With another high school football season under way, my thoughts go back to a hot August day in 1973 during double sessions for the Stearns football team in Millinocket under coach Rodger Geren.
I went to watch the practice as I was curious as to how my brother John was doing on his first day at double sessions after missing the first two before convincing my parents that the fall of his senior year would be better served playing football instead of a part-time job.
The team took a short water break after some exhausting drills on a field behind the old Katahdin Avenue School that was more dirt than grass. A few of the guys looked pretty tired and out of shape when Geren checked in to see how they were doing and they kept their heads down when he passed by, except John, who kept his eyes fixed on the coach and replied “no problem” when asked how practice was going.
John relished being part of the team and contributing to a program Geren was building up with a winning season behind bruising fullback Steve Boutaugh that was punctuated with a victory over a traditionally strong Orono football team. The pride oozed from John late in that game when he came around the end and sacked the quarterback.
His love of that sport and others has carried him to service as a volunteer in youth sports programs and he has been a volunteer in the Millinocket youth football program for 16 years.
Volunteers are of vital importance to teaching fundamentals in the elementary and middle school years. The lessons they pass on give athletes a strong foundation and enable high school coaches to concentrate more on preparing their players for the games.
The Stearns football program has faced the challenge of declining enrollment over the past two decades, coinciding with the decline of the paper mill industry in the town. When Stearns shared a state football title with Madison and Marshwood in 1974, its enrollment was 700. Ten years later it was 516 and now it’s dwindled to 200, the lowest for a football school in Maine.
The numbers have also decreased in the youth football program as they were as high as 100 covering four grades in early 2000 to about 40 now with two of the grades covered in a middle school program.
Despite the enrollment decreases, the commitment to the program has remained strong over the years due to the dedication of such volunteers that have included Steve Arsenault, Terry Whirty, Bruce Legassey, Terry Barnes, Terry Rogan, Pete Walls, Brian Brown, Steve Wacken, Todd Malcolm and former Stearns coach Art Greenlaw. The volunteers have filled a variety of roles from coaching, running the game clock, the field chains, officiating, scheduling and fundraising.
Through their efforts the program has persevered and continued to give its youth the opportunity to play football.
Over the past several years, the Stearns football program has struggled to compile more wins than losses, but it has remained competitive while maintaining that opportunity to give kids a chance to play the game.
Other communities and high school athletic programs will keep fighting the battle to survive amidst tough economic times and declining enrollments with strong youth programs in their corner. Those programs are filled with dedicated volunteers like the ones in Millinocket. They love the game and love to win, but love the opportunity for an athlete to participate in a sport even more.