A 2008 New York Times’ article In High-Tech Game, Football Sticks to an Old Measure of Success looked at the 100 year old history — virtually unchanged — of sideline sticks and markers used to measure the distance football teams need to make a first down.
The article speculated whether advances in technology would render the “Chain Gang” obsolete. At the same time, the article pointed to the inherent drama involved when human beings — not microchips — march from the sidelines onto the field:
The ritualistic on-field measurement can be a dramatic, momentum-swinging event as anticipated as any pass or handoff. An official protectively holds the ball against the ground, because precision is suddenly important. The chains arrive from the sideline. An official slowly pulls the chain taut. Breaths are held.
To observe this ritual first hand, Chain Gang member and President of the Brighton Chamber of Commerce Nelson Lopatin invited me and Peter McGowan, a reporter for Brighton High School’s Trapezoid, to meet the crew before last night’s Greece Athena at Brighton’s game at Reifsteck Field.
Peter and I watched as the crew prepared the sticks and markers. Alas, one of the more colorful members, only known as “Clipper,” had to miss the game.
We learned the Chain Gang — always positioned on the visitor’s side — is part of the officiating crew, although the gang are unpaid volunteers. The field official directs the crew to move the chains, then the official marks with his foot where the sticks should be placed.Nelson had been back on the Chain Gang for 17 years. Always at his post, Nelson said he has moved the sticks during late October driving snow storms. Late October, I wondered? Nelson said climate change has made Rochester winters more bearable — and life on the chain gang a little easier.
Nelson added that for him the hardest play is the first one in the second half. At halftime while resting, Nelson usually eats a hot dog. Just after eating, Nelson dreads a long completed pass or run on that first second half play, one requiring him to sprint 60 yards down the sideline carrying the stick.
As I am a baseball and softball umpire, I asked a question I sometimes get. Could a chain gang official possibly intentionally alter the course of a game without anyone knowing?
Nelson explained that the chain gang has no discretion where to place the marker; the field official decides. Fellow chainer Richard Beers (also a lawyer) concurred. Dick said there is close to zero discrepancy between the field officials’ spot direction and where the chain is placed. Hence, no record exists of a chain gang point fixing scandal.
Before the game, Dick said he particularly enjoyed been right in the middle of the in-game chatter. As I stood next to the chain guys, my experience of the game intensified. Although rooting for Brighton, I felt the passion of the Athena players — some of whom never played a down — as they cheered their teammates. I sensed how football players put aside their individual concerns as they embrace the collective effort.
I also watched as Dick deftly dropped his stick and scooted out of the way as players rolled near him during a sideline play.
One of the most dramatic moments of the game was Brighton, trailing 20 – 14 in the 4th quarter, driving for a score. Near the goal line, it was unclear if Brighton had made a first down.
During the entire game, the crew had remained fully focused on the game, never displaying any emotional reactions to a play.
Right before the official called the crew onto the field to mark his critical spot, Dick said to me in passing, this is a big call.
This was the moment the Times writer had described: An official slowly pulls the chain taut. Breaths are held. Reifsteck was on the edge of its seats. First down! Barons fans swooned while the Athena side squirmed.
After the game, I congratulated Nelson and the crew on a job well done. As that umpire, I know officials are the unsung heroes of any sporting event.
Nelson suggested this game as much as any other showed why yard marking doesn’t need any technological enhancement. Keep the human element, Nelson said, and I agree.
Also at Reifsteck to capture the game and every move of the Chain Gang was Phil’s End Zone video crew.
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