Purple Hearts

What’s it take to be a top-notch high school football player in a town totally obsessed with high school football? Passion. Commitment. Stamina. And if you’re from the west side, a.k.a. Elder country, a love of the color purple helps, too.

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It’s not quite 11 o’clock on the first Sunday morning in September, a time when the spidery streets around Elder High School are usually quiet. The only sound you should hear at this hour are the bells at St. William on West Eighth Street and St. Lawrence on Warsaw Avenue calling Price Hill’s faithful to mass. But today is not at all usual, and the streets are not remotely quiet, because this Sunday the mighty Elder Panthers will clash with their all-city rivals, the Colerain Cardinals, at noon. That makes this a high holy day of sorts for the disciples of the purple and white, who have already squeezed into the parking lots and are spilling across the sidewalks around the school’s legendary stadium, known with equal measures of reverence and scornful pride as The Pit.

The rest of America is here to watch, too. ESPN is set to carry the game live from coast to coast—a fact that bumps the normal pregame frenzy a few notches higher. The sports network’s interest validates what Cincinnatians have known for quite a while: Around these parts, high school football is a very big deal. It is covered obsessively, from The Cincinnati Enquirer on down to overwrought team blogs and fan forums. Ken Broo and Denny Janson and Lance McAlister devote precious airtime to it. You and everybody you know talks about it at the office. And anyone new to the Queen City can be excused for that incredulous “Whaaa?” look when they find out how many full-grown adults spend their Friday evenings in fall at the local high school game. It’s a Cincinnati thing; one day, if you stay long enough, you’ll understand.

In a city where the NFL team has been a farce for 20 years and the only Division I college program was, until the past couple of auspicious years, nearly as bad, high school football provides the main source of pigskin pride—and bragging rights—to local fans. Elder fans have been maniacally proud of their team for as long as most of them can remember—longer, in fact, than most of them have been alive. A considerable majority of the kids currently enrolled at the all-boys school had some connection to it before their first day of freshman year. Their fathers, brothers, uncles, even grandfathers went to Elder. They’ve huddled under The Pit’s Friday night lights since they were children. If they have a dozen T-shirts in their drawers at home, at least three are purple.

The first Catholic Archdiocesan high school in Cincinnati, Elder graduated its initial class in 1923. In the intervening years, the school put down deep roots.Just as there is a cliché about west-siders never leaving the west side, Elder alums never really leave the school behind. They continue to support it and identify with it. The crowd at the Colerain game—a solid sea of fans in purple shirts, purple shorts, and purple-slathered torsos, spanning generations—is a raucous testament to that. Head coach Doug Ramsey, now in his 13th season, says that Elder football is as much about the community as it is about the kids on the field. “Our kids know they’re playing for more than just themselves,” he says. “Here you see 70-year-old guys in the stands with Elder stuff on. You don’t see that at a lot of other places.”

As kickoff approaches, the Colerain fans filing in look somewhat bewildered. Though they take their team just as seriously, their tradition as a city power doesn’t extend as far back as Elder’s. And today they are deep in enemy territory. Swaddled in red—some of them painted head-to-toe—they head to the visitor’s side of The Pit, gazing around as if they’ve just entered the Roman Colosseum.
In an era when high school football facilities stretch like palaces across wide suburban acreage, The Pit squats in the backyards of its urban neighbors. A brutal concrete horseshoe designed in 1937 by two seniors at the school, it sits in a narrow valley bound tightly on three sides by working-class homes, their steeply pitched roofs jutting through thick trees, as if guarding the sacred battlefield from intruders. Fans cascading through the Vincent Avenue gate trundle down a blacktop driveway in front of the school, which looms above the open end of the horseshoe, its high Norman tower casting a shadow across the steps leading to the field. On the front of the purple press box perched atop the home stands hangs a sign that reads: “Welcome to The Pit: Elder’s 12th Man.”

For most of the last two decades, Elder and Colerain have been two of the top-ranked teams in Ohio. This year, Elder started the season ranked third in the entire country on USA Today’s “Super 25” list. The week before meeting Colerain, the Panthers convincingly whipped East St. Louis Senior High School, another nationally ranked team, in the Skyline Chili Crosstown Showdown at Nippert Stadium, a multi-game event that has done much to bolster the reputation of Cincinnati’s high school teams. Colerain went into the Showdown ranked 13th in the country and first in the city but was upset by St. Xavier 16–0. So they come to The Pit seeking to erase the memory of last week’s surprising loss, and to deliver some long overdue payback: Last year, Colerain lost a bruising regional playoff game to Elder in double overtime 27–20, which launched the Panthers into the state semifinals. If Elder comes into the game without a chip on its shoulder, it still has a lot to protect. A ranking of third in the country is a dizzying height to reach, even for such a perennial powerhouse.

As ESPN’s cameras comb the scene, smoke from grills wafts in the air, the marching bands beat their drums, and the student sections volley cheers back and forth across the field. It’s an electrifying tribal rite that many love to the point of fanaticism. But few of those fanatics know what it is to actually walk out into the middle of that fray, strap on a helmet, and go at it full-bore for 60 exhausting minutes. Which is to say, few have had the privilege and known the anxiety that comes with being a player.
 
Earlier that morning, at his home in Delhi, Elder quarterback Mark Miller was eating doughnuts—a pregame routine started by his father, George, who played on state champion basketball and baseball teams for Elder in the early 1970s. Mr. Miller picks up a dozen doughnuts at the Bizy Bee Bakery in Sayler Park before every game. His son isn’t picky about what kind his dad brings home. He likes the routine as much  as the doughnuts.

Last year was a pretty good year for Mark Miller. He led Elder to the state championship as a junior, was named Co-Offensive Player of the Year in Ohio, and was first-team quarterback on the Associated Press Division I All-State team. He threw for 3,331 yards and 31 touchdowns. Yet despite these achievements, no big-time college programs have come calling with a scholarship. They’ve shown, in fact, no interest at all. At this point, the two schools he’s talking with are Ohio Dominican University, in Columbus, and Eastern Illinois University, both Division II schools.

As out-of-whack as that may seem, by Division I standards, it’s all too common. Truth is, Miller doesn’t look like the quarterback on the third-ranked team in the nation. In the game program he’s listed as six-foot-one and 180 pounds, but those numbers seem a little hopeful; he doesn’t swagger like a six-foot-tall QB and lacks the big frame that top colleges covet. Still, he tries not to let the proclivities of recruiting get him down.

“I am one of the most optimistic people I know,” he says, “and I’m hopeful that there may be a Division I offer out there for me. But if not, then it’s not the end of the world. I don’t have the prototypical size or speed for a major Division I program, but I believe that heart, passion, and knowledge of the game are much more important, which is something I hold very strongly in my deck of attributes as a football player.”

Miller’s optimism has taken him a long way in a short time. Before last year’s amazing success, he was not even a starter. He didn’t see a lot of playing time on either the freshman or junior varsity teams, but he kept working and practicing, lifting weights and running, and in the summer before his junior year things fell into place. Throughout the hot afternoon practices at The Pit, he competed for time with senior Joe Hetzer, who had already been voted a co-captain. Miller, many thought, would ride the bench. Then Hetzer suffered a concussion in a scrimmage and Miller was thrust into the job.

It took a little time for the team, especially the seniors, to believe that Miller could lead the Panthers to the kind of success expected of them. “I definitely felt that I had to earn the seniors’ trust, but they made it easy on me,” he recalls. “They were always encouraging. Joey [Hetzer] definitely helped me through the first couple of weeks. He told me just to relax and have fun, try not to think too much, and let the game come to you.”

If he doesn’t look like a big-time quarterback, Miller also doesn’t act like one. He is neither brash nor cocky. He evinces supreme confidence in a modest way—as if he knows what he can do on a football field but he’d rather just do it than make a big fuss about it. His dark brown hair hangs messily across his forehead, and his aw-shucks smile suggests he’s taken all the praise he’s received since last year in stride. An A student and current student council president, Miller succeeds with brains more than brawn. His favorite subject is math and he plans to get some type of business degree, hoping someday to run his own company. Which, even though he’s just 18, makes a certain kind of sense. His charisma derives more from a quiet sense of certainty he conveys than in charm or bravado. He just seems to understand the situation better than anyone else.

“Mark is just one of those guys who does everything well,” Ramsey says. “He’s a winner. And he’s a leader. He has the ability to get people to follow him.”

As an Elder player, Miller follows not only his father and uncle (who also played quarterback) but his older brothers Stephen, Matt, and Dan. He’s known since the third grade that he wanted to play football for the Panthers. If he feels at all nervous about today’s game, he doesn’t show it. Instead, he thinks about the game plan and what he is supposed to do. School and classes and student council are far away. College is far, far away. Right now, all he needs to concentrate on is putting points on the board.

He finishes his doughnut and heads for The Pit, as if to say, Let’s get this started.
     
A few miles north of the Miller home, in Western Hills, star wide receiver Tim O’Conner takes part in his own pregame family tradition: Before every game, his mom or dad rubs his forehead and his palms with holy water. As a receiver, O’Conner depends on his hands, so a bit of ecclesiastical Stickum can’t hurt. Anointing his head with water is designed to keep him safe from injury.

Unlike his friend Mark, O’Conner was pegged as a future star before he took his first class at Elder. A grade-school legend on the west side, “that O’Conner kid from Our Lady of Lourdes” had wowed opponents and their parents in every sport he played. At six-foot-three and 190 pounds, he’s bigger than Miller. A strong and rangy 17-year-old, he moves with the grace of an athlete on and off the field. While Miller didn’t see much playing time on the junior varsity team as a sophomore, O’Conner was already playing for the varsity, getting into 15 to 20 plays per game.  

Another difference between him and Miller: Every Big Ten school has talked to him about a scholarship, and right before the season started he committed to play at Indiana University, the first one to make him a formal offer. While other schools wanted to wait and see him play a couple of games as a senior, he was impressed by Indiana’s certainty about his ability. “Seems like a good fit,” he says.

Where Miller, the less gifted athlete, exudes confidence, O’Conner seems almost diffident. He doesn’t talk a lot, and when he does, he speaks in a soft voice. Says Ramsey with a chuckle, “He only wants the person he’s talking to to hear what he has to say.” Before he speaks, O’Conner often knits his brow, considering what is being said before responding. Then he’ll offer a few words. Slowly.

But like Miller, he comes from an Elder football family. His father and older brother, Bill, are both alums, and Bill played on Elder’s state football championship team in 2003. His dad, a dentist, is an active booster at the school. “Elder has always been important,” O’Conner says. “There’s always been that sense around my house.” His favorite subject is history, but he plans to get a business degree. After that, he’s not sure. “Maybe I’ll be a dentist, like my dad,” he says. “I don’t know. I’m thinking about it.”

Though shy off the field, O’Conner is extremely sure on it, and he relishes competition. When he leaves home for The Pit, he feels the normal anticipation. How could he not? But at no time before or during the game does it enter his mind that Colerain has a chance to win.

Ramsey and Elder athletic director Dave Dabbelt had talked for some time with other school administrators, faculty, and coaches before accepting ESPN’s offer. Though the national attention provides great exposure for the school—and for Cincinnati prep football in general—they wanted to be sure it was a good situation for their athletes. The big business of sports in America can be tough on professionals, much less 16- and 17-year-old high school students.  

Dabbelt, who has taught at Elder for 40 years and served as its AD for the past 20, is keenly aware of the pressures that student athletes endure, especially the kids who play football. That hallowed tradition has been a good one overall for the school, but an inordinate amount of expectation is psychically projected onto the kids who take the field each autumn. And that can be taxing.

A graduate in the class of 1966, Dabbelt came back to the school immediately after college and has never left. At 61, he’s as thin now as his first day on the job and just as passionate about the place. Though his hair is nearly white, he has a tanned, youthful face and bearing. He speaks quickly and with enthusiasm. In his cramped office, packed with trophies, he guides what is perhaps the city’s most storied sports program.

“Twenty years ago I’d never have guessed what I’m doing right now,” he says. “It’s changed dramatically. It’s become much more of a business. A big-money business, to some extent. We’re still trying to be a high school that doesn’t have ‘pay to play,’”—meaning that the kids don’t have to pay a fee to be on the team—“but we’re getting closer to where we may have to. We’re one of the few around that don’t.”

When sports teams do well, boosters and alumni tend to take an interest and offer more financial support. That’s important at a private school like Elder, where tuition (currently $7,900) cannot cover all the costs of keeping the doors open. When Mark Miller’s father, George, was playing for the purple and white in the 1970s, the school’s enrollment hovered around 2,000. Now it’s less than 900. Tuition is considerably higher, making it more difficult for families, particularly big Catholic families, to afford Elder and the other Catholic high schools. Oak Hills High School, just a few miles up the road, has the largest public enrollment in the state and annually receives top ratings for education. Which means that, in order to survive, Elder has to market itself wisely and get its message out.

That message, in a word, is family. “The community is what makes us work,” Dabbelt says. “We talk about ‘family’ all the time. I think the west side culture lends itself to that.” He credits the Dads Club and the Elder Boosters with pitching in to keep the school viable, and sports programs are a big part of the success.

Aside from keeping the program competitive and profitable, Dabbelt’s toughest challenge is finding schools to play. As part of the Greater Catholic League’s South Division—Elder, Moeller, LaSalle, and St. Xavier—the Panthers have only three league games on their schedule any given year. The annual game with Western Hills High School, a rivalry that dates back to the 1930s, ends the season, but Dabbelt struggles to find other teams to fill the remaining dates during the regular season. The GCL schools in the Central and North divisions lack the enrollment to compete with the powerhouses in the South, and the big public schools fill their schedules with league games, leaving only a few openings. Dabbelt therefore has to range widely to fill his 10-week schedule; this year that includes teams from as far away as East St. Louis, Louisville, Columbus, and Cleveland. He couldn’t find a team to play in week nine. St. X and Moeller face the same challenge.  
 
The crowd in The Pit is practically throwing off sparks when Elder’s kicker Tony Miliano boots the ball into the air. Colerain’s first drive stalls, and once Elder has possession, the offense moves down the field like a machine until Colerain’s defense forces them to settle for a field goal. Then the Cardinal offense takes over, employing a lightning-quick triple-option attack that Elder appears unable to stop. The fans dressed in red cheer wildly as Cardinal fullback Trayion Durham rambles for a touchdown.

The Panther players seem to view this as a minor setback. Exhibiting their usual sangfroid, Elder’s offense takes the field and begins methodically moving the ball toward the goal line. The game seesaws back and forth for the rest of the first half until 20 seconds before the gun is fired, when Miller finally finds receiver Selby Chidemo in the corner of the end zone. With that, Elder goes into the locker room leading 10–7.

Days after the game, while munching a pizza at LaRosa’s on Boudinot Avenue in Price Hill, O’Conner recalls what being in the middle of all that felt like. “We knew we would win,” he says, matter-of-factly. “That’s the way it always is. We’re not cocky about it, just confident. Even in that state championship game last year. We fell behind early but we all felt that ‘We’re going to come back and win this game.’ We knew we were good enough to do it.”

But belief was not enough on that cold night in Canton last November when Elder met St. Ignatius High School from Cleveland in the state championship game. St. Ignatius had hit its stride in the playoffs and bulled through every team in its path. The Panthers knew they had to stop the Wildcats’ high-powered offense early in the game to stay close, but they simply couldn’t do it. By the end of the first half, they’d fallen behind 21–0.

In the locker room at halftime, they regrouped. Coach Ramsey told his players, “Regardless of what happens, for you seniors it’s once in a lifetime. Don’t have a regret about it. Five years from now don’t look back and say, ‘I gave up in the second half of the game.’ Give it everything you’ve got.”

And they did. In the second half Elder mounted a comeback, mostly on the arm of Mark Miller and the hands of Tim O’Conner. Miller set state playoff records with 50 pass attempts for 27 completions and 399 yards. O’Conner set the state playoff record with 15 catches, including two touchdowns, which tied the record, and gained 184 yards, which came close to the yardage record. “We’re down one score,” Ramsey remembers. “Ignatius thought they had us. They thought the game was over and then we came battling back. We scared them to death. I’m sure they thought at halftime, ‘It’s going to be an easy second half.’”

Elder did not make it easy. With under two minutes to play, they lined up for an onside kick in hopes of tying the score. But Ignatius recovered the kick and held on to win. For Ramsey, who had led Elder to state championships in 2002 and 2003, the loss was disappointing. For the players, it was devastating. When the game ended, Miller slouched toward the sidelines where his mom and brothers were waiting, waving off a reporter who hustled up to him for a quote. He wasn’t ready to talk.

In some ways, he’s still not ready. “I don’t think there’s been a day that’s gone by that I haven’t thought about it,” he admits. “It’s not so much specifics, it’s just you think, ‘What if I had done something different here or there? What if I’d made a different play than I did?’ It sticks in your mind. That’s my motivation for this year.”

All O’Conner really remembers of the aftermath were the fans cheering the team, their frothy breath pouring into the night air. “We felt like we should have won the game,” he says. “We were coming back, and the defense was stopping them. We just ran out of time.” As for how he felt, he recalls, “It hit me pretty hard. I was down for a couple of weeks probably. But then you have to start rebuilding for the next year.”

Which is what they began to do.

Throughout the winter and on into the spring and summer, if you happened to pass through the Donohoe Center, Elder’s training facility, you would have heard the ring and clank of weights being lifted, the grunts of players, and the vehement exhortations of coaches and trainers. The center was built more than 80 years ago as the school’s original gymnasium; in 2002, it was remodeled to house up-to-date training equipment—row upon row of Icarian weight machines, all with purple seat pads and benches. The walls, too, are coated in purple and white, and across one, in large type, are the words: “What I had I gave, what I saved I lost forever.”

Playing at a high-powered program where expectations are high requires a good deal of sacrifice and a strong commitment from young men barely old enough to drive. State regulations require a 30-day no-contact policy after a season ends, meaning that coaches and players cannot participate in any organized workout or practice. After the 30 days, the boys begin formalized training four days a week. A workout usually lasts about two hours. One group will lift weights while another group runs—sprints or agility drills or whatever is on the schedule that day. The pace is relentless.    

The head coach’s office is located in the Donohoe Center, right next to the weight room. It’s spare, containing a desk, several computers, and a television. At 43, Ramsey is tall and fit, a commanding presence easily the size of his biggest players. Wearing an Elder T-shirt, he sits in a chair and looks intensely at whomever he’s addressing. His blue-eyed gaze could shrivel the resolve of the cockiest kid.

When asked about the level of expectations he places on his players, he barks “a lot” with such certainty it’s clear that anything less is unacceptable. “To be a part of our program you’d better be committed,” he says. “We have high expectations. We expect you to stay out of trouble and we expect you to do well in school. We expect that if you’re not playing another sport we expect you in the weight room. We expect you to work hard in practice. We expect you to accept your role, whether you’re a starter or you’re a scout-team guy. We talk about passion a lot. You’d better be passionate about it. Football’s not for everybody. If you’re going to do this, you’ve got to love doing it.”

O’Conner and Miller got that message long ago. “It gets pretty intense,” O’Conner says. Miller agrees. “Sure, everybody gets tired,” he says. “Four days a week is kind of tough on us, but it’s something you have to do.”

Beyond developing strength and stamina, the workouts and the long summer practice sessions (two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon, starting in July) are designed to build camaraderie. The players are all together, suffering the same fatigue, facing the same challenges. But building camaraderie among Elder players seems almost redundant. Most of the players have known each other since well before their freshman year. Miller and O’Conner met when they were in the fifth grade playing baseball with the Weststars, a west side organization of select players, ages 10 to 18, that competes in the Southwest Ohio League, the largest amateur competitive league in the country. That kind of unity helps the school field strong teams despite dipping enrollment.

That closeness pays off during the third quarter of the Colerain game, when Miller is chased from the pocket. He eludes a couple of linemen and rolls to the right side of the field, then whips a pass all the way across the field—a dangerous move even for a pro quarterback. Elder fans collectively stop breathing for a second until O’Conner steps into the open, plucks the ball out of the air, and heads up field.

“Mark just threw it up because he knew that I would be there,” O’Conner says, as if any other outcome was even possible.

Trust is a key theme that Ramsey repeats over and over. This year he even gave the players “Trust” T-shirts to remind them. But he also pushes another theme, one every player hears frequently beginning in his freshman year. It’s a simple and yet complicated question, a kind of Catholic high school version of a Zen koan: Are you Elder football?

At the start of every year, all the players—even those on the freshmen and junior-varsity teams—gather, along with their parents, for a mass. Afterward, Ramsey distributes more T-shirts emblazoned with “Are you Elder football?” Though it has become the mantra of the program, articulating what it means isn’t easy. Miller and O’Conner say it’s more a matter of internalizing the philosophy—which is another way of saying, if you have to ask what it means then you’re not going to get it.

“It’s like it means—is that what you want to strive to be?” Miller says, struggling to put into words a feeling he’s had in his heart since the third grade. “Is that the kind of person you want to epitomize?”

“I think it means you’ve got to have heart and get through the tough times,” O’Conner says. “You’ve got to be dedicated to the team always. Team first. Well, family and God first, but then the team. Put team before yourself.”

Seated in his office, athletic director Dave Dabbelt tries to explain the mantra. “Part of it is about setting priorities, but part of it is the competitiveness,” he says. “To compete you have to work hard, and I think [the students] understand that message. Those kids are working out in the off-season. It’s not something that’s just going to be handed to them. It’s that toughness, that inner drive, that competitiveness, which is really a big factor as far as what Elder is all about.”

Ramsey, who cooked up the mantra with his coaching staff, answers the question with another question: “What it comes down to is—are you a quality person? Are you what Elder High School wants you to be? That’s what we’re looking for. It’s a lot about football but it’s not just about football.”

OK, so that’s probably what you expected them to say. But ultimately that’s what makes high school football so popular: it’s about the game and—cue the NFL highlight reel soundtrack—much more. In a word, life. Strip away the hype and the media attention and the money, and the sport retains a level of innocence fans can’t find elsewhere. In pro ball, we hear about an endless parade of players in trouble, of unchecked egos running wild on and off the field and unchecked greed in the owner’s box. We watch players thump their chests for doing what is simply their job. At the college level, scandals in recruiting are so commonplace we accept corruption and hypocrisy as simply part of the game.

If high school football has become more about the money and the hype than ever before, it’s also still about kids trying hard to play a game they love. And we bring to that game memories of our own youth, our uncomplicated fondness for the old alma mater, and a ragged innocence within ourselves that, under the glare of those mythic Friday night lights, gets one more chance to strut its stuff.

By the second half of the game against Colerain, Elder has used its disciplined approach to neutralize the Cardinals’ superior speed. Early in the fourth quarter, following another Miller-O’Conner connection on a 29-yard touchdown and a 37-yard field goal by kicker Tony Miliano, Elder holds a 13-point lead. Colerain is forced to pass, which is not their strength, and Elder begins grinding out the clock.

Even before the game is over, many Colerain fans are heading for the exits—a comment not on their loyalty to the team as much as on the parking situation around The Pit. The cramped, narrow streets fill up fast when 10,000 people leave a game at the same time. Elder fans, savoring the big victory, stay to watch the final seconds tick down and let out a roar when the gun signals the end of play. Final score: Elder 20, Colerain 7. Miller and O’Conner are lost amid the swarm of players from both teams on the field shaking hands.
When asked about the secret to the Panthers success, Miller gets almost wistful. “Elder is just west side kids who have always dreamed of playing for Elder,” he says. “They’re all giving a hundred percent, putting their heart into it.”

As hyperbolic as that sounds, for some of those kids it is the truth. Unfortunately, for Tim O’Conner, reality intruded on that dream four weeks later, on Elder’s first offensive play against their perennial GCL rival, St. Xavier. O’Conner ran a long route and grabbed a pass, leaping high above the defender and landing hard on the turf—so hard that he snapped two bones in his right wrist. With that injury, his football career at Elder may be over. According to Dabbelt, he might return later in the season if the team goes far in the playoffs and his break heals well. But as of early October, that was unknowable. How—or if—the injury would affect O’Conner’s future in the Big Ten was unclear as well. Reached at home a few days after the game, O’Conner texted back a response that was, under the circumstances, understandable—and completely in-character: “Not up for an interview right now. Sorry.”

“That’s part of the game,” Dabbelt notes ruefully the following week. Yes it is. Just not the part coaches, fans, or players like to think about too much.

Originally published in the November 2009 issue.
Photographs by Ryan Kurtz

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