GENOA - It is about an hour before kickoff, the tall lights begin to slice through a darkening sky, and scattered groups of players congregate on the most beautiful and lush of football fields. And then you hear the drumbeat from about a quarter-mile up Fourth Street.
Part one of The March is on. The street is suddenly closed to traffic and it is officially a fall Friday night in this Ottawa County village some 12 miles southeast of Toledo.
The March is historic. It began 70 years ago when Bergman Athletic Field opened just down the street from Genoa High School.
The band congregated at the school, the fans did the same, and everyone would parade down the street, past neat, picture-postcard homes, through the iron gates and into the stadium at the west edge of town, where Genoa melts into surrounding farmland.
Genoa fans follow the band to Bergman Field. The new stadium will be located at the high school just outside of town.
Part two of The March came after the game, when fans would flock from the concrete stands and re-join the band on the field. They'd strut toward the scoreboard, make a sweeping turn, cover the entire field and head back toward the gate. If Genoa won, band members would turn their hats around and strike up the fight song. If the Comets lost, they would march quietly up the street to the lonely, sad cadence of the drummers.
Nothing has changed for 70 years - they marched then, they march now - yet much has changed.
The high school moved out of the village proper, going north on Main Street, which turns into Genoa-Clay Center Road, in 1963. It is more centrally located for a school district that includes Curtice, Williston, Martin and Clay Center. The old high school became the junior high. Then, a couple years ago, a junior high addition was built onto the high school, and the venerable building became a community ministry center.
But it has remained the start and finish line for The March. Fire trucks and police cars and EMS vehicles have joined in through the years, along with the band bus. The school district took the old junker out of service years ago and sold it to the band boosters for $1. They overpaid. But the maroon-and-gray monster still starts and still runs and it coughs up fumes that only add to the homey perfection of the occasion.
Jim Firestone is the winningest coach in Genoa history with a 109-60-6 record from 1959-76 competing in the NLL and SLL. The first night game at Bergman Field was in 1948.
The emergency lights on the trucks twinkle in the night, the band plays, majorettes and flag bearers do their parade routine, cheerleaders clap and yell, a good chunk of the student body walks and skips and sways to the beat, and a flock of adults, fresh from a beer and burger at Ray and Jet's, or the fish fry at Topps Cafe, start their walking journey near the restored Town Hall and Opera House, weave through the neighborhoods and arrive at the old school building in time to join the conga line to the stadium.
The March is a slice of Americana. It is what makes our small communities special. And sadly, tonight it ends. Next year a new field at the high school will be home for football. The Genoa Comets will play for the final time at Bergman Field. The band and fans will congregate before and after the game one final time for one last march.
M.C. Hesselbart is a lively old gal who has resided in the pretty gray house with the big front porch on the corner of Fourth and Cherry for five decades.
Genoa is a typical small town in that the names never change. The name Hesselbart is part of the school's football lore. Two of the stars years ago were M.C.'s nephews. Her daughter Julie is married to Bill Skilliter. His dad and uncle played for Genoa. So did he and his brother Bob. So does his son Blake. The Skilliters are related by marriage to the Bergman family, which donated the land for the field those many years ago. And on the sidelines last Friday was a young man in a Genoa letter jacket with the name “Bergman” across the back.
The dots all connect. But we digress.
To M.C. Hesselbart, Friday nights mean The March past her front porch, streams of fans packing her sidewalk, friends and family parking in her driveway. Years ago a coach named Jim Firestone would lead his team up the tree-lined street from the old high school to the stadium.
The band and fans celebrate wins with the fight song on their march home. A loss means a drum cadence.
“That's one of the greatest memories of my childhood,” says Kevin Gladden, the public works director for the village and the Bergman Field public address announcer, who grew up near the stadium. “You could hear the cleats clicking on the sidewalk. If the team ran back to the school, we had won. If they walked, we'd lost.”
M.C. will miss all of that.
“It has been a part of our lives for 50 years,” she says. “So many folks would gather here. I'd sit on the porch and watch my daughters in the band. There was an apple orchard out back and the team would sneak back there to pick apples off the trees for a snack on the way to the stadium. I guess those days are gone now. It really is sad.”
That orchard is now part of the sprawling Genoa Care Center, which will soon take over the land upon which Bergman Field sits for future expansion.
M.C. and her daughter Julie were trying to explain that the other day to Julie's little girl, Brynn. The message wasn't getting through.
“I don't understand,” little Brynn said. “Everybody knows those people are too old to play football.”
Younger people have been playing football for Genoa High since 1924, first on a field out by the old U.S. Gypsum plant, then for a few years amid the rocks behind the old high school, and at Bergman since 1933. Although the team has struggled the last couple seasons, Genoa had for many years one of northwest Ohio's most storied programs.
John Roberts coached the Comets to six Ottawa County titles and 101 wins from 1929-49, then became the principal, then the superintendent.
Firestone came in 1956, was the head coach from 1959-76, won a school-record 109 games, mostly when Genoa was among the smallest entries in the Northern Lakes League, and then became principal until retiring. His final five years of coaching were in the Suburban Lakes League as Genoa became a charter member in 1972. In that five-year span, his teams lost only three times in league contests and won three titles.
When Firestone took over the varsity in '59, the school had never had a real game program for the fans. So Firestone got the local Kiwanis Club to produce and sell one and filter the proceeds back to the school. LeRoy Fowler was one of the Kiwanians who stood at the gate selling programs for the season opener in 1959.
Last Friday night, Firestone and Fowler were standing inside the gate selling Kiwanis Club game programs, before the Comets played Eastwood.
Sometimes the calendar is the only thing that changes.
Still “Coach” to everyone who stops by, Firestone, 68, gets a nostalgic look in his eyes as he glances across the field to the big concrete grandstand.
“You know how they paid for it? They had a bleacher-booster campaign, and everybody in town donated $1 for one cement block,” he says. “There was no press box back then. There was a big phone pole on the 50-yard line with a crow's nest built on top right above the bench.”
A living local legend named Jack Werner used to climb up there and announce games with a bullhorn. He started in 1948, the same year they first turned on the lights at Bergman, and for the next 40 years the few people among the 2,200 or so residents of Genoa who stayed home on Friday nights, or those who ran the shops and pubs on Main Street, would step outside every now and then to learn the score from Werner's booming voice.
“I've been doing the P.A. for seven years,” Gladden says, “and everybody still calls Jack the `Voice of the Comets.'”
Communications being what they were in those days, Fire- stone's assistant coaches assigned to the crow's nest would often draw up plays on scraps of paper and float them down like paper airplanes.
None of those plays gained more notoriety than the Lonesome Polecat. It happened years ago against powerful undefeated Rossford when, in an upset bid, Firestone lined up the center and quarterback alone at midfield. Two receivers lined up against the left sideline and the rest of the team went wide right. Because of the alignment, the center was eligible and the Comets threw the ball his way all night, once for a 50-yard gain. Rossford won but is still trying to figure it out.
Yes, all the local greats played at Bergman. Alfredo Lozoya, Gary Mathews and his brothers, Jim Berkey, Bob Samsen. The Hesselbarts and Vogelpohls and Pinkertons and Spitlers and Dunns. The '75 team, the best of all time, went 10-0 with six shutouts, outscoring opponents 279-32. Lozoya and Mathews were juniors then and are still the school's career leaders in rushing and passing, respectively.
In recent years, John Boles produced winning teams before moving on to Maumee.
Jack Larimer won a couple of state titles in 1959 in the hurdles after running on the old cinder track here, although the track team hasn't used Bergman Field for some time now. Tom Spitler owned the shot put in the '60s, and was a two-time state champ. The names go on and on, 70 years worth of them.
And let us not forget another Genoa star, the Farm Boy. It's a slice of German bologna as thick as your hand, thrown on the grill then topped with mozzarella cheese, onions and sweet pickles and served up in a soft bun by the folks who man the Genoa FFA Alumni concession stand.
When they relocate Football Fridays to the impressive athletic plant behind the high school outside of town, they had better take the best menu at any high school stadium in the state with them.
The ghosts, though, will stay put. As LeRoy Fowler says with a sigh, you can't fight progress.
No, but you can hate it.
Some say it's time to go, and hey, maybe they're right. The locker rooms under the concrete grandstand were tiny when they were new, and now are simply tiny and old, sufFocatingly hot early in the season, numbingly cold deep into the fall, the paint peeling and pipes leaking. The lack of parking is more of a problem now with the school district including so many outlying communities.
Tonight, though, all the Comets, young and old, will make the trip, by foot or by car, to say good-bye to Bergman Field with a game against Gibsonburg. They'll pull off the side streets and park on neighbors' lawns. They'll stroll over from downtown and from throughout the village and find their way to the old high school and wait for the drum to bang slowly.
One last march before time marches on.