High School Sports

Football ‘chain gang’ still going strong at East Wake

East Wake High School chain crew members (from left) Tom Cronin, Chris Milam, Roger Woods, Chris Mitchell, Ricky Halley, and Richard “RA” Mitchell are regulars on the sidelines of the Warriors’ football games.
East Wake High School chain crew members (from left) Tom Cronin, Chris Milam, Roger Woods, Chris Mitchell, Ricky Halley, and Richard “RA” Mitchell are regulars on the sidelines of the Warriors’ football games. newsobserver.com

For the majority of the past two decades, four men in the East Wake community have followed the same routine on every autumn Friday.

Clip. Unclip. Clip. Unclip. Move the chains.

Roger Woods and Richard “RA” Mitchell joined the chain crew for East Wake High football games in the 1997 season. In 1999, Chris Mitchell and Ricky Halley joined the crew’s roster.

Seventeen years later, the foursome is still moving orange poles up and down the sidelines. They’ve developed a close friendship, seen a lot of football and watched innumerable players, coaches and other officials pass through Wendell.

And they’re still going strong.

“Our kids graduated and we just continued to come back and do it,” said Woods, who first joined a chain crew when his son was a 6-year-old Mighty Mite football player in 1985. “We love high school football and we love being on the field.”

Woods and newer member Chris Milam adjust the clips attached to the chain, which are aligned with the nearest yard line to ensure accuracy when moving the chain for a measurement.

Halley and Tom Cronan, another newer addition, move the “sticks” that mark each end of the 10-yard chain. Chris Mitchell, the so-called “box man,” changes the down marker. RA Mitchell, long partnered with Woods, now oversees the crew.

Chris Mitchell notes that the job requires maintaining close attention to the game at all times, especially for flags that could negate plays that seemingly resulted in first downs. “You’re part of the game, so you want to get it right,” he said.

With nearly two decades of experience, however, one could argue they make up one of the most practiced chain gangs in North Carolina. Although they stick solely to home varsity games now – the standard responsibility for chain crews – they worked every varsity and junior varsity game, both home and away, for most of the past 17 years.

“We’ve earned respect from the officiating crews and the coaches and the ADs,” said Halley, who once coached the children of two of his fellow crew members. “All the officials know that when they come to a game that we’re on the sidelines for, we know what we’re doing.”

But the experience has been rewarding in other ways as well.

The group of regulars has developed a tight bond – and an understanding of each other’s peeves.

“We each know a lot about each other as far as what gets us riled up,” Chris Mitchell said. “We enjoy each other’s company and giving each other a hard time on the sidelines.”

After hundreds of games, the original foursome has seen the good times, the bad times, the meager times and the funny times of East Wake High School football.

They recall the early days, when the team’s equipment was so poor that they bought new down markers with their own money, rolled it all into Wood’s van and replaced the entire official chain set themselves.

They look back on fondly on Nov. 5, 2004, when the Warriors scored 24 points in the game’s final five minutes to stun rival Garner 49-47 as part of an undefeated regular season.

And they remember less pleasantly East Wake’s lean era from 2007 to 2013, when the team went 4-7 or worse for seven consecutive seasons.

Yet even as East Wake has reemerged as a winning program in recent years, life by the orange poles has remained roughly the same.

Halley, now 65 and retired, sat out the 2013 season with knee pain, but Woods, now 62 and also retired, called him back into action last fall. The four men, along with their two newer cohorts, faithfully started another season on the sidelines this fall.

For Woods, who worked 35 years for the company that eventually became Caterpillar and for Boy Scout Troop 524 for 22 years, the desire to stick with the chain gang comes naturally.

“Everything that I’ve done in my lifetime, I’ve done for a pretty long period,” he said. “And everything that I’ve done, I’ve enjoyed. I don’t ever want to go sit in the stands.”

The rest of the group agreed: the end of the East Wake chain gang’s tenure is hardly on the horizon.

“We will probably all be out there until they put us in a wheelchair and roll us off,” said Halley, chuckling.