For 31 years, Woodville resident Jim Truman measured by inches, feet, and yards on football Friday nights as a member of the football program’s chain gang for home contest.
Through three-plus steadfast decades, Truman laughs that he's only been knocked down by a play coming his way twice, and says, "The last one was about 20 years ago, the first one when I first started. I didn't get hurt either time, but they did sweep me off my feet."
"We work in every kind of weather. When it rains, we put on our rain gear. When it's bitter cold, I make sure I keep my hands warm. We see it all, but I never let any of it bother me. I guess I just love football too much."
From the rest of this fall on, his life could be measured in miles, as in the approximately 2,286 miles it'll take he and his wife of 43 years, Darlene, to fly from their home to San Marcos, California where they'll visit their youngest son Nick, 35, more.
That’s because Jim is retiring from his longtime post on the chain gang as of Woodmore's 36-35 nail biter win over Otsego on October 25.
"My wife is retired, too, now, and we like to travel and stuff, so we just decided it was time," says Mr. Truman, 66. "But we definitely want to get out to San Marcos to see Nick more, and to just spend more time with family. Plus, we love to go camping, so we'll be able to do that more, and then there's a group of us who enjoys going out to eat together on those Friday nights when there isn't a home football game, so there'll be more time to get together now, too."
Larry Lowe, who served on the chain gang the last five years, said, "Jim has roamed the sidelines at Woodmore for over 30 years, and has seen generations of Wildcats. I remember him in the crew when I played and it's been awesome to work with him as I watch my own son play. And Jimmy is in great shape. I'm a novice tri-athlete and consider myself in pretty good physical condition, but on long plays you would never beat him and his down box to the other end of the field."
Thirty-seventh year public address announcer Dave Robenstine said, "I have known Jim for over 40 years, and frankly he is simply just a good community guy who does his job without any fanfare. But really, being a chain gang member is vital to hosting a football game. They have to be out there in all kinds of weather, be it hot, cold, windy, mosquitoes, rain, snow, and fog, and they have nowhere to hide.
“They have to listen to comments on the opposing sidelines, so there has to be some good stories there! The down marker person has to be accurate, because confusion is never a good thing. They have to do sprints for measurements. And they've got to move quickly at all times, because if they do not, they can go down with an injury. Because, as you know, chain gang members do not wear pads."
Truman began his chain gang journey in the fall of 1982.
"How this all started in the first place was, years and years ago, one of the other members of the chain gang asked me if I'd like to get involved, and maybe help out a little bit on Friday nights," he remembers, "and I said 'Sure,' and 31 years later, I was still doing it right up until last month.
"In 31 years, if I had to guess, I'd say I probably only missed like four games due to illness and things like that," he adds, "and the support of my family for all these years has always been really, really great. They've supported my involvement the whole time, and they've always been very encouraging. On Friday nights they've always kind of gone and done their own things, and I've gone down to the stadium and done mine.
"The support from the Woodmore fans for their football program, and really everyone in and around it has always been excellent, too, and I think it's because they truly enjoy their football here," continues Mr. Truman. "After our last home game here a few weeks ago against Otsego, the folks down at the stadium really thanked me. I had some of the guys on the chain gang saying, 'I really wish you were sticking around,' but they definitely understand the circumstances of why I'm retiring. The parents, and everyone else down there, too…they've just all been supportive of me for the past 31 years. Everyone's been great about my decision to retire."
Truman served first on the markers, or "sticks" for the first 26 years before moving to the all-important down box for the last five.
"Oh, the down box is definitely more challenging," he offers. "You have to really watch, you have to really be on your toes, you have to remember what yard line you're on at all times, in case there's a flag."
"On the down box," shares Mr. Truman, "you're moving with the ball all the time. If there's a big play, you have to run down the field, and hurry to get set up right on the ball. Inside the 10-yard line, they often don't even need the 'sticks.' They just need the down box. So, the 'sticks' are easier, way easier."
Truman witnessed Woodmore's first-ever playoff run in the mid-1990s, and of course even more sacred his own three sons suit up for the Wildcats. Nick starred at defensive back for Woodmore in '95, and played in the now-infamous snowstorm game against Coldwater down at Findlay's Donnell Stadium in the playoffs, while older brothers Matt, 41, and Nathan, 36, both played junior high ball.
Sad, poignant moments? That includes saying goodbye to other long-tenured chain gang members like Larry Snyder and Don Little before him, and of course the "Dean of all Woodmore Chain Gang Members," the legendary Clarence Bloom, who had over 40 years in.
He also misses past Wildcat players, like dual-threat quarterback from the '80s Jeff Rospert, and standout halfback John Blechinger in the '90s, and coaches from Tom Galbreath and Chip Hollenback, to Tom Peiffer, Mike Lee, and Lou Bosh.
More recent favorite players are gun-slinger quarterbacks Michael Fahle, Jon Sandwisch, and Jake Matwiejczyk, and in '13, Woodmore's 5-5, tough-as-nails wide receiver Evan Ulinksi, whom he calls "one tough cookie."
"Evan Ulinski's one heck of a talented wide receiver, defensive player, and football player," praises Truman. "I wish we could always have 10 more players just like him on the field."
And on the other side of the coin, he's had to develop kind of a deaf ear to coaches and fans’ criticism of officials.
"Before they put the fence up, we'd hear guys right up close behind us, within five yards, letting us have it,” Truman said. “We heard it all. But, now that there is fencing up around the stadium, it keeps the fans back. Before though, man…sometimes you'd just want to turn around and say, ‘Man, would you please just go home?’”
In roughly 150 home games, he's not wavered from his pre-game ritual too much, and right up to this past '13 season, always stretched well before each contest, and waited to eat until afterward.
Though from '82 to '13, Truman says the players and the stadium have changed, with the former progressively getting bigger, faster, and stronger.
"The players just keep evolving, and it's all because of the extra training they put in now. The weight room facilities, they just keep getting bigger and better, and the kids are putting in more time in there now. Some of these players are even using special equipment, like parachutes, to develop more speed, and you never saw that in the past."
At the stadium, there are more amenities than ever before.
"They've put new stands in on the visitors' side, we have a new press box now, we have a new concession stand and things. And it's all because of the Woodmore CAGE group, who work so hard to hold fundraisers and events, to raise money to get us these things, and develop our facility. It's been really nice to see that we have those kinds of dedicated people in our community,” Truman said.
There are others who have noticed Truman’s dedication.
Second-year Woodmore athletic director Steve Barr said, "Jim's volunteerism working at football games as a member of the chain gang for all these years is something that no high school can do without. It takes numerous people to put on a game, and without people like Jim, we would not be able to play athletic contests."
"In a way, Jim, along with the many other people who volunteer their time at Wildcat games, has made it possible for our student-athletes to enjoy the benefits of competing," adds Barr. "Many times, Jim would have everything taken care of, before we would even call him, to make sure we had a crew for the games that season. Jim has been an invaluable member of our team for many, many years, and we will sure miss him. We wish him the best in the years to come."