's like, 'What's missing?'"

A sportswriter by the name of Don Yingst was, however, missing from the press box -- a press box named in his honor. He had written about Barons football for 60 years, dating back to his senior year at Manheim High (1947-48), when the school first took up the sport. He had done so for community papers and also as a stringer for dailies in Lancaster and Harrisburg.

But in the spring of 2007, the 77-year-old Yingst decided to give it up.

"My memory's gone bad," he told a visitor as he sat in the living room of his ranch a few days before the game.

The house was quiet; his wife, Mary, had died in December of last year.

Among the things stacked on the ottoman before his easy chair was a copy of the Lancaster paper's sports section from the previous Saturday. The lead story was about Central's narrow loss to a powerful Wilson team, up near Reading.

He produced a scrapbook, one that showed page after page of his yellowed game stories from the '40s and '50s, each ending with this entreaty: "Boost the Barons!" He talked about past players and coaches and games. But he said his memory prevented him from keeping accurate play-by-play at a game anymore. And since he just had back surgery, he wasn't sure he could negotiate the steps up to the press box, either.

"I found out football goes on," he said, "whether I'm there or not."

Whether it was because of the rain or the uncertain start to Central's season, several others stayed away, too; the announced crowd for the 5,000-seat stadium was a mere 2,287.

Those who did attend saw Lancaster Catholic quarterback Kyle Smith, a junior lefty of considerable promise, fashion two second-quarter touchdown drives. But his Manheim Central counterpart, Jeremy Knosp, struggled.

"Is that the best you can do?" Williams asked Knosp as he came to the sideline after throwing back-to-back incompletions.

It would get no better the rest of the night for Knosp. And it must have been games like this that his dad, Jeff, feared when somebody decided to make the younger Knosp a QB, soon after he started playing football at age 7.

"I didn't want Jeremy to be the quarterback," Jeff said as he sat with his wife, Steph, at the kitchen table in the family's home two days before the game. "They came to me and said, 'He's the best quarterback.' I said, 'Oh my, don't tell me that.' It's a high-profile position. It's like your kid being the pitcher; either you're a hero or a goat. He proved me wrong. He was ready for it. The parents weren't ready for it, but he certainly enjoys it."

Jeremy broke a femur playing football when he was 10, and he suffered a serious shoulder injury as a junior in 2007, ending his season after five games. He harbors no regrets, though.

Growing up, he said, "You just want to play Manheim Central football. It's the thing to do in this town. And to be the quarterback means so much more."

Asked how nerve-racking it is to watch their son, Steph made a noise indicating it was off the charts.

Still, she said, "I'm a lot calmer than [Jeff] is. He's living vicariously through his son."

"It's hard to sit back and listen to someone make a comment [in the stands]," Jeff said, "not only about my kid, but any kid. They're kids."

And as Central's kids left the field at halftime, one of the paying customers expressed his disapproval.

"Wake up," the guy said.

The Barons neither ran the ball hard enough nor tackled well enough to suit their coaches, two things that are usually givens at Central. And as those matters were discussed in the locker room (and as the undefeated 1980 team was honored on the field), the skies opened up anew; the second half would be played in a steady downpour.

The Crusaders, having been told in no uncertain terms by an assistant coach to leave the blasted street sign alone as they made their way back to the field after the break, increased their lead to 21-0 in the third quarter on Smith's second TD pass of the night.

Knosp was lifted in favor of backup Justin Gorman late in the game, and Gorman led Central to its touchdown.

Afterward, as Catholic High's players celebrated on one side of the field, Williams and his players stopped and listened to the band play the alma mater, as has become customary. The players then visited with their families along the fence separating the stands from the field before slinking back toward the locker room.

Dynasties die subtly. And sometimes, somewhat less so.

Gordie Jones is a freelance writer in Pennsylvania.