Clarion, Independence, and The Big Game: November 19, 1977

                                  by Corinne H. Smith


     I got a love of band music from my father and a love of football from my mother. This explains why I spent eight seasons playing a piccolo, marching across many five-yard-line stripes, and cheering my teams on to victory. These efforts did not always help them to win. Out of all of the high school and college contests that I witnessed and participated in, only one turned out to be The Big Game. For me, this one was even more important than it may have been for the guys wearing the cleats and pads. It was a personal defining moment. Here’s the story.

     Both of my parents were college graduates. So I was silently expected to go to college, too. In my junior year at Hempfield High School, I spent time in the guidance office, paging through catalogs. I learned the names of all of the colleges in Pennsylvania that offered degrees in library science. Clarion State College was one of them. When a Clarion admissions representative came to our school, I eagerly went to his session. His eyes lit up when I told him that I wanted to be a librarian. He said that Clarion’s graduate program was close to becoming certified by the American Library Association. This would be a big deal, even for students in the undergraduate program. Soon three colleges in the state would have ALA-accredited programs: Pitt, Drexel, and Clarion. I was impressed. And I repeated this statistic to my parents at the dinner table that night. I guess they were impressed, too; even though, up until then, we had never heard of the place. We made arrangements to drive out to Clarion, five hours away and in the northwestern part of the state, to see the campus and the town. We all liked it. I applied to the school immediately.


Playing for Hempfield High School


     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.

     Now, the prevailing wisdom was to apply to several schools, in case you didn’t get into the one that was your first choice. Even though I’d already been accepted by Clarion, I still got a copy of the application to Millersville State College, our local school. The campus was only six miles from our house. A number of my classmates would surely be going there. But why would I want to do what everybody else was doing? (I had already started reading Thoreau and was beginning to exercise my own nonconformity.) I knew that Millersville offered a degree in library science, too. But now I already knew that its program wasn’t as good as the one at Clarion, since it wasn’t ALA-accredited. I already knew that I wanted to “go away to college.” Isn’t this what people did? Millersville wasn’t “away.” It was right down the road. Literally. I did not want to do this. But I started filling out the application anyway.


The first entry of a year-long diary kept by our class secretary, Deb Samley. Her notes were interspersed with our senior photos in the 1975 yearbook, Epilogue.

     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. 


Carry on for Clarion,
Come on and shout it, one and all. (Rah! Rah! Rah!)
It’s so grand to hear the Eagle band
Sound the clarion call, ta-ta-ta-TA!
Watch the Eagles, Golden Eagles,
Soaring on and on,
So there will be another victory
For mighty Clarion.

(Click here, to hear it.)


   Playing for Clarion

      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.

     Pennsylvania divided its 14 state colleges into two regions, east and west. At the end of the season, the two regional champions played each other for the state title. The school that would host the championship game for home-field advantage was determined by the location of the previous year’s winner. In 1976, the final game had ended in a tie. But in 1975, a team from the east had won the state championship. So the host of the 1977 title game had to be the eastern division winner. And it was Millersville. MILLERSVILLE! And the game was scheduled for Saturday, November 19th. Which also happened to be my mother’s 51st birthday.



Locations of the state colleges, West Chester used to be the 14th and does not appear on this map. The dividing line between east and west was just east of Lock Haven and Shippensburg.

     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.

     The  1977  Clarion team.

     The  1977  Clarion band. I'm in there, somewhere.

     Our Golden Eagles scored the first touchdown pretty early in the game. And for some odd reason, and even without the pressure of a close score, coach Al Jacks decided to go for a two-point conversion instead of kicking for the extra point. We were surprised. I couldn’t remember them ever going for two in any other game that year. The move must have surprised the Millersville Marauders, too, because we got the ball across the goal line. What a bonus! We scored first and were up by eight points in the state final. Millersville’s scoreboard read 0-8. Can you believe it?

     But of course, ours wasn’t the only team on the field. And soon the back-and-forth exchanges kind of slogged, then went downhill. Millersville scored twice to lead 10-8 at halftime. By the end of the third quarter, they led 17-8. Had we come this far and done this much, only to have the season end this way?



     Yes, I still have the game program.

    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.

     Doc Michalski turned to us with a merry expression on his face and a mischievous glint in his eye. “Play ‘Carry On,’ when he makes it,” he said. “’Carry On,’ when he makes it.” And he laughed, in the midst of the tension. Doc could be a scamp at times. When he makes it, he said. Not if. Yes, of course, we would all be ready to play the fight song. But something else had to happen first. Our eyes were glued to the field. The teams lined up. The ball snapped back. And Billy took aim. When the ball left his foot, it soared perfectly through the goal posts. The clock ran out. 24-25, read the scoreboard. Clarion had won the PSAC championship by one point, over Millersville. Our world exploded, and we screamed.

Drum major Steve Thompson gave us a quick downbeat. “Carry on, for Clarion….” Have you ever played the piccolo in breathless euphoria? I don’t know how I did it. I don’t know how any of us did it. And I don’t know what it sounded like, but it was all music to our ears. We played the first verse, sang the second, and played the third, as the team celebrated on the field. We went crazy, jumping up and down. Millersville’s stadium was emptying out pretty quickly and quietly. We marched onto the field for the post-game ceremony. As the Golden Eagles were awarded the state trophy, we played and then sang the alma mater. “Oh Clarion, dear Clarion, Oh college on the hill, To all the joys of student life, our hearts will ever thrill. Your silent flowing river, it haunts me still.” And we cheered and cheered. We had won, we had won. We had all won. And just like that, The Big Game was over. Reluctantly, it was time to leave the field behind.


    Practice makes perfect, Billy.

     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.”

     After I finished my junior year at Clarion, I went back to Millersville in the summer of 1978, to take classes in their German immersion program. My parents had bought me my first car, a black hatchback Mustang. Every day, I parked it in the student lot next to the stadium. Every day, I smiled whenever I walked past that field. I still couldn’t believe what had happened here in November, even though I had witnessed it in person. It was as if the field and I shared a secret that no one else around us knew or acknowledged. A pretty happy one, for me.



Biemsderfer Stadium at Millersville. This was the band's point of view during the game.

      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.

                                                                               posted on November 19, 2020


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