MIKE BURKE

Allegany Communications Sports

High school fall sports practice has been underway here for area teams in Maryland and West Virginia for some time now, with West Virginia’s entire schedule beginning a week or so before Maryland’s.

Monday, however, was August 15 and, seemingly from the beginning of time, without fail, that was the date that was burned into the mind of every person who experienced high school football in Maryland because the first day of summer football practice for us marked the beginning of time. And all of these years later, be it instinct, reflex, mind and muscle memory, senility, August 15 still grabs our attention and makes us think of one thing.

August 15 — it was just automatic; its purpose unstated. No vacation time was taken after August 14, for renewal, rejuvenation, all things important, the reason for waking up in the morning began on August 15. Not for the football players who are actually out there practicing, mind you, but for the guys who stand along the fence or on the sideline at every high school in America for the sole purpose of watching football practice.

It’s a wonderful thing that so many adults take such an interest, and that interest is a huge part of what makes high school football here in our area everything that it is — including not perfect. But as my old friend Kevin Royce, who was a pretty darn good football player, once told me, “The only thing I can think of being more boring than practicing football is watching football practice. I don’t get it.”

Certainly, with Kevin’s old high school football coach, the late Charles E. Lattimer, running things, practice had a tendency to be anything but boring, but his point was always understood. Watching a scrimmage, I understood. But watching grass drills and conditioning? I never understood that. And I assure you, while they are likely grateful for the interest and support of the respective communities, neither do most high-school football coaches fully understand because high-school football coaches are by nature acutely suspicious.

I know this first hand because a big part of my job this time of year involved working with high-school football coaches. And while I was a student manager for the Fort Hill teams Royce played for, part of our job during practice was to find out, in the words of Coach Lattimer, “who the hell that guy is and why the hell he’s here.”

Coach Lattimer’s suspicions were never directed toward the regulars who stood along the backside of the press box taking in the day’s drills, although the presence of a few of them were just barely tolerated. No, the security checks we as mere lads had to administer were usually saved for the 50-something year-old man Coach Lattimer did not recognize, who would invariably be standing 200 yards away from the actual practice, which is likely what made Coach suspicious to begin with.

“Excuse me, sir,” we were instructed to say, “Coach Lattimer would like to know how you are affiliated with Fort Hill and the Fort Hill football team.”

Most of the time, the guy would simply turn around, get in his car and drive away without saying anything because Coach Lattimer’s poker skills were usually spot on. One time, though, the object of the Lattimer inquiry dug in and, as my stupid poker luck would have it, he dug in with me.

“You tell Lattimer,” he said quite indignantly, “it’s none of his damn business.”

Right. To this day I have a picture of me telling Coach Lattimer that anything was none of his damn business. I wouldn’t have dared say that to him as a 50-year-old man myself.

“You tell that (so-and-so) I graduated from Fort Hill.”

At this time, as practice had come to a stop until I could run (not very fast) the 200 or so yards to conduct the investigation, then run the 200 yards back to file my report, a voice from afar came booming through the summer humidity.

“Well!!?? We don’t have all day, son!”

It was Coach Lattimer.

Deciding it would be more economical and less stressful for me to yell back rather than to run back, I yelled, “He graduated from Fort Hill, Coach!”

From 200 yards away came “Hell’s fire, son! So did George Stimmel. Get him the hell out of here!”

George Stimmel, of course, was the Allegany football coach at the time. I, on the other hand, was on quite the spot. So I turned to the man on the other side of the fence and said, “Do you see what I’m working with here? Please help me, sir. If practice doesn’t start again, it’s going to be my (arse).”

To which the man shook his head, accused Coach Lattimer’s parents of not being married and walked away mumbling some other words I would dare not repeat to my commander; and it was at that moment I decided that for the rest of my life I would never attend another high school football practice I did not have to attend.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT