Massillon, Ohio, is something of a football nirvana. A high school game can draw 20,000 spectators – in a town of 30,000.
Paul Brown, one of the greatest coaches in the history of football, regarded his time coaching Massillon's high school as the greatest of his life. This was a man who later took over the program at Ohio State, won NFL titles with the Cleveland franchise that bears his name and went on to coach and own the Cincinnati Bengals.
Though the high school's official name is Washington High School, no one calls it that — it's just Massillon. And in Massillon, it's just about football.
Football As Identity
On a cold, wet Wednesday night early in the season, all the high school football teams in Stark County, Ohio, practiced outside on muddy fields as raindrops danced off helmets. Make that all the teams except the one in Massillon.
As with most things football, things are different in Massillon.
The Massillon Tigers train inside a $3 million indoor practice facility, which is bigger than the Cleveland Browns' indoor complex. (Ohio's other NFL team, the Bengals, doesn't even have an indoor facility.)
At this Massillon 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.
"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," says David. "It's who we were, it's who we are."
David's father, Paul, founded the old Camelot Music chain and was a huge fan of football, as well as a devotee of his high school history teacher, Paul Brown. Jeff David played at the high school and also coached there.
The current head coach, Jason Hall, is a 33-year-old wunderkind who sometimes wonders what he got himself into. Hall thrills to the intensity, and he's invigorated by the attention. He'd better be. He's got booster club meetings, TV shows, luncheons, afternoon practices, Friday night games and scouting on the weekends.
"It's sunup to sundown," Hall says.
Among the most rabid Tigers are three former booster club presidents: Junie Studer, president in 1972; Wilbur Arnold, president in 1970; and Gene Boerner, president in 1973.
Boerner explains that the booster club is hardly the only way to show your Tiger pride.
"We have the Paul Brown Museum, we have a Sideliner organization, we have a Touchdown Club, we have a store," Boerner says. Boerner also notes that current and historical information on every Tiger game played since 1984 is available online.
The information is also collected in black binders that Studer keeps in his basement: season and player stats, newspaper clippings, even game attendance.
The binders also document the Studer family itself. Studer'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 his grandsons, Danny and Joey, have also been team captains. Danny was featured in a documentary called Go Tigers!, which won an award at the Sundance Film Festival.
Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright
So if Studer is the keeper of the flame, Wilbur Arnold is the original keeper of the live tiger that prowls the sidelines at each game, a tradition he started 40 years ago.
"That was the only time my wife would let the tiger in the house, because we had to feed the tiger on a bottle, like a kid," Arnold says.
In addition to the actual tiger, the student mascot, who is a part of the 120-piece marching band, wears a real tiger skin. The costume doesn't go to a seamstress for repair. It goes to a taxidermist.
The school has won 22 state championships. A good home game generates $50,000 in ticket sales. Their 115-year-old rivalry against Canton McKinley High School is routinely named the best in all of high school football.
Massillon fans are so passionate about their team, they can be buried in a Tiger coffin.
But with all devotion people have for this high school, it is perhaps perplexing that the same school that has a multimillion-dollar training facility has trouble funding its French and Spanish clubs.
"Yes, that is an amazingly embarrassing thing to me," says Marshall Weinberg, a member of the Massillon school board. "Twelve hundred dollars would get me my Spanish club, my French club and an exchange program."
Though the school has a benefactor, Weinberg knows that the town is still a place with an unemployment rate above the national average — and a per capita income $10,000 below it. But he's a huge fan of the Tigers and rejects as a false premise that athletics and education are in opposition.
"If 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 ... we're trying to use athletics now to drive education," Weinberg says.
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. A dozen people interviewed for this story voiced a variation on the line that they shouldn't have to apologize for loving football.
Arnold put it this way:
"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," Arnold says. "You can't buy the kind of notoriety we have for any amount of money. It has developed, it's real, it's useful and it just is."