When I was eleven years old my dad took me to see the high school play. I was overwhelmed by the spectacle of it. In 1959 our town was booming and football was the biggest thing going. The stands were full to brimming, the autumn air brisk and laden with cigar smoke, cheerleaders in red and black and sidelines full of big guys in helmets and pads. It was all one new thing to me then, but the real story – the story all the adults and bigger kids knew – was Steve Simpson.
I would not have known what it meant at that time, but Simpson was one of those players who “went both ways.” That wasn’t as unusual then as it is now, but he was a running back on offense and a linebacker on defense and was being recruited by out-of-state schools for both positions. But this was before the time when high-school sports were primarily about college recruiting. In that time, players played for their hometowns and the story was what happened on the field – which little town got bragging rights over the other.
Steve Simpson gave our town a lot to brag about and he dated Sherry Thompson, a cheerleader who would knock your eyes out. Nobody knew this, because our families did not socialize much together, but Sherry was my second cousin and the next year – Steve’s senior year – as I became more aware of his stature, I thought of him as a personal friend, given the family connection.
Sherry’s family had money – that was one of the reasons our families did not meet often – and when they graduated, she went off to Hollins College in Virginia, a place where the undergraduate curriculum included equitation. Steve took an athletic scholarship at Ohio University and tore his knee up in his freshman year and lost his scholarship. Sherry went on to meet and then marry a guy from Charlottesville, Virginia, whose family had made big money in the Norfolk and Western Railroad. Steve came back to town and took a job as a fireman. He never married and in the late summer nights when he worked midnight shifts he would come out onto the grass lot behind the station under the floodlights and pass the football with us kids.