Workin’ on the chain gang

By Joseph Garcia  

Liberty Hill’s chain gang are from left Cory Fulmer, Tom Perrin, Kirk Lafferty and Bud Carpenter. Tim Macholini is not pictured. (Photo by Kathy Canady)

They may often go unnoticed, but they are as vital as referees are in order to play an official football game. But the way Tom Perrin, Bud Carpenter, Kirk Lafferty, Cory Fulmer and Tim Macholini figure it, as part of the chain gang, they have the best seats in the house.

Combined, the five chain gang members have over 23 years of experience on the sidelines of Liberty Hill High School football games, with Perrin, Lafferty and Carpenter on the job for the championship runs in the mid to late 2000s.

Generally, high school chain gangs serve as deputized members of the officiating crew and in most cases around the country are the fathers of players present and past. For these five volunteers it is no different.

“Mostly everybody gets on the chain gang because their kid is playing and you just want to get as close to the field as possible,” said nine-year volunteer and senior statesmen of the gang Tom Perrin. “That’s kind of how it starts out, but then you get kind of hooked on the job. There is just a lot more to it than people think there is and you just kind of get hooked. You just enjoy being there. My kids have rotated through, but you always know the kids that are coming up.”

The chain gang’s job is to mark where a team begins a series and how far they need to go to earn a first down. The gang brings the chains onto the field for measurements on plays that are too close for the officials to call with the naked eye whether or not a first down was reached. The chains are brought out to give an exact measurement from the spot where the series started to determine if the first down was reached or not, making their job vital, sometimes to the point of deciding the outcome of a game.

“You are a part of it and making sure everything gets lined up exactly because you never know when they are going to have that fourth down and one inch and you have to go out there and measure,” Perrin explained. “You want to make sure it is as accurate as possible for whichever team.”

Chain gang members are put in an awkward position. They stand on the visitors’ sideline, because that’s opposite the press box, which puts them in the thick of the opposing teams’ players and coaches, so rooting out loud is a faux pa. But for the most part the gang is focused on the task at hand.

“You get so caught up in the game and of course you are a Liberty Hill fan, but you don’t think about that during the game,” Perrin said. “You are just focused on running up and down and making sure everything is set right and you want to just make it as easy as possible for the referees. Accuracy with the sticks and the chain, you get a great respect for the referees and how much work they have to do in a high school game. ”

With the chain gang’s focus on the game, opposing coaches may choose to focus on them, especially this year when Liberty Hill primarily ran the no-huddle offense.  The faster the chains move, so does the game.

“Most of them are very nice and cordial, but you have a few that make it hard for you to run up and down the sidelines if (Liberty Hill) is running that no-huddle offense,” Perrin said. “It’s part of the strategy and it always makes it interesting.”

There is a lot of camaraderie between all the chain gang guys because at one time or another all of their kids have played together, said Perrin. They have also shared many experiences together, but one in particular stands out for the bunch.

A couple of years ago during a Liberty Hill game, the gang was running down the sidelines when one of the worst things that can happen occurred – the chain broke.

During the course of any given game the chain gang encounters and navigates around players, coaches and trainers who run on and off the field, but on this fall evening, one of the opposing players stepped on the chain and broke it, which prompted a rather unusual and illegal occurrence.

“I didn’t realize it was broken and I got down there to set up the chain with the chain gang guy on the other side is setting up,” recalled Perrin. “Then all of a sudden the referee calls a time out and stops play. Then we noticed that the chain was broken and got a little piece of wire and fixed it while the referees were sorting out the timeout (situation).”

With the head referee asking who called a timeout and the opposing head coach looking to his assistants for answers, the culprit finally fessed up.

“I called a time out,” said Carpenter jokingly. “When the referee came over to ask who called a timeout I said it was me and not the coach. They called an official timeout and we fixed the chain. (The head official) politely said don’t do that anymore and I said okay. So we kind of joke around about that each year at the beginning. I am the only chain gang guy to have called a timeout.”

Carpenter, who played football at LHHS and graduated in 1981, used to coach Pop Warner football years ago. His son Tyler had to sit out his senior year this year due to injury, but Carpenter coached a lot of the senior players that were playing this year when they were young.

Carpenter was present from the old Panther Stadium’s inception and was there for its final game. He will also man the chain gang next year when the new Panther Stadium opens for a new generation of Liberty Hill players to play.

He views the change as a positive one.

“I was there when they built that field and got to play on it,” Carpenter said. “(The new field) will be a good stepping stone because the school and community are growing so much.”

Overall, the chain gang duty is one of excitement, precision and sometimes danger. Anyone who has stood on a sideline of a football game knows that keeping one’s head on a swivel is of the upmost importance.

Luckily for the Liberty Hill chain gang, there have been no sever injuries throughout the years, but that does not mean there has been no contact.

“I have been (hit) a couple of times, but that is the first thing we talk about before the game — to make sure to look behind yourself so you know what’s there, that way you can get out of the way,” Perrin said. “I only had to jump a player once, but thank goodness that was nine years ago when I could jump. I’m quick to drop the stick and get the heck out of the way. I’ve even saved some trainer girls who were not paying attention.”

For these five volunteers, it is all part of the job description. They would not have it any other way and will be hard pressed to give up their position on the chain gang. But there is a contingency plan as there is a gang member in training.

Liberty Hill School Trustee David Nix is the next man in line for the chain gang, but listening to Perrin, the sentiment is that may not be for a long time.

“It’s probably the best volunteer job you can get,” he said proudly. “You feel like you are in on the action.”