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‘The chain gang never lets us down' at Sutter High
There's 1:30 left in the second quarter of the biggest game of the season for the Sutter High Huskies on Saturday night, and the out-of-town sideline official is wrong.
It's not third down.
Huskies coaches stare at the official, then glance over to Rallin Ahlers, the man holding the down marker for the chain gang. Ahlers says it's fourth down.
Sutter coaches go with Ahlers and call a fourth down play.
And why not? Ahlers has been counting football downs for nearly 40 years as part of what many believe is the best chain gang in Northern California.
"These guys have been doing this since Moby Dick was a sardine," says veteran referee Wayne Neault. "They're the best."
The 73-year-old Ahlers just smiles.
"We know what we're doing, we've been doing it long enough," he says.
Bud Bagley is the senior member of the senior squad with nearly 50 years under his belt. Bagley and Ahlers have never missed a home game. Ever.
"That was in my prenup when I got married," Bagley explains, "that I'm always going to every home game."
Larry Munger took over holding a yardage marker from his father about 11 years ago.
"Between all of us, there's a lot more than 100 years of experience on the field," Munger says.
Tonight, Ron Whisenhunt is subbing in as part of the gang, temporarily taking the place of Marty Moorehead, who has been out of town for a month visiting family.
The four-man crew has been together for decades with only a few changes. They're all old-school Sutter Union High graduates. Bagley graduated in 1957, Ahlers in 1959, Whisenhunt in 1963 and Munger in 1964.
Together, they've seen nearly every bone-crunching tackle, every third-down conversion and every Hail Mary pass for nearly a half-century of Huskies football.
They've shown up in the cold, the rain, and the mud and they've done it all for free.
Some have the scars to prove it.
Just ask Munger. A few years ago, a player stepped on Munger's chain and the Sutter native hit the ground, injuring his knee.
"Had to go in for surgery on that one," Munger recalls.
But it didn't keep him out for long. And, if it slowed him down at all, you would never know it when several players come crashing into the sidelines late in the second quarter. Munger drops his marker and darts behind a cluster of players.
"That's the trick when they're coming at you — get behind the guys with the helmets and pads," Munger says.
A Sutter player catches a long pass for a big first down, and the crew trots down the sideline, coaches and players screaming over their heads, fans rumbling in the stands.
"There's no better way to see a game," Whisenhunt says. "You see a helluva lot more here than anywhere else."
Superintendent Ryan Robison says the local chain gang is the one group he's never had to worry about.
"They're fabulous, especially in these big games when you've got to juggle the Fire Department, the doctors and everything else," Robison says. "The chain gang never lets us down."
And, if you ask them, they'll let you know — with only trace amounts of pride — they really are finest chain gang around.
"We care, we do try to do a good job, and we do know what we're doing," Bagley says. "And we have to be because we've got to earn the best seats in the house."