Sports | October 9, 2017 11:05 am

While the Small Town of Whitehall Dies, Football Endures

Sports Illustrated's Tim Layden on the high school team he played for, and where it ended up.

Honoring High School Football Through the Lens of a Small Town in Upstate New York
(Adam Moss/Flickr)

Despite football’s marked decline in high schools across America, the sport endures in at least one town: Whitehall, a tiny upstate New York town, just shy of the Vermont border.

In a recent feature, Sports Illustrated‘s Tim Layden shone a spotlight on the town’s rise and fall, told through the eyes of an anonymous player, “the Man”—himself, the team’s quarterback—from Whitehall’s 1973 undefeated, 8-0 season. As Layden writes, “Former football players are relevant to the ongoing popularity of their sport not because they played well or because they played poorly, but because they played at all.” The feature has a particular Stand by Me–esque quality to it, and we’d suggest reading it in full when you get a chance.

To that end, RealClearLife has teased out some of the most interesting historical facts from the human interest piece, which will surely get you in nostalgia mode.

-In 1920, the village’s population hit its apex at 5,258 residents, nosediving to just 3,764 by 1970. (It’s since fallen to 2,614 as of 2010.) Regardless, football reached Whitehall in 1913, and got national attention in 1941, when Look magazine did a feature on the “football-crazy town.” It published just 19 days before Pearl Harbor.

-To provide historical context, Layden notes that in ’73, during Whitehall’s undefeated campaign, Monday Night Football was just three years old; the Miami Dolphins had gone undefeated the previous season; O.J. Simpson had rushed for 2,000 yards that same year; and player safety was far from coach’s minds at that point. “At all levels, concussions were something to be shaken off; players took pride in the war marks on their helmets,” writes Layden.

-Layden expertly describes each of his high school–aged teammates, then updates their stories post-graduation—sometimes with sad results. Layden’s favorite wide receiver target would later, in his 30s, battle a cocaine addiction, which nearly destroyed his life.

-Layden’s parting shot is particularly poignant: “It’s true that football will change, and someday perhaps be gone altogether. Justifiably so. Yet it is inescapable that here the game stubbornly endures while the town around it slowly dies. There is something about football.”