2010. Summer. The last year before Southington ushered in a new education complex and demolished 3/4ths of the old building. It was the last year Jake’s Ice Cream was open. Jake’s: a horse trailer renovated into a freezer, parked outside of Hurd’s Market in the center of town, which was nothing less than the center of the universe, where we all flocked to just for a chance to get our hands on a scoop of Superman or play-dough ice cream, anything with cosmic swirls of yellow, blue, and red. Jake owned Hurd’s, which had been around since 1865, long before any school had been built.
After long football practices, my mother would drive us to Jake’s, eventually sending me over to fetch us both two scoops of Superman on waffle cones. We’d sit on the picnic bench overlooking the five-way traffic stop and watch the cars come through. We just sat and listened to the sounds of the town murmuring. We listened to the fathers sitting on the front porch of Hurd’s, smoking cigarettes and talking baseball until sundown. It was our one final glimpse of our world before it was rebuilt.
In 2017, Bruce Springsteen began a series of one-man performances on Broadway. The run, which went from October of that year to December of the next, culminated into Springsteen on Broadway, a Netflix special. Midway through it, Springsteen stands alone on the Walter Kerr Theatre stage, preparing to perform an intimate rendition of “Born in the U.S.A.” to a crowd of hundreds.
He says to the audience: “The verses are just an accounting of events.”
“The choruses were a declaration of your birthplace and the right to all of the blood and the confusion and the pride and the shame and grace that comes with birthplace.”
2018. A frigid Friday night in Southington, the sky an Ohio gray. Into the parking lot swollen with gravel, a cavalry of parents pulls in, teaming with orange and black. The light pollution from closing steel plants in the distance climbs up the sky overlooking Wildcats Field, as the early hour glow of evening spills into the laps of fans. Students wrapped in thick autumn coats fill the right corner of the grandstands, the cold October air unable to quarantine their cheers. Some have eye-black living on their cheeks, others smudged orange paw prints.
Tonight is senior night for Chalker High School, a tradition that reaches far back in legacy, where the last home game is spent recognizing soon-to-be graduating players. The student section, which is surely made up of at least half the school, is alive. As the size of Southington shrinks and the town’s population continues declining, it’s getting tougher to have a football team. Chalker’s average graduating class is now around 40 kids, half the size it was when my father graduated in ‘81.
One by one, every fall sports senior, from the starting quarterback to the head cheerleader, arms intertwined with their parents’, walks to mid-field, forming a line. Each son gives his mother an orange rose. Children play two-hand-touch football on the grass behind the north-end goal post. “Someone’s going to get hurt,” an alumni mutters under her breath beside me, her gaze stuck on the kids, all of whom are no older than middle school, or so, jeans all stained green, shoes muddy. When I was in middle school, a friend of mine had his nose busted by a classmate’s elbow playing two-hand-touch behind that same goal post.
Trash cans stuffed with empty pregame hot chocolate cups and nacho trays bubble over. Families convene at the metal fence protecting a track enveloping the field. In the far end-zone, parents huddle with their sons, all clad in orange. I’ve been gone so long I don’t recognize any senior student being honored. But I recognize the woman with a white cowbell, a weekly regular, who positions herself in front of the announcer’s booth, a small tin cubicle hanging above the bleachers spilling out a remix of Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”
In October 1980, Springsteen stepped out onto the stage of Richfield Coliseum in Richfield, Ohio, about twenty miles south of Downtown Cleveland, twenty miles north of Akron, to perform the third show of his acclaimed tour in support of The River. Dressed in a flannel work shirt with sleeves torn off, Bruce ripped into a rendition of “Independence Day.” “Well papa go to bed now, it’s getting late,” Springsteen sang. “Nothing we can say is gonna change anything now.” The River, which is more like a collection of short stories than an album, is an ode to the hardships and romance of working class factions in Reagan’s America, a portrait of America still alive in the heart of Trumbull County— the where handfuls of Southington fathers would come home in the blossoming hours of early morning, long after driving from Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Louisville for weeks at a time, where they transported goods for chain superstores or parts for General Motors, or, as my grandfather did, moving parts for various Middle American factories.
On the field, the final game of the season unfolds between the Wildcats and the visiting Mathews Mustangs. In a set of gray bleachers behind the south-end goal post, the marching band prepares for their halftime set. They tune their instruments to the clank of helmets, blending the steady tambour of their snare drums with an echo of referee whistles. Senior quarterback Trystan Mollohan opens the game with a 90-yard touchdown pass to Kyle Caracanas. The Mustangs block the extra point.
Just behind the grandstands is the Sammy Brutz Blockhouse, which houses the locker rooms of both teams and a weightlifting facility, and just behind the blockhouse is a plot of land now vacant, grass overgrown atop morsels of rubble once shucked from the body of a hundred-year-old infrastructure.
Because in 1842, an attorney named Newton Chalker was born in Southington, Ohio. Newton called for the establishment of a high school, and he created an endowment fund after the elementary and middle schools came upon a compromise, one that would consolidate the two schools into a central location. Chalker paid for the high school, but only under the agreement that the townspeople would pay for a new elementary school. The people agreed, and, in 1907, for $20,000, Chalker High School was born, starting in a yellow brick building, with two stone lions guarding the front door. And there was a sister building, brown brick with a bell tower, that was built for $6,000 a hundred yards away.
Logan Regal runs for three touchdowns on three consecutive Wildcat possessions. The first from 38 yards out, the second from 87, and the third from eight. The Mustangs, unable to answer the Wildcats’ commanding lead, take a shutout into the locker room at halftime. Regal, bulldozing his way through hordes of red defenders for two quarters, has 148 yards rushing on just eight carries.
A mixture of Rust Belt unions and Appalachia, the population was fiercely dedicated to its most-beloved houses of worship: Chalker High School athletics and one of the five churches in town, each positioned within a 2-mile radius of the others, all catering to a different denomination. This is the town where Rick Badanjek played. Wildcats Field is the field Badanjek once rushed for over 400 yards in only three quarters against Ledgemont before Ledgemont folded as a school. They used to say you could even see Badanjek running from inside the International Space Station. When Springsteen put out Born to Run in 1975, Rick Badanjek was murdering junior high defenses. After Springsteen released The River, Badanjek was about to graduate, and the team was preparing to rebuild.
On the drive across U.S. Route 422, the main highway in town, which is three miles from the north to the south end, you pass by one bar, two of the five churches, a brand-new Dollar General, and a state highway patrol station; you pass by colonial, bungalow, and clapboard houses, mobile home estate sides, and ponds big like lakes. When driving into town from the north end, there are two signs on the road, stacked on top of each other.
WELCOME TO SOUTHINGTON, OHIO
HOME OF THE 1998 DIVISION III STATE SOFTBALL CHAMPIONS
But it was in 1979 when the Chalker football team became something of a phenomenon, given the school’s recent near-state championship appearance in basketball the year before. Al Litz, a multi-sport hero at Chalker, anchored an offense that was actually led by Rick Badanjek, who would graduate holding Ohio’s all-time record for rushing yards. He’d go on to play college ball at the University of Maryland, and then pro ball for Washington and Atlanta. Folks from the town would wait all night for tickets to home games. The team’s array of talent became the subject of booster club merchandise. BADANJEK painted on signs and T-shirts, looseleaf programs made on black ink copy machines. The team’s legacy is so bombastic that my father, who was Al Litz’s backup and played only a handful of downs in the regular season, fancies himself etched into that legacy for eternity.
The second half nothing but rushing, Jacob Baker takes the reins from Logan Regal and his statline balloons to 100 yards on only a few carries. Moonlight comes through the shuttering maple oaks surrounding the edge of a nearby woods. The whole place looks like a snowglobe with all of these stars.
There’s that Springsteen lyric from “Thunder Road,” the one that goes: “It’s a town full of losers, and I’m pulling out of here to win.” Something happened in the years separating Born to Run and The River, the way Springsteen stops lamenting birthplace and starts reclaiming it. But in that space, Southington, Ohio, a town built on the American Dream of going to football games every Friday to cheer on the boys, while surviving on the apex of union work and a cross-country economical rebuild, never changed.
The sounds of the fourth quarter are drowned out by the hums of cars driving past. When a motorcycle roars by, the field goes quiet. As the snarl of the engine dissipates, Jacob Baker pounds the ball up the middle for a chunk of yards, a carry putting him over 200 yards for the game, almost all coming in the second half. Wildcat Field’s atmosphere is ravenous, its body growing electric under the stadium lights and blanket of cold.
Right now, the Wildcats are 5-2, soon to be 6-2, which could easily be 7-1, had the boys been able to knock off Leetonia—but they lost by one. This is the first season since 2003 where they’ve amassed more than 5 wins. This is the first time the Wildcats have beaten Mathews since 2013, which is also the last time the team made the OHSAA playoffs, when St. Paul High School pummeled them by 48 points in the first round.
As the scoreboard clock ticks down to zero, the Wildcats take a 45-0 win into the final stretch of the season. The players jog towards mid-field, huddle together, say a chant, and head into the locker room. The band harmoniously plays the school’s victory song behind them. The seniors anchored a team win in their last game at home. But, despite the Wildcats making a playoff push, maintaining success will only get harder. Most high school football teams, especially local dynasties, like Glenville and St. Edwards and Cardinal Mooney, become good and stay good. Coach Tom Conrad knows he’s losing a half-dozen seniors in two weeks and will have to rebuild. Next summer, he will enlist whatever upperclassmen he has left to recruit freshmen. Some will come out, but most won’t. Whoever suits up for the team next season will thrive in whatever role they’re given. Chalker is the smallest high school in the Northeast Athletic Conference across all sports. Even before this season, the town was calling it a rebuilding year. One of the few sure things in Middle America is the prevalence of small town football, in that you’re always rebuilding, even if you’re winning.
The seniors come out of the Sammy Brutz Blockhouse. Their shoulder pads, doused in sweat, dangle from their clutches. They are welcomed into a hive of parents proudly cheering. In the distance, as volunteers clean up the stands, “Born in the U.S.A.” plays again from the announcer’s booth. The parents and their children all chant together in unison. They yell Let’s Go Wildcats, Let’s Go, Hoo Hoo three times, howling a declaration of their birthplace into a ghost of weekend swelling across the openness of a freezing Ohio night.