Last Friday would have been the first home game of the season. If you were a former player or coach, or anyone who had grown to love Hinsdale football over the years, that's when it began to sink in. Thinking about that dark, silent stadium over on Route 16, you couldn't help feeling a little empty yourself.
"I didn't know what to do with myself," said John Schieler, who was the starting quarterback from 1991 to '93. "You could sense the absence."
"I went bananas on Friday night," said Dennis Redding, who played end in 1972-73 and worked the ambulance at every home game thereafter. "I've missed maybe a handful of games in 25 years."
A home football game has long been a major event in Hinsdale, a town of 2,220 in Cattaraugus County, seven miles north of Olean. High school football knitted the townsfolk together. It put the place on the map. Eight years ago, when the school was in the midst of a 24-game winning streak, this paper called it the "most charming story of the football season."
Now it's a sad September song. Hinsdale had to suspend its varsity program for at least one year when it couldn't put the required 18 players on the field because of diminished interest and injuries.
It has always been difficult to put together a representative team at Hinsdale, which has roughly 80 boys in grades 9-12. That's why the men who played there feel such a powerful connection to the program, and are so stung by its disruption.
Rod Rohl was the head coach for 28 years. The Bobcats went 130-88-6 under him. They had good and bad times, which is understandable when your first objective is simply finding 18 healthy, willing bodies. They had three unbeaten seasons, which included the glorious 24-game streak and two sectional titles at Rich Stadium in 1989-90.
Rohl, who is 65, retired from coaching after the 1991 season. It was rare to have a 200-pound lineman or a big-time college prospect. What he had was a bunch of undersized kids who gave their all, no matter how marginal their talent. Because when you're small, you need everybody.
Last Monday night, he sat with four of his former players at The Hut, a restaurant on Route 16, and reminisced about the good times.
"We had kids who played for us that probably wouldn't make Olean High School's second string," Rohl said. "But they gave us good mileage and we got good mileage out of them."
Redding, who is 6-foot-4, was more of a basketball player. But Rohl talked him into playing football. Rohl said he wouldn't get hurt. Redding got hurt both years.
Larry Kwiatkowski, who was very small and very quick, rushed for over 1,200 yards and scored 20 TDs in 1971. The Bobcats went 6-1-1 that year and outscored the opposition, 244-6. Kwiatkowski remembers every detail of that season, including his fumble at Franklinville's 2-yard line in a 6-0 defeat.
"He was going in on what we called the '32 Trap,' " Rohl said. "I'm sorry to bring this up, Larry. One night at bowling, he told me he still has nightmares about the fumble."
Schieler said it's funny how you remember the little things, the simple mistakes you made, more than the touchdowns and wins. But those little painful football memories are better than none at all.
"I don't think these kids realize what they're missing out on," Redding said. "Like the Homecoming Dance and the bonfire, all the stuff we did. Twenty-five years later, someone will walk up to you from Ellicottville or something and say 'You're the son of a gun who clipped me!' I mean, those are things you go through life with. There's a bond."
Rohl has particularly fond memories of the 1989 team. That was the first time Hinsdale reached Rich Stadium. The Bobcats beat Pine Valley in overtime, 7-6, for their first federation title.
"They had signs on the way out of town that said 'Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It's Off to Rich We Go'," Rohl said. "There was nobody here. This is the honest truth. We had to get Westin Mills and some of the other fire departments to fill in for our guys, because there was nobody here as a backup."
Redding remembers how much he envied that team. He also remembers chipping in to help them buy the special cleats required to play on the artificial turf. At least they only had to buy 18 pair of them.
"I still have those shoes," said Andy Mascho, who was a senior in '89. "And sorry Coach, but I counted my jerseys today and between my practice and game jerseys, I have 18 of them."
He'd have more, except for the ritual after the final practice of every season. After the workout, Rohl would say, "OK, tear them off," and the players would rip off their old practice jerseys and throw them on a bonfire.
Then Rohl, who used to pump his kids up for games by waxing about the "crisp, cool air" and the "lingering smell of burning autumn leaves," would pull the seniors aside and thank them for all they'd done for the program. The seniors would then shake hands with all the underclassmen.
The former players don't blame anyone for what's happened. They don't have anything against soccer, which became a varsity sport last year and siphoned off some talent. But soccer isn't football. It doesn't fire the imaginations of America's small towns on weekend nights, the way football always has.
"At least they still have a JV team," Schieler said. "That's something. Maybe next year they'll come back with a varsity. But this year's seniors, the ones who played last year, they'll understand what they missed when the season is over with. It'll sink in then."
Some of it won't sink in until years later. You blink your eyes and 25 years flash by. Then you realize how few meaningful memories a person collects in a lifetime. Teen-agers think they'll live forever. How can they know what it's like to look back with an adult's perspective?
In the end, it's not the winning and losing that matter. It's the relationships between young teammates, the bond that stretches across the years. It's throwing the old jerseys onto the fire. The emptiness comes in knowing that the fire has gone out, and that the bond has actually been broken.