High school football wouldn't be the same without these characters

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As the high school football season kicks off tonight, players will make memories that last a lifetime. Coaches will try to make all the right moves.

That's what fans see on the outside from a sport that has become a part of the fabric of life for many people in Western Pennsylvania. On an average Friday night, about 120,000 people attend games in the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League (WPIAL) and Pittsburgh City League

Yet there are many people who don't score touchdowns or call the right play. They are the people who aren't in the spotlight, but who also help to make the magic that is Western Pennsylvania high school football.

They are the people who love this game.

The mascot

Many schools have mascots who try to generate enthusiasm with fans. But at Aliquippa, the mascot "fires up" the home faithful.

Just before the start of every home game, Mark Swan, 41, dressed as an Indian, rides his horse, "Cinnamon," to the center of the field and throws a flaming spear into the ground directly in front of the visiting team's bench.

Former Aliquippa coach Don Yannessa came up with the idea in the early 1970s. Mr. Swan, an Industry resident who owns 11 horses, has been riding to the center of the field for 13 years.

"It seems to make an impression on people because everyone seems to remember it and talk to me about it," Mr. Swan said.

But you never know what might happen with the pregame ritual. Two years ago, Aliquippa played host to Beaver Falls on a Thursday night game televised live by FSN Pittsburgh. When Mr. Swan rode to the center of the field, Cinnamon decided to fertilize a portion of the field.

"Right at the 50-yard line," said Aliquippa coach Mike Zmijanac. "The game was on TV, but we had to delay the start of it while the custodial staff cleaned things up."

The 'Rowdie' fans

High schools have seating sections for students and bands. Outside of North Hills' Martorelli Stadium, there is a spot for the "Rowdie" people.

The "Rowdie Rooters" are a group mostly of adults who gather in a driveway near a home that sits atop the stadium.

They aren't charged to watch the game because they don't come into the stadium.

"When the team is doing well, there are easily 100 or more people up there," said Joe Dinkel, who, along with Tim Szalinski and Jeremy Scheutz, lead the "Rowdie" section these days.

The "Rowdie Rooters" started in the late 1970s as a group of students who made a lot of noise at basketball games.

They sound off a siren during the game when North Hills scores. They are close to the visiting team locker room, so they also try to get under the skin of opposing teams.

"We had a coach try to climb the fence once to get at us," said Mr. Szalinski. "We've toned it down over the years, but, when we play North Allegheny, we still bring a stuffed tiger. Every time we score, we cut off a part of the tiger and throw it onto the field.

"I have season tickets to Steelers games, but to be honest, I'd rather go to a high school game."

Mr. Dinkel said, "My wife gets on me sometimes and says, 'Why do you go to high school games?' I say, 'Honey, you just don't understand.' "

The equipment man

Harry Leonardi is pushing 90, but he still pushes around the football equipment at Canon-McMillan High in Canonsburg.

Mr. Leonardi is 87 and in his 36th season as equipment manager for the football team. He does everything from washing uniforms, to fixing helmets, to setting up the field for games.

"I handle soccer, too. Since 1973, I've been to every football game, home and away, except two," Mr. Leonardi said.

During football preseason, Mr. Leonardi attended three-a-day practices, five days a week.

"Thank God, I have my health and can still do everything I did when I was 50," Mr. Leonardi said. "Plus, I love this game and just love being with these kids."

The announcer

Woody Miller is a retired history teacher in the Pittsburgh city schools. But his voice never retires.

Go to a City League football game at Cupples Stadium on the South Side and you are guaranteed to hear Mr. Miller's voice throughout the stadium -- and his distinctive call of "First down!"

All schools have their stadium announcers, but Mr. Miller is the public address announcer for every City League game.

The league plays all games (four a week) at Cupples, and Mr. Miller has been at the microphone for all the games since 1993.

He has missed 16 games over the years, but most of those were in a three-week period in 1994 when he had half a foot amputated because of diabetes.

"He's one of the most unique entities we have," said City League athletic director Mike Gavlik.

Besides announcing, he also keeps statistics during the game for both teams, and phones in the results of games to media outlets.

"I've been on kidney dialysis for three years, but this is the first year it's really beating me up," he said. "I'm going to give this [announcing] a shot again, though, because I just like doing it. I don't want to say that I can't do it any more, because then I might just sit here and die. Doing these games takes your mind off a whole lot of problems you have."

The band 'machine'

Not everyone goes to the refreshment stand or restroom at halftime. Some people still watch the bands because high school football wouldn't be the same without them.

It seems many people like to watch South Fayette's "Little Green Machine" This 84-member band uses an unusual style that makes it a big hit with fans. The "Machine" does everything from running around the field with instruments to disco dancing.

"It's tough to describe," said band director Mike Mackey. "You might find some similar things down south at the traditional black colleges and universities. Really, we're a dancing band with high energy. Almost aerobic. One of the steps we still use today is the Charleston."

Seniors in the band choreograph all the dance steps and teach the steps to the rest of the band.

"When I was in the band here, there was always a close relationship with the football team," Mr. Mackey said. "It's getting that way again. After every game now, win or lose, the team comes over to the band and sings the alma mater as the band plays it."

The radio man

There is a half-hour pregame show. Then, he monitors scores of games. Then, there is an hour-and-a half post game show.

It sounds like gameday for an ESPN sportscaster. No, it's just a routine Friday night for the director of a high school sports radio/internet network.

Don Rebel is in his 10th year as the director of the MSA Sports Network, which specializes in WPIAL sports coverage. The network is affiliated with 35 radio stations throughout Western Pennsylvania and also streams broadcasts of games through its Web site (www.msasports.net).

Mr. Rebel, 43, directs all coverage and also broadcasts some games and shows during the week. It is a full-time gig.

"When this was run by Nauticom years ago, we tried to take this concept to Ohio, Florida and Texas," Mr. Rebel said. "But it's different. Like in Florida, there are not a lot of radio stations that broadcast high school games. A ton of people go to games, but not many games are on radio. That's what makes this neck of the woods special.

"I think you do have to like high school sports to do this. I guess I just found my niche."

• For a complete preview of the area high school football scene, see Sports, Pages C4-6

Mike White can be reached at mwhite@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1975.


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