A few months later, during the last week of our junior year, our guidance counselor tracked me down as I waited in the lobby for the driver’s ed car. He had come to congratulate me. I had just been accepted to Clarion. I was the first person in our class to get a college acceptance letter. And we weren’t even seniors yet. Wow.
I stopped when I got to the question asking to list family members who were Millersville grads. No one in my family had gone there. Mom went to Penn, and Daddy went to Lehigh. I would have to leave this part of the form blank. Would doing this affect the odds of my acceptance? Even as a teenager, I had already heard the saying, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” I thought this approach applied only to politics and to big business. But somehow, it seemed to apply here. (Yes, I was naïve, not knowing that the field of college admissions is big business.) Clarion hadn’t asked me how many of my relatives had gone there. Why did Millersville? I thought the process was supposed to focus on my qualifications, and not on my genealogy. The more I thought about this question, the angrier I got. I put the paperwork aside for a few days to let it settle. In the end, I tossed the half-completed application into the trash. Clarion had already accepted me. That’s where I would go. So be it.
People who live in the eastern part of Pennsylvania rarely pay attention to anything that happens west of the Susquehanna River. Although my parents and I had done some traveling together along the east coast, we had never gone west before. It was an adventure. I kind of considered my home state as a mini-version of the whole country. Where I lived in Lancaster was sort of like Philadelphia, which was only a 90-minute ride to the east, anyway. Almost all of our television channels came from there. Pittsburgh was a stand-in for San Francisco. Erie was Seattle. Scranton was New York City, more or less. And Clarion, in the mountains, was like Denver. (Although much smaller.) Since I was listening to the music of John Denver at the time, I often imagined what the Rocky Mountains looked like in Colorado. Here I would instead be going to the mountains of Pennsylvania, to our own version of the Rockies. This was certainly another reason why I picked Clarion. Another advantage was that I could get some needed distance from my domineering mother. She seemed pleased with my choice to “go away.” But whenever her friends asked about me, and she told them I was going to Clarion, they all looked at her blankly and asked, “Where?” In August 1975, that’s exactly where I went.
I liked the campus. I liked my classes. I liked a lot of the new people I met. Almost all of them were Steelers fans. And theirs wasn’t a bad bandwagon to jump onto, in the late 1970s, so I soon liked the black-and-gold myself. I liked being in the Clarion marching band and going to all of the football games. I loved playing and singing our fight song.
The Clarion team was better than my high school team had been. In 1975, their record was 6-2-1. In 1976, they went 7-3. My parents came to our homecomings and to the games we played in Shippensburg, since they were closest ones to Lancaster. They got to see me perform at halftime and in the homecoming parades. It was all a lot of fun.
In my sophomore year, I had another decision to make. We library science majors were encouraged to declare a double major with another subject. This way, we could be certified to teach in that field, too. It sounded like a good idea. I decided to double major with German. But if I wanted to graduate “on time” – meaning, in exactly four years – I would have to take extra courses during my last two summers. Alas! The easiest and cheapest way to do this was to stay at home and to go to Millersville. I would not have to formally pledge allegiance to the place. I would merely transfer any credits I would earn there to Clarion. I don’t remember if I had to fill out the same application that I was faced with before. If I did, by this time, I didn’t care. Millersville was only going to act as substitute site for me, for two summers. Clarion would still be my school. In the summer of 1977, I took earth science, a survey of literature, and tennis at Millersville. Easy enough credits to transfer.
By late August, I was back at Clarion to start a new year, both with my majors and with the marching band. This season was different, though. This football team was different. We started winning every game. Every. Single. Game. We in the band liked to think that we helped in the effort. We played the theme from Rocky in the stands at critical moments in the games. Just the sound of the opening line alone seemed to fire up the players, as well as the fans. And before you knew it, Clarion was 8-0-1. And we were all headed off to the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference championship game.
By now, after two seasons, I was used to traveling with my fellow bandmates. The band was funded so that we could go to every game, both home and away. Once a season, we had at least one overnighter. But this trip was surreal. On Friday, November 18th, we boarded the usual Grove City Bus line buses. But we now traveled along a very familiar route to me. Familiar but strange, under the circumstances. When we got to Lancaster, we pulled into the hotel that sat less than a mile from my house. It was odd, being back home, but being with the band at the same time. Especially when most of the members were from the western part of the state. From “away.”
My parents and I had planned a strategy. After the game, my friend and fellow flute player Gerri Walker and I would leave the band bus behind and would stay at our house instead. Then on Sunday, we would borrow my mother’s car, and Gerri and I would drive back to Clarion ourselves. This way, I would have a car to drive home for Thanksgiving vacation on Wednesday. We got permission from Dr. Stanley “Doc” Michalski, our band director, to do this.
Arriving by bus to the Millersville campus was another surreal experience. During the pre-game mingling that always happens between the bands, I looked around for faces I recognized. Surely someone from my high school would be here. I finally spotted two people: Sherlene Yantz and Beth Eisenberger. Both were a year younger than me. We had been in the high school band together. We hadn’t been friends, but we at least knew each other by sight. Today they didn’t seem too interested to see me. Then again, we were now wearing different uniforms.
As the minutes ticked down into the fourth quarter, it became obvious that whoever had the ball last was going to have the best chance of winning. And Clarion started coming back. A touchdown made the score 17-15. Then Millersville followed suit, to lead 24-15. Then we got another one: 24-22. We regained possession in the last minute of the game and were heading downfield when Millersville got an unfortunate penalty. Unfortunate, for them. The ref gave us the ball on their 12-yard line with only three seconds left on the clock. Both teams took time-outs. As you may expect, our kicker trotted out onto the field: freshman Billy May, known as “Secret Squirrel.” And this is what it came down to. The 1977 Pennsylvania state college football title would depend on this one last play. From Billy May’s foot.
This singular moment in time wasn’t just about the win or about the title, though. For me, it was about much more. For me, it was Home versus Away. (What is “home,” anyway? And what is “away?”) For me, the outcome could mean validation. Vindication. Confirmation that my choice to leave for Clarion (and to throw away the Millersville application) was the right one. Here was the chance for the Universe to show me that I was on the right path. To give me a sign that it supported and even championed my independent spirit and my decision. It could give me a little nod. Or even a little kick, as it were.
We were all on our feet, with our hearts in our throats. We were holding hands, holding each other. I heard strange sounds coming from behind me. I turned around and saw that flute player Gail Schneck was already sobbing. “I’m going to cry whether he makes it or not,” she moaned. I turned back to look at the field. It was an oh-my-god-oh-my-god-oh-my-god moment. It was a cross-your-fingers-and-hope-to-die moment. It was a Hoosiers moment, the kind of heart-thumping, at-the-buzzer ending that you see only in sports movies. Except that on some occasions, these moments really do happen in real life. Really. And this time, it was happening to us.
The rest of the band made its way to the busses for that five-hour ride back to Clarion. Gerri and I grabbed our stuff and now had to somehow find my parents in the departing crowd. I wondered and worried about doing this. Then I suddenly saw my mother and father, standing alone in the opposite end zone, waiting. I walked toward them, almost in a trance. I had somehow held myself together, even with all of the tension and the excitement of the past fifteen minutes. But as soon as I saw my mother, I felt tears coming. I walked into her and the dam broke. I sobbed on her shirt. She put her arms around me. I can’t remember if I was even able to say anything. It was all too much. I may have said just one thing. “Happy birthday, Mom.”
Then it was back to Clarion again for the fall of 1978, and for my senior year. Our football team went 8-2: well enough to lead us to the state championship game again. This time, we hosted it, since a western team -- Clarion! -- had won the previous year. This time, our opponent was East Stroudsburg. On the morning of the title game, we band members were at the field as early as the teams were. I had a chance to see the East Stroudsburg players up close. They looked like giants. I wondered if the coaches had thrown them raw meat for breakfast and then ran out of the way of the feeding frenzy. They turned out to be monsters on the field, too. When the dust cleared, we had lost the game, 4-49. But Clarion had set a record anyway. No team had ever scored two safeties in a PSAC championship game. It was a dubious honor. And a letdown of sorts.
But in a way, this game hardly mattered. At least, not to me. I knew that I had already won.