Working on the Chain Gang at Reifsteck Field

Working on the Chain Gang at Reifsteck Field

Nelson Lopatin (top left) and Richard Beers (top right) at Brighton’s Reifsteck Field, 9/31/16

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.

Nelson (left)

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 McGowan

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.


At the 30 yard line pre game [Photo: Peter]

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?

Dick Beers, Chain Gang member

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.

drp-markerOne 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.

I was happy. But, of course, on his way back to the sideline, Dick was as dispassionate and focused as always.dick-returning

Athena scoring go ahead touchdown.


Phil’s End Zone video crew

The one play I wish I had missed was Athena’s go ahead touchdown. But the game was exciting and taut even if the Barons lost.

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.



Game shot from Phil’s End Zone crew

Pygmies of ’69 remain Brighton’s last undefeated football team

No Jills; no playoffs for the Bills

New Team in Town: Roc City Steelers debut at Buckland Park

Encore for the Roc City Steelers at Buckland Park

About The Author

Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


Like what you see on our site? We’d appreciate your support. Please donate today.

Featured Posts