MASSILLON, Ohio – Tonight, the FOX Sports Ohio High School Football Game of the Week comes from the heart of football-crazed SEC country.
In Western Stark County.
There’s only one Massillon, only one high school team that plays in an 18,000-seat stadium named for Paul Brown, one with a full-video scoreboard and banners outside honoring not only Brown, but other legendary former coaches like Earle Bruce and Chuck Mather. Winning and winning big were big business here before the team was clad in all Nike everything, before the 100-yard indoor practice facility was constructed next door, before these made-for-TV games and the head coach’s radio show every Monday night.
No one in America has a job quite like the one Jason Hall has. The 37-year old Hall is in his sixth season as the Tigers head coach, and earlier this week he took a few minutes after the weekly Massillon Tiger Touchdown Club meeting to talk about it. The Touchdown Club, by the way, is not to be confused with the Massillon Tiger Booster Club, which met later that night, also with Hall in attendance.
Things are different in Massillon, which like so many other places doesn’t have the industry or the population base it used to have. But it has football — the stadium, the name, an online ticketing system like pro teams have and even a hotline fans can call or text to report unruly behavior in the stadium. Boys born in the local hospital get mini-footballs in their cribs, and hundreds of them grow up dreaming about Friday night glory and being a Tiger.
The expectation in and around town is that those boys who grow up to be Tigers will be among the biggest and strongest and fastest around, and that when the time comes Hall and his staff will mold them into a team good enough to beat anybody. Twenty-two times, Massillon has been crowned state champion. Those were poll titles, though; the Tigers have yet to win one since Ohio instituted a season-ending playoff system.
Every year, it seems, is supposed to be the one that number becomes 23. Every Friday night (plus the occasional Thursday or Saturday), those boys in orange and black are supposed to win handily.
“Perception is reality, it doesn’t matter what you say,” Hall said.
Every year, Hall and his staff work toward it. And Hall talks about it at his radio show, the booster club meetings and at the Touchdown Club, too; those meetings are broadcast live on the local sports radio station for folks who can’t make it.
“We play a tough schedule, we’re used to being in those big games and the kids and everyone who supports the program seem to feed off the challenges, the spotlight, the big games,” Hall said. “If that makes the SEC a fair comparison, we’ll take it. I don’t think there are many places where football is as important as it is here.
“Every year we talk about tradition and expectations and hope. That’s why you want to be here. There’s not a coach anywhere that wants to be in a program or a community that doesn’t have high expectations. We love those expectations. It’s our job to carry on the tradition and to chase that goal, that final goal.”
If there’s any misconception about the Massillon program, Hall says it’s that a state championship is the only goal. In addition to the coach-speak about playing smart, physical football, Hall emphasizes that standards and expectations at Massillon are so high for a reason, that maximum effort and playing with class have rewards, that in few other places are such efforts appreciated like they are here.
This week’s guest speaker at the Touchdown Club luncheon was former Tiger linebacker Dan Studer, the son of Massillon legend Steve Studer, a longtime strength coach who died of a heart attack in the school weight room in 2004. Dan Studer’s grandfather, Junie, is a Massillon historian who since the 1940s has compiled books of newspaper articles and pictures of everyone who’s ever put on a Massillon uniform, a collection that a few years back was moved to its own library in a school administrative building.
NFL Films and NFL team employees used to stop by Junie Studer’s place annually to go through the archives.
Now the head football coach at Lexington High School, about 50 minutes southwest of Massillon, Dan Studer was playing college football at Northern Michigan when his father passed. Standing in front of probably 80 people at the Touchdown Club meeting earlier this week, Dan Studer said he doesn’t recall asking anyone in particular to pick him up from the airport when he flew home to help lay his father to rest, figuring his mother or one of his siblings would be there.
When he landed, he found “20-25 of my Massillon teammates there waiting for me. I lost it all over again. That’s what makes Massillon different, family.”
Tonight marks another family reunion — at least 12,000 will be on hand — for the Tiger faithful, a gathering at Paul Brown Tiger Stadium that happens seven or eight times every fall and one additional time if Massillon is good enough to be able to host a first-round state playoff game.
In addition to tonight being a live TV game, broadcast not just in Ohio but a good portion of the country, against a cross-county rival, volunteers will also be accepting donations for “Feed Obie Night.”
Obie is Massillon’s live tiger mascot. Yes, pregame introductions include both a 30-foot inflatable tiger and a live tiger. Not to mention a fireworks display.
When Massillon opened its season last week with a 35-7 trouncing of neighborhood rival Perry, the starting quarterback was Andrew David, a junior who was raised on this stuff. The indoor fieldhouse is named for his grandparents, who gave generously to the football program and to the schools as a whole; his father, Jeff, is a longtime program benefactor and supporter. A backup quarterback last season, Andrew David is such a talented kicker that he’s held that job since he was a freshman and is committed to kick at the University of Michigan.
Behind him on last week’s quarterback depth chart was Danny Clark, a 6’4 freshman with a rocket arm, a collection of YouTube highlight videos and early interest from major college programs nationwide. When David had to leave last week’s opener due to cramping, Clark came in and immediately threw a 60-yard touchdown.
So, the quarterback discussion isn’t going away anytime soon. And, like just about everthing else involving Massillon football, there are layers to the discussion. When Hall finished his remarks at the Touchdown Club meeting on Tuesday, he invited questions from the crowd.
A woman asked about the team’s health, and Hall sounded like a veteran NFL coach in rattling off a status report. The same woman then asked two follow-up questions about specific players, one about David and his cramping. Hall answered that David had to visit the local hospital but was fine, dismissing “rumors” about a torn ACL or another season-ending injury.
“I don’t know who starts these rumors,” Hall said. “But it is Massillon.”
Hall’s job is to manage all this stuff, and Chris Easterling’s job is to cover it for Massillon’s hometown newspaper, The Independent. Easterling has been the Independent sports editor since 2006, and the sports editor serves as the primary beat writer for Tigers football. Easterling attended the University of Kentucky and thinks he knows a thing or two about what he calls “fanaticism.”
“A great comparison is Kentucky basketball, and probably SEC football,” Easterling said. “The 24-7, 365-day devotion is amazing. The passion…the extent to which people will go to support their Tigers. They get caskets with the Obie logo!”
The Independent publishes six days a week, and Easterling said it’s easier to count the days, year round, that he doesn’t write a story on Massillon football than to total up the days he does. The paper’s web site gets clicks from all around the country on those stories, and Easterling laughs as he recalls a directive he got from a superior when he started as sports editor.
“You cover the program that’s keeping us afloat,” is how Easterling recalls it — and he’s not joking.
Hall emphasizes to his players that “life doesn’t peak here” on the first Saturday in November, in the annual Canton McKinley game, and that “the amazing experiences our kids have should help them go on to have so many more in whatever they want to pursue later on.” Hall charts academic achievement like he does 40-yard dash times and weightroom progress, and he constantly pushes his players to be good role models for future Tigers and to be aware that despite just being teenagers, they are public figures in Massillon.
“While he’s trying to raise another (state-title) banner, Jason also does an outstanding job of making sure these kids know that they’re more than just football players,” Easterling said. “He does dozens of things to help kids and remind them there will be a time when they’ll stop being football players.”
They’ll never stop being Massillon Tigers, though.