By Ron Pesch

MUSKEGON–After 41 years, John Pfenning is signing off.

Backstage, pre-show, the pair were in fine form, each taking humorous shots at the others IQ, age, and ability to perform. Today was a rare Saturday matinee engagement.

In a few moments, the Big Reds were about to square off for their regional final contest with Zeeland West. Cold temperatures and a rain/snow mix were expected and the crew was dressed accordingly. When the time came, the two exited stage left, gliding through an archway of Muskegon High School’s historic Hackley Stadium with a pair of able assistants, to assume their spots along the gridiron’s western sideline.

The installation of field turf at Hackley in 2020 meant the Big Reds got to stay home for the game. No need for a trip to Grand Haven or Holton stadiums because the mix of regular-season contests and autumn weather has turned the playing surface at Hackley into a marsh of mud.

Since 1906, football teams have needed to travel 10 yards for a first down, and since 1982, Pfenning, who turns 81 in December, has been instrumental in tracking such things for Muskegon Public Schools.

While early this fall there may have been some questions by various seers concerning a long run by Muskegon in the 2022 playoffs, a strong finish assured the Big Reds of home-field advantage for, potentially, a couple of postseason games at Hackley. Victories by Muskegon, combined with a win by Zeeland West over St. Joseph in their district championship game, gave MHS the chance to host a third playoff game.

The team’s success also extended the season for Muskegon’s “chain gang” – John Pfenning, Maurice “Mo” Shaffer, John’s son, Joe, and Maurice’s brother, Mike. A few weeks ago, at halftime of the Muskegon Mona Shores game, the crew was recognized for their decades of service before John’s pending retirement.

He is the “gang’s” veteran. While no one ever started an official tally, John figures he has done well over 600 games on the sidelines over the years. That total includes Muskegon freshman and JV games on Thursdays, varsity on Fridays, or like this final one, occasionally on a Saturday. Mix in another 3 years of games for Bunker Middle School, and the number quickly climbs.

A letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, he started this gig with little fanfare. 

“I went to Muskegon (Class of 1962) and was working when somebody I knew said they needed somebody,” Pfenning said.

With the seemingly incidental decision to assist, the Pfenning family’s autumns would be irrevocably altered for years to come.

Soon, John was recruiting others to fill vacancies on the crew. His first recruit also came from the National Association of Letter Carriers’ roster. Appropriately, it was another Big Red.

“I started in 1988,” said Maurice, “just doing the JV games for the first 3 years and then in 1991, somebody quit on the varsity.”

When additional members were needed, John turned to his family. 

“That’s when I got my brother to do it. Then, I got my wife to do it,” he said.

However, a sideline collision brought on an unanticipated early retirement.

“That was my Uncle Fred,” said Joe, recalling the incident. “He got his collar broken … After that, he kind of gave it up.”

John’s wife, Sandy, served as part of the crew for more than 20 years. 

“She was called the ‘Grandma with the big stick,’” Joe added, visualizing his mom in action. “(Muskegon) used to have a really tight sideline – we still do. “She’d just say, ‘Here I come, I got a big stick. Get out of my way guys.’“

Joe joined the varsity crew, with Fred’s unplanned exit.

However, he recalls his first game on a crew occurred much earlier – in the fall of 1983 – his senior year in high school. He worked tearing down boat motors in Lakeside, and after school that day, he had gone to work, but he wasn’t needed.

“I was on my bike, and I knew my dad was working the chains at Seyferth Field for Bunker. They were playing Steele… I went to watch the football game and my Dad’s standing on the sideline holding the down stick. He said, ‘We need someone to hold the other.  Do you want to do it?’ That’s how I got my start.”

Best seat in the house
Sandy passed away in 2016 and is honored at Hackley Stadium with a plaque on a light pole on what could be referred to as the “Pfenning” side of the field. ‘Mo’ recruited his brother – another longtime post office worker – to take over for Sandy. While everyone has been cross-trained, each crew member, of course, has a normal job to do.

“My dad does the clip,” said Joe, “because he’s got seniority among the group. It’s basically the most important thing besides the down box. If the chains go in disarray when (a player runs out of bounds)…you put the clip back on the yard line and stretch the chains out, and they’re back to where they’re supposed to be. It’s usually me and Maurice on the chains, my dad on the clip, and Mike does the down box.”

While you must stand, the chain gang has one of the best seats in the house. By default, the duties will keep you focused and involved in the action. And it pays to be quick on your feet, as the players can head your way at any moment in time. By design, it’s a bit anonymous. Chain gangs must work the opposite side of the field from the press box, generally away from the home team crowd. At places like Muskegon, where seating is on only one side of the field, you’ll be seen, but mostly unrecognizable. For most fans in attendance, their focus is usually on the ball and its relation to the placement of those three fluorescent-colored poles. 

“It’s kind of a unique job being over there because you don’t get to see anybody else,” notes Joe. 

Well, according to Maurice, not quite ‘anybody.’

“We’ve gotten to meet a lot of different people. We’ve met some of the other coaches – John Shillito (at Zeeland West), Noel Dean (formally at Lowell), Peter Stuursma (previously at East Grand Rapids, now at Hope College), Matt Koziak (once at Muskegon, now the coach at Mona Shores).

‘Mo’ – who graduated in 1971 – recalls the days when top members of the Muskegon Varsity Club not playing football made up the “Chain Gang” crew during his days in high school. That eventually changed.

Every school has a “chain gang” and in many, many instances, their sideline service is usually measured in decades. But unlike rosters of coaches, players, and administrators, formal chronological lists of cast members generally haven’t been kept at most schools. But names like A.J. Jourden (another postal worker) at Orchard View; Jerry Dekker and Jim Compeau at North Muskegon; Joe Clark and Arland Cederquist at Montague; Bob Edsall at Reeths-Puffer; Steve Skendrovic at Spring Lake; Len Tardani at Muskegon Catholic are a few of the individuals that played the same role around the lakeshore. Just like letter carriers, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night” can keep crews from doing their job.

On a couple of occasions this year, there was a need for substitution on the sideline at Muskegon. Mike was out for a game to attend a church retreat. Maurice got knocked down during the Wyoming game, but was back for more action the next week. Then he injured his shoulder at home (cue the pregame jokes) and missed some games the next week. 

In their absence, much to John’s delight, his granddaughter, Joy – Joe’s daughter – filled in.

“Sometimes we need to keep track of the penalties (for the referees),” said John about Joy working the clipboard, capturing a part of the game’s details. “And I think there was a JV game where she worked the chains.”

A letter carrier in North Muskegon, Maurice started at the post office at the tail end of 1977 and retired seven years ago. Assuming, physically he’s able, he’ll be back next year, as will Mike and Joe. 

Hustling downfield with today’s high-octane offenses can present challenges. Bending over and putting the clip on the chain is not as simple as it was once. So, for John, who retired from the post office in 1997, it’s time to retire again.

It’s still undetermined who will fill the vacancy. Of more immediate concern, at least to Mike, is who gets to be the target of his brother’s commentary in John’s absence. 

“Those two are going on constantly.”

If the gang needs a fill-in upon occasion next season, John plans to step up. After all, he’s already trained – for both roles.