It was the end of summer, 1969, the start of my junior year of high school. It was the summer of
Woodstock, the rock concert/bacchanalia in upstate New York that accelerated the end of innocence for the post-World War II era in America.
It was a time when the country was turning more and more against the conflict in Southeast Asia. It was the dog days of August in Christiansburg. For me, it was the time I had been looking forward to since I was old enough to hold a thought. It was the start of high school football practice my first season on varsity.
Like in much of small town America at this time, high school football was almost a religion in
Christiansburg. At the least, it was a rite of passage, a way to test and establish your manhood. Many of our fathers, uncles, brothers, and cousins had played, on the same field and for the same school, wearing the same colors. My dad and his brothers, Clyde and Cline, had played for CHS in the early days of high school football in Southwest Virginia.
My cousin Joe had been the star of stars when I was very young. I often tell the story that when I was brought home from the hospital, one of our neighbors gave my Dad a regulation football to put in my crib for me to sleep with. Ironically, in my two years plus on varsity, I remember touching the ball only once or twice, doing what I did (chase guys with the ball) not requiring that I handle one myself.
So, from early childhood, I felt destined to play for the Blue Demons on Friday nights. I went to the games from a very young age, sitting on the bench between the team doctors when my dad was principal, later in the stands watching the games with my parents. Most boys my age were playing football with paper cups behind the bleachers, but I was watching, learning the difference between the Split T and the Wing T formations, dreaming of my turn.
All of this is not to imply that Christiansburg High had a grand and glorious football tradition.
Compared with most of our New River District foes — the Blacksburg Indians, the Radford Bobcats, the Dublin Dukes, the Pulaski Orioles, the Narrows Green Wave, the Giles County Spartans, the George Wythe Maroons, the Galax Maroon Tide, and the Carroll County Cavaliers — we were average at best.
There have been a few glory years of CHS football based on my quick research: the late 1920’s and early 1930’s when uncles Clyde and Cline were the stars and the team was coached by Bentley Hite (later a very successful lawyer and community leader in Christiansburg) and the team played for a state championship one year; the late 1950’s and early 1960’s when Cousin Joe scored 40 touchdowns and the team played under iconic C’burg coaches Buddy Earp and Omar Ross (Coach Ross “lost” to Blacksburg 7-7 in perhaps the epic game in CHS history when a win would have won the NRV District for the Blue Demons in 1963); and the early 2010’s when the team was led by Brendan Motley (It‘s between Motley and Cousin Joe as to who is the best CHS athlete of all-time.) and made consecutive runs for the state championship.
The rest of CHS football history is largely marked by mediocrity, with some shining moments. During my years we were known for beating teams we shouldn’t beat and losing to teams we should have beaten.
CHS hired a new head football coach during the spring or summer of my sophomore year, Joe
Rusek, a native of the hardscrabble coal country of New Kensington, Penn., a classically tough Western Pennsylvania guy. Coach Rusek became a member of the CHS Emory & Henry Mafia and was fresh off a state championship at Sullivan County, Tenn.,, about 2 hours down I-81 from us. He had a connection to Christiansburg through his assistant coach Carlis Altizer (another E & H guy and from a classic Christiansburg family of athletes and students).
Our school’s Demons Booster Club became aware of the connection and participated in the recruitment of Coaches Rusek and Altizer. To say that they arrived with fanfare and hype does not do the circumstances justice.
This was the era of football in high school, college and pro when the welfare of the players was not the highest priority. It was only about 15 years after the Junction Boys (see the great book by the same name), the survivors of a pre-season camp at Texas A & M, conducted by the legendary Bear Bryant, where players would literally escape and run off in the middle of the night. So, “tough,” “physical,” “hard,” and “hot” were the orders of the day for most coaches.
Coach Joe Rusek and Coach Carlis Altizer did not fail to meet expectations. This is not to say these were bad men. In fact, all of my coaches were great men and teachers and motivators. It was just the times.
They had been coached hard themselves, learned that life was about effort and hard work, and they wanted to instill these values in their charges. And they wanted to win. I don’t remember Coach Rusek ever giving us participation trophies.
The two coaches (I thought of them as Batman and Robin, but never voiced that anywhere within earshot of them) spent the spring and summer of 1969 trying to get every halfway-able-bodied boy in Christiansburg excited about trying out for football. They knew that numbers gave them chances to separate the wheat from the chaff and to see “who really wanted IT.” We were always in pursuit of that elusive “IT.” I figured we had a lot more chaff than wheat, but what the heck? I was zealously committed to not being chaff. I wanted to show that I wanted IT.
So the coaches, who recruited other coaches from other sports who weren’t otherwise occupied in the fall, put together a staff and coerced and cajoled about 95 boys to come out for the team, which included freshmen and sophomores who would end up on junior varsity. As I recall, we all got helmets and shoes for practice, which started on Aug. 10, the first five days being without pads. I was pretty certain our old locker room didn’t have enough pads for 95 players, but I assumed attrition would take care of the problem.
I was right. When preseason ended, at the start of classes, we had around 37 left, as I recall, to field a varsity team and a jayvee team. There had been no cuts, pure attrition. If you wanted IT bad enough you made the team.
These were the days of the infamous “two-a-days.” We practiced every day at around 7 or 7:30 in the morning for two and a half to three hours to “miss” the heat and then again around 3:30 or 4:00, presumably to catch it. Coaches Rusek and Altizer were convinced that previous CHS teams had not been tough enough, that they had been soft, particularly the prior season when the team was picked to win the district and went 1 and 9. So lack of toughness and conditioning was not going to be the downfall of their team.
The ultimate conditioning tool of the era was what we called “grass drills.” Others called them “up-downs.” They had been made famous by the great pro coach of the time, Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers.
You would run in place as fast as you could (or try to make it look that way), until a coach would yell “hit it” or blow a whistle when you were to fall to the ground and catch yourself with your hands and bounce back up and resume running. This was the start of every practice and went a really long way to determine who wanted IT. I remember kids actually walking off the practice field during the midst of grass drills and trudging up Sheltman Street, praying for sweet escape and that they wouldn’t have Coach Rusek or Coach Altizer for class.
The coaches seemed to relish running kids off. Frankly, I saw no defections that surprised me greatly or that made me worry about our team. I did worry whether we would have enough players to scrimmage.
Grass drills would last anywhere from five minutes to 2 and 1/2 days, depending on the coaches’ moods. They would be followed by other loosening-up exercises, drills (featuring blocking and tackling under the guise of friendly little titles like Bull in the Ring and Oklahoma Drill and
Nutcracker (not my fave given my position, since I was a crackee rather than a cracker).
This would be followed by a lot of repetition of running of plays and formations, the meat and potatoes of football, and then usually with “live” reps, where we would block and tackle. This was called “hitting” and the coaches couldn’t wait to “hit” (note, they weren’t the ones “hitting”). Coach Altizer loved to do a standing back flip and yell “whack a head” after a particularly good “lick” had been struck, something I bet they don’t yell much anymore. Coach Rusek‘s pet phrase when teaching the forearm shiver was “bring a snot bubble to his nose.” (I kid you not.)
Hitting was the reason, ostensible and sometimes actual, that most of us played football, but sometimes after two hours of practice in 85- or 90-degree heat, enthusiasm for more “hitting” tended to wane. It did present opportunities to prove yourself and to show how much you wanted IT. Given our limited numbers and the lack of good football players, it also gave a smaller, less talented kid like me the chance to shine in practice and earn a playing spot. The CHS second-team offense was no match for my quickness and desire, but Radford’s and Blacksburg‘s first-teamers seemed not as bothered in games.
After a half-hour or so of live scrimmaging, the coaches ended practices with the one phrase that struck fear in our hearts even more than “grass drills”: “wind sprints.” Usually they would be announced by Coach Altizer blowing his whistle and yelling “line up boys.” We would line up on a line on the practice field (grassless I should add) and sprint (in theory) on his whistle.
The sprints would be anywhere from 40 yards to 100 and we would do anywhere from 10 to 20, depending on how sadistic Carlis and Joe felt that day. The object was to see how much wind they could suck out of our lungs. In full uniform.
Suffice it to say that three weeks of two-a-days in the Augusts of my adolescence are lasting memories, particularly the fall practice of 1969 when the Joe and Carlis Show came to town. I was convinced to tough it out, that I was not a quitter, and that there was no way they would run me off.
It seems 100 years ago now, but for a boy raised in the Christiansburg of those years, and in my family, not playing under the Friday Night Lights was never an option. You just didn’t quit.
Evans “Buddy” King is a proud native of Christiansburg, CHS Class of 1971. He resides in Clarksburg, W.Va., where he has practiced law with the firm of Steptoe & Johnson, PLLC, since 1980. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.