WALTON _ Keep your eye on the ball.

Through the years of covering football on the sidelines, I've never been run over or smacked into players and coaches because I've always "kept my eye on the ball."

Last weekend, when given the chance to work the sidelines at a Walton football game on the chain crew, that old advice seemed to have left my mind.

Who knew being on the chain crew was that big of a hazard?

A chain gang at a football game is the people on the visiting sideline who stay with the ball in 10-yard intervals, usually holding bright-orange sticks that move with the action to measure first downs. There are usually four members _ two who run the sticks, one on the down marker and one on the clip. They are a vital part of a football game.

So there I was, chugging down the sidelines on the front-end of the sticks, when I somewhat collided with a player from Oxford when he was rushing on the field. I say somewhat, because at 5-foot-9 and maybe 160 pounds, this player was a bit smaller than I.

I'm the one who bounced.

That something happened shouldn't be a surprise with how the day started. There I was, minding my own business and crossing the field when Walton coach Jim Hoover and assistant coach Dave Gardepe walked by and laughed at me.

They knew what was to follow _ a rookie on the chain crew.

When the winningest high school football coach in Section Four history chuckles at you before you become part of his sideline chain crew, you might want to consider walking away.

Must be I'm a glutton for punishment.

Walton's chain gang is arguably one of the finest in Section Four. The foursome of Barry Pudney, Rod Pudney, Jerry Gregory and Steve Wood is often called upon to do sectional playoff games and easily recognized at Walton home games.

I won't lie _ I've busted on them often about how easy of a job they have. A challenge was issued by them, accepted, and the date was set. Chain crews at this level aren't like at the higher levels _ there's no uniform, just a handful of people doing the job.

Gardepe did note my lack of wearing Walton orange that day, however.

Then it was time to learn.

There are three aspects of the chain crew _ the sticks, the box and the clip. There are certain aspects of each that could get me in trouble if I didn't watch out.

The sticks

As a rookie, I was placed on one end of the sticks to start. Seems easy enough _ either line up with the box on the ball or run in front and pull the chain, showing where the first down line is. Once there's a first down or change of possession, get moving to line things up at the next spot.

That's where I got into trouble and met the Oxford player.

My head down, I ran up the sideline on a change of possession and then, before I knew it, I was getting a dirty stare from the Oxford player. It was a two-way hit, too. First I tapped him with the bright-orange marker, stumbled forward and then ran into him and bounced backward.

I apologized _ what else can you say to a high school kid who is staring you down like you're a complete dolt?

A lot of laughter followed behind me with the rest of the chain crew. Apparently I had already failed part of the test.

It didn't get easier, either.

The first time I was the one lining up on the ball, I was quite proud at how precise the sticks were. So much so that I made sure to tell Barry Pudney (who usually works the box), who had a coy smile on his face.

Apparently, you are supposed to put your foot on the chain, so when the other member yanks the other side to get the correct yardage set, everything stays put.

Seems they forgot to inform me of that.

So when Gregory pulled the other side, the chain was snapped, the stick stumbled in my hand and it came down on my noggin with a small thud. Thankfully, it was padded and I have a hard head, so it didn't hurt. Well, not physically anyway.

It took me all of three moves to make sure my head was always up, my foot was on the chain and that I paid attention to the surroundings. If not, I might have ended up getting pulled out in the meat wagon.

These days, life is easier on the sticks, said Rod Pudney, a member of the group since 1992. His father, Barry, is the elder statesman, beginning in 1987. Gregory has been with them on the sticks since 1999, and Wood joined as the clip man four years ago.

"The sticks are probably the hardest," Barry Pudney said. "You can get tangled up with people. It used to be worse when coaches had wires with their headsets. There were times we ripped headsets off coaches."

The football gods did answer one prayer.

When on the sticks, I didn't want to have to go running out for a measurement. I know I would have tripped, run into a referee or done something else. It's too much pressure for a rookie.

Thankfully, Walton and Oxford made things easy for me by either getting first downs or not getting them.

The clip

This is my kind of job.

Though an important gig, as it helps officials spot the sticks when they pull the chains out on the field for a measurement, it's not all that difficult. You can avoid interfering with plays, stay out of the way of officials and not be in harm's way.

All you have to do is line up the clip _ which is attached to the chains _ with the nearest line and make sure to turn the dial on the clip to which yard line you are on.

The most danger you are in when clipping is if you are near players and they are going in and out of the game.

So all I'm thinking is, "Don't tip over and look like a fish out of water."

As soon as that thought got into my mind, I knew something had to go wrong.

Sure enough, I'm in position and one of the Oxford players (revenge maybe?) runs into me as he's going on the field. I tip over like a domino, catch myself and put the clip in place like an old pro.

Nobody saw that, right?

The box

If you need to lose weight or get in shape, this is the job for you.

By the end of the first half, Barry looked at me and said, "If you want to know, I have 313 yards rushing in the first half."

The guy on the box needs to be wherever the ball is at all times _ including extra-point attempts. So, if one team is on the 10-yard line and breaks off a 90-yard touchdown, you need to get down to the other end in a hurry to be on the ball when the team goes for the conversion.

I've never been one to say how great of shape I'm in. I stay active, play softball and such, but I'm no cross-country runner.

So I'm on the box in the third quarter. Oxford scores on a 79-yard pass play, so I'm off to the races. I keep my head up, run behind the players and get down just in time to mark where the ball goes as the Blackhawks go for the conversion.

Whew!

On the ensuing kickoff, Walton's Eddie Dickson returns the ball 85 yards (Thanks, Eddie!) for a touchdown, meaning I, too, have to make an 85-yard return as I go running down to the opposite end of the field to mark it up before Walton attempts the conversion.

I'm pretty sure it was at this point that one of the officials, Dan Parsons, asked me if I was having fun yet.

Yeah, not really.

When the rest of the crew finally wandered down to where I had basically sprinted, I made sure to point out to Barry that I was quickly closing in on his rushing total for the day, all in one quarter.

Passing grade

Apparently, I did well enough, as each member of the crew gave me passing marks. When asked after the game, even Hoover gave the thumbs up.

During a game, though, he's got a little more to worry about. As a defensive coach, he might have seen the first-quarter "block" over on the sideline between me and the Oxford player.

On second thought, if he had seen that, I probably would have received a failing mark.

At the final whistle, I was relieved more than anything else. Life isn't always easy on the chain gang, so I think I'll go back to what I know _ it's much safer.

___

P.J. Harmer can be reached at pharmer@thedailystar.com or (607) 432-1000, ext. 229.

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