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PRIME TIME: Why keep an old high school letter jacket?

Tony Nicholson in his letter jacket. (Submitted photo)

Although neither my wife or I nor my youngest three children are native to Bemidji, but when we moved here in 1990, we all became Lumberjacks.

All three children graduated from Bemidji High School. I attended many sporting events in which they participated. Football was not one of them. I did attend high school football games to see players who were children of people I know or friends of my children. My daughter attended Bemidji State for one semester and one son graduated from there. I have attended Bemidji State football games because I like seeing small college football played in a beautiful location on a fall afternoon. The high school games are played at night in the same location, but lack the same daytime environment. After my children graduated from high school, I continued to attend high school games but gradually stopped attending the college games. I guess that I felt a closer attachment to the high school teams.

The games played by both the high school and the university consist of teams fielding 11 players. Most Minnesota schools have 11 players while a few small schools field nine players. The only nine-man games that I have seen are the state championship ones that are broadcast on a Minneapolis television channel in November. Even though I do not follow nine-man football, I can relate to it. I played one year of six-man football and two years of eight-man football in my home state of North Carolina. At another BHS team -- Bath High School.

If you have never seen a six-man team play, it is something to behold. The offensive line has two ends and a center who is eligible to catch a pass. The backfield has a quarterback, a halfback and a fullback. My high school team ran a modified version of what today is called the shotgun. The quarterback stood a few yards behind the center. The halfback flanked him to one side with the fullback lined up a few yards between and behind both players. The quarterback could not run the ball when he received it from the center. The rules obligated him to hand it to the halfback or the fullback. If they choose to give him the ball back, then he could run with it. The field measures 80 yards in length compared to the traditional 11-man field of 100 yards. In the name of sportsmanship, if a team scores 40 points or more than its opponent, the game ends.

After scoring a touchdown, the scoring team has the option of trying for a one point or two-point conversion. Unlike today’s football rules, the successful conversion for one point is a run or pass while the successful conversion for two points is a kick. As a sophomore, the coach designated me be the extra point kicker for the six-man team. I attempted five extra points. I converted only one. That ended my career as a kicking specialist. Without me or a replacement, the team managed to win all 12 games and to be crowned state champions.

The next year, the state athletic association eliminated six-man football. Small schools either had to give up football, or convert to eight-man or 11-man football teams. My high school converted to eight-man football. With the change, the similarities to an 11-man team were noticeable. The field expanded to 100 yards, and the first down distance shrank from 15 yards to 10. Two guards were added to the offensive line, and neither they nor the center were eligible for forward passes. The team continued to use a modified version of the shotgun offense, with the exception that the quarterback could run the ball without having to hand it to his halfback or fullback.

For the two years we played eight-man football, my high school team won the state championship with consecutive unbeaten seasons of 10 and 12 wins. I finished my high school football career on three teams that compiled 34 wins and no losses. After the last season of eight-man competition, the school entered the 11-man team ranks. Their records were fair, but never reached the heights of a state championship. After a few years, the school closed and became consolidated with two other schools.

After my junior year and the first eight-man championship, someone had the innovative idea of ordering letter jackets just for the football team. Not all members of the football team ordered jackets, but I did. The jackets were red with our first name written on the front left side and an emblem in the shape of a football on the front right side that stated “State Champions 1958-59.”  After we won our second title the next year, a new football emblem replaced the old one. The new one said “State Champions 1958-59-60.” I added a star to the left sleeve to show that I had lettered for two years.

Although I did not wear my letter jacket after high school, those football accomplishments are commemorated by it. Occasionally, I try on my jacket. It fits snugly, but it fits. I think about those practice days and game days. Those games that I started were so important to me that I got sick to my stomach at home before I went to a game, or once there, I got sick during the pregame warmups. I don’t think anything has ever been more important to me than those long-ago football games played for a small, rural school on warm fall afternoons. We played a few games at night under the lights the last two years of my career. By my senior year, our school field had lights so we played some night games at home.

My old high school field does not compare to the football stadium at Bemidji State used by the Lumberjacks. We Bemidji residents and the surrounding area are so fortunate to be able to see a high school football team play in such a fantastic lakeside venue. Having said that, nothing will ever diminish the accomplishments of my high school football career.

I have the letter jacket to prove it.

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