Smithsburg blood runs purple, gold Serious business: In the fall, life in the town rises or falls according to the fortunes of the Leopards.

November 03, 1995|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,SUN STAFF

SMITHSBURG -- This is a football town. No, make that a serious football town.

Smithsburg does not look much different from other small towns in the shadows of South Mountain. Brick and white-frame homes hug Main Street. There's a fire station, a library, a bank, a market, a pair of mom-and-pop eateries. Even a bookstore.

But as will be demonstrated again tonight, life here in the fall for newcomers and old-timers alike is tightly tied to the ups and downs of Smithsburg High School's football team: the Leopards.

The people of Smithsburg bleed purple and gold.

In what possibly amounts to understatement, Dave Wagner, president of the Leopards Boosters Club, a parent group that supports not only football, but other high school sports, says, "Football in Smithsburg is big, really big. It's a way of life here."

It's no wonder the Leopards are a source of pride for so many in this town, population 1,221.

The team from its 660-student high school, which draws pupils from the town and other parts of northeastern Washington County, is defending Class 1A (the state's smallest high schools) state champion.

Since veteran Coach Carroll Reid began Smithsburg's football program in 1967, the school has won five state titles -- four under Mr. Reid. The fifth was in 1979 under Ray Montini while Mr. Reid took a leave of absence.

"When we played," said Steve Martin, 38, a letter carrier and a former Leopard center who still attends games at his alma mater, "the whole town closed up on Saturday afternoon. I don't think it's any different now."

It isn't.

About 1,000 fans will be in the stands tonight when the Leopards, now 5-3, will be host to Walkersville High School, 3-5, from Frederick County. This is a big game for the Leopards, who need two more wins to make the playoffs.

As usual, the home crowd will include parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, students and others in a riot of purple and gold with their school-color hats, jackets, blankets, stadium seats and caps. Some will show up early to claim their bleacher seats -- seats that have been theirs for years.

Important rival

Next Friday's game -- the last of the regular season -- is against long-time rival, Boonsboro High School, a 820-student high school in southern Washington County. The Warriors are 5-3, too, and play tonight against North Hagerstown High School.

Football, noted the team's defensive coordinator, Ken Lutz, has become a family tradition. This year's team includes several players whose fathers were coached by Mr. Reid. And, in some cases, second and third sons are playing under him.

"Coach Reid came here and got the whole family involved, and it's always been that way," Mr. Lutz said.

For another 160 students, a way to participate in the scene is with the school's marching and pep bands and flag units, which perform at halftime and, by far, involve more youths and parents than the football team.

The game and the show that swirls around it have given residents of Smithsburg, a once prosperous farming town that dates back to the early 1800s, a sense of community.

"There's some thought that this is just about the most beautiful place for a football game," said John Martin, eyeing South Mountain's colorful western slope during a recent game.

Like Mr. Martin, a lifelong Smithsburg resident and fruit grower, many fathers and mothers return year after year, long after theirs sons have graduated.

To some it is almost a religion. It's a strong bet that more people show up at Leopards games than attend Sunday services at any of the three churches in town. And Coach Reid, whose teams have won more than 200 games, is a revered figure here.

Mr. Reid, a physical education teacher who plans to retire next month, dismisses such accolades, crediting the talent of boys who have gone through the football program in nearly 30 years.

'Football crazy'

"From day one, this town has been football crazy," said Mr. Reid, whose three sons played for the Leopards. "I don't know whether they were hungry for something like this or what. They're hard fans. True and loyal."

The evidence is there among patrons at the Dixie Eatery, a homey restaurant on Main Street.

"The Leopards are the best in the state. They sure are," said Pat pTC Smith, a bus driver whose son played for the Leopards. "I support them as much as I can."

Mary Malott, the restaurant's owner, noted that the boosters club collects about $15,000 a year through fund-raisers. The money is used to make improvements at Leopard Stadium and for athletic equipment. In recent years, the dollars have bought a new press box and concession stand, freshly painted buildings and stadium lights.

George Rishell, whose eight children graduated from Smithsburg High -- and all three boys played football -- agreed football is serious stuff here.

Rallying point

Robert Beard, vice principal of Boonsboro High School, pointed out that in Smithsburg "you're talking about a community that has a high school. People there, like people in Boonsboro, get behind the school. It's a rallying point. You don't find that in larger communities like Hagerstown."

As next Friday's Boonsboro-Smithsburg game draws nearer, Route 66, the two-lane highway connecting the two towns, will be flanked by homemade signs cheering both teams on. And the Smithsburg crowd will follow the Leopards to Boonsboro. Many times, Leopards fans often outnumber the home crowd.

Tonight will be one of those nights that is something to behold in Smithsburg, according to Principal Mike Shockey.

"On a Friday night or Saturday afternoon game, everything at Leopard Stadium is purple and gold," Mr. Shockey said. "If you don't get a chill seeing that, something is wrong with you."

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