The Glow of the Game

Why Fort Wayne is a high school football town

Bishop Dwenger vs. Concordia 2014, photography by Ellie Bogue

Bishop Dwenger vs. Concordia 2014, photography by Ellie Bogue

High school football in Fort Wayne is homecoming and sparkly crowns and girls in ball gowns and heels, teetering gingerly across the chewed green turf of an autumn football field. It’s the glow of lights in the sky you see from miles off, reminding you once again what night of the week it is.

It’s kids in replica high school jerseys chasing plastic neon footballs behind the bleachers, imitating the big kids a few feet away.

It’s the wise old owls, long past their own glory Fridays, nodding and hanging on the fences. It’s a fat harvest moon with the best seat in the house, and fields of play turning white with frost or being churned by cold autumn rain into a gooey earth-tone casserole.

It’s also 17 state titles spread among five Summit Athletic Conference schools (Bishop Luers, Bishop Dwenger, Snider, Harding and Wayne) as opposed to two state titles in boys basketball since 1974, which is why this is as much a football town as a basketball town now. The splintering of Hoosier Hysteria has left city gyms empty at tournament time; football has filled both the silence and void, with fans filling the bleachers and lining the fences three and four deep for the big Fridays under those iconic lights.

No one knows that better than the man sitting in a camp chair on the sideline at Zollner Stadium, trying hard to keep Friday night at arm’s length.

BREAK!

This is not where Chris Svarczkopf wants to be.

A compact man with a graying moustache and a quiet intensity, he’s been the head football coach at Bishop Dwenger High School since 2002, when he coached the Saints to the 4A state championship game in his first season. He’s coached them to eight sectional titles, seven regional titles and three semi-state titles since.

Few love high school football more, or better appreciate its ascendancy in Fort Wayne.

“I love playing here,” he says, as the Saints and Concordia Cadets warm up and the autumn sun begins to slide down the sky. “I love playing at Zollner. All the memories, the great games. … The kids just play to the end; they play their hearts out to the end of the game. It’s just so much fun to see the investment that they put into high school football and how much they love the game.”

That’s why it’s so hard this night, sitting in this chair next to his brother, Mark. Last spring, Svarczkopf was diagnosed with lymphoma and was forced to step away from his head coaching duties while he underwent treatment. He still coaches the tight ends and defensive backs, but on game nights he’s either in the pressbox (“That just didn’t work for me,” he says) or, like now, sitting in a chair while interim coach Ernie Bojrab runs the show.

The news on the lymphoma front is good; Svarczkopf is down to his last round of chemo and the treatment is working, although he’s lost a good deal of weight. As for the news on the sitting-and-watching front …

“How hard is this gonna be?” he is asked.

Svarczkopf chuckles.

“Well,” he replies. “We’ll see.”

And then he sits down, folds his hands in his lap and waits for Friday night to begin.

BREAK!

“One … two … three … four … five …”

Beneath a gray quilt of sky, the evening breeze is turning damp and cool, and the sweat dries chill on this cluster of shirtless torsos. It’s the end of football practice here at Snider High School. Now it’s on to the post-practice stretching and then to the bright warmth of the locker room.

“… Six … seven … eight-nine-ten,” the player leading the calisthenics chants.

“Paaan-thers!” everyone else answers.

Somewhere in this group are the Snider team captains, for whom high school football is not the future or past but full-immersion present. They are Isaac Stiebeling, David Turner, Justin Munoz and Lenord Brown, and once they were the kids playing football behind the bleachers or sitting in them dreaming their dreams.

“So what was it like the first time you walked out there on a Friday night?” Munoz, an offensive lineman, is asked.

“It was special,” he says. “I just loved the intensity. It was always high-paced, and I just loved the energy, especially from the fans. The student section was very loud.”

Stiebeling, the team’s quarterback, agrees.

“We have a huge fan base,” he says. “There’s people who have had kids in the program, and they still come to the football games (even though) there’s nobody in the program they know now. It’s great, having that many people support us.”

And they know it isn’t like this everywhere. Oh, the team part might be – all of them say the best thing about Friday nights is “going out there with the guys you’ve been grinding with all season,” according to Stiebeling – but the rest is something they recognize even when they’re at the center of it.

“Sometimes when I’m on the sideline, I just look at the stands, and they’re full. It’s just great to know we have a great supporting cast around you,” Turner says.

“It’s a great atmosphere,” agrees Brown. “Just looking out there at the field, everybody is having a good time … it makes you want to be a part of that.”

BREAK!

Kyle Lindsay has seen both sides of high school football in Fort Wayne. As a player, he quarterbacked Bishop Luers to back-to-back 2A state titles. Now he’s in his third season as the Knights’ head coach. On Friday nights, both of those realities converge.

“There’s nostalgia, for sure,” he says. “I definitely think back and put myself in the kids’ shoes, and how exciting it is to be a teenager and get pumped up underneath the lights. Brings back a lot of memories.”

And now?

It’s different, to be sure. But it’s still Friday night.

“You know, we played Bishop Dwenger in week one, and that’s as big a crowd as we’ve had here in years,” Lindsay says. “And I guess when I was out there, I didn’t realize how packed it was. That’s something that, as a kid, that I was definitely looking at. As a coach, it doesn’t really hit you until afterward.”

A pause.

“But it does hit you.”

First appeared in the November 2015 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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