ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
Massillon, Ohio is a football nirvana. A high school game can draw 20,000 spectators in a town of 30,000. Paul Brown, the father of modern football coaching, regarded his time with that high school team in Massillon as the greatest time of his life.
As part of our series Friday Night Lives, NPR's Mike Pesca paid a visit to Massillon's Washington High School, although no one calls it that. There, it's just Massillon. And in Massillon, it's just football.
MIKE PESCA: On a cold, wet Wednesday night, all the high school football teams in Stark County, Ohio - from the Perry Panthers to the Alliance Aviators -sloshed around in mud and watched the raindrops dance off helmets - all the teams except the one in Massillon.
As with most things football, it's different in Massillon.
(Soundbite of football practice)
Unidentified Man: Yup, right to left boots.
PESCA: The Tigers are training inside a $3 million indoor practice facility, which is bigger than the Cleveland Browns' indoor complex. Attending today's practice is Jeff David, a philanthropist behind the Dream Project, which gives scholarships to local students and is building classrooms and facilities for the Massillon school district.
Mr. JEFF DAVID (Philanthropist, The Dream Project): When you grow up in this community, I think people have a pretty general understanding of athletics, football in particular, being pretty important to our town. It's an identity, and we don't have to apologize for that. I don't think they need to apologize for that. It's who we were. It's who we are.
PESCA: David's father, Paul David, who founded the old Camelot Music store chain, was a huge fan of football and a devotee of his high school history teacher, Paul Brown. Jeff David played at the high school and coached here. The current head coach, Jason Hall, is a 32-year-old wunderkind who sometimes wonders what he got himself into.
Mr. JASON HALL (Head Football Coach, Massillon High School): If you've ever watched "Friday Night Lights," that's the show. My wife says we live it.
PESCA: Actually, Hall thrills to the intensity, and he's invigorated by the attention. He'd better be.
Mr. HALL: On Mondays I have a booster club meeting and there will be 200 people in there showing film and talking about the game. I got TV shows. I got luncheons. Our kids are leaving to a team meal on Wednesday night. So, I don't get a night where I don't have something. I have to practice till Thursday, and then we play on Friday and we usually are out scouting on Saturday. So, it's sunup to sundown.
PESCA: Among the most rabid Tigers are three men who meet me in Junie Studer's basement. Junie was the booster club president in 1972. Also here is Wilbur Arnold, president in 1970, and Gene Boerner, president in '73. He explains that the booster club is hardly the only way to show your Tiger pride.
Mr. GENE BOERNER (Former President, Booster Club): We have the Paul Brown Museum. We have a Sideliner organization. We have a Touchdown Club. We have a store. We have the Internet connection, all of the information that Junie has accumulated.
PESCA: Junie steps forward and gestures to the black binders which encircle the basement.
Mr. JUNIE STUDER (Former President, Booster Club): Every game we've ever played since 1894.
PESCA: Many of those binders document the Studer family itself. Junie's son, Steve, was an All-American at Massillon and later became the team's strength coach. Another son started at Massillon, and two of Junie's grandsons have also been team captains. Danny was featured in a documentary called "Go Tigers!" which won an award at Sundance.
(Soundbite of documentary, "Go Tigers!")
Mr. DANNY STUDER (Team Captain, Tigers): I'm want to kill somebody out there.
PESCA: That was a scene of Danny filmed 10 years ago.
Here's Joey pumping up his teammates a few weeks ago.
Mr. JOEY STUDER (Team Captain, Tigers): Hey, let me ask you something real quick (unintelligible).
PESCA: Both Danny and Joey are great kids who excel academically, perhaps not surprisingly when you see the family patriarchs spending so much time in his own books.
So, if Junie is the keeper of the flame, his friend, Wilbur Arnold, is the original keeper of the tiger.
Mr. WILBUR ARNOLD (Former President, Booster Club): That was the only time my wife would ever let the tiger in the house, because we had to feed him on a bottle every four hours like a kid.
PESCA: Did I mention Massillon has a live tiger prowling the sidelines at each game? Arnold has since exited the field of tiger husbandry, but, oh, the stories he tells.
Mr. ARNOLD: The coach helped us out and then he said: That thing stinks and we need to get that out of where it is. So, we now have it in the garage, which is just north of the locker room.
PESCA: In addition to the actual tiger, the student mascot, who's part of the 120-piece swing band, wears a real tiger skin. The costume doesn't go to a seamstress for repairs, it goes to a taxidermist. The school has won 22 state championships. A good home game generates $50,000 in ticket sales.
(Soundbite of marching band)
PESCA: Their 115-year-old game against McKinley is routinely named the best rivalry in all of high school football. You can buy a Massillon tiger coffin. With all the craziness and passion for this high school football team, it's perhaps perplexing to realize that the same school that trains in a multimillion-dollar facility has trouble funding its French and Spanish clubs.
Mr. MARSHALL WEINBERG (Member, Massillon School Board): Yes, that is an amazingly embarrassing thing to me.
PESCA: Marshall Weinberg is a member of the Massillon school board.
Mr. WEINBERG: Twelve hundred dollars would get me my Spanish club, my French club and - oh, there was another, you know, an exchange program. There was 169 students involved.
PESCA: Weinberg knows that the town, despite having a benefactor, is still a place with an unemployment rate above the national average and a per capita income $10,000 below. But he's a huge fan of the Tigers and rejects as a false premise the idea that athletics and education are in opposition.
Mr. WEINBERG: You could learn not to do battle with the tiger, but to grab hold of the tiger's tail and have it pull you along.
PESCA: To that end, the Dream Project, which funded the indoor facility, has partnered with a local college and hospital to fund programs in the field of health care and sports medicine. The football team's GPA is now among the highest in the state, but many residents here feel that outsiders come into town and conclude that Massillon has its priorities backwards. In my time in Massillon, a dozen people voiced a variation on the line that we shouldn't apologize for loving football.
Former booster club president Wilbur Arnold put it this way.
Mr. ARNOLD: Football is a part of this town. It is the spirit of which we are made. It is the spirit that brings us together. It is a common purpose that we can all work on. You can't buy the kind of notoriety that we've got for any amount of money. It has developed. It's real. It's useful. And it just is.
PESCA: Today the Tigers are one win from the state semifinals. Standing in their way is, wouldn't you know it, archrival McKinley High School, which beat Massillon once already this year. Tomorrow's meeting between the schools, the 119th, will make history. Or better put: Will be another chapter in the books, literally for Junie's binders and metaphorically for a Massillon community where football is the greatest history they have.
Mike Pesca, NPR News.