Given that this is arguably the most famous high school football program in the country, though, there is plenty more to say about a place that looks straight out of a movie. The town’s lampposts are decorated with banners dedicated to the football team, and the school has an indoor practice facility that rivals those of the state’s two professional football teams. The actual stadium, Paul Brown Tiger Stadium, swells with crowds of more than 20,000 fans when the Tigers play at home.
What truly sets Massillon apart, though, is the people – players and fans, past and present. No high school in Ohio can match the lineage of coaches such as Paul Brown and Earle Bruce (both of whom went on to coach at Ohio State), and few if any towns can match the sheer volume of devotion that Massillon fans heap on their players.
“I think it’s a tradition of coaches and players that started all the way back with Paul Brown,” said Massillon coach Jason Hall. “We have a great coaching staff and we have great kids, but the thing that sets us apart is that it’s still a football town. On Friday night, everyone closes shop and comes to the game. We’ve got unbelievable fan support. Expectations are extremely high. You win nine games here and that’s a bad season, and that’s part of what makes it exciting.”
On a weekday in August as the Tigers scrimmaged against Avon, the stadium was still sprinkled with thousands of fans, including some who coached or played at Massillon decades ago.
“It’s not just the amount of people who come, it’s who comes,” senior running back J.D. Crabtree said. “My dad tells me up in the stands they have 90-year-old fans that are barely getting up the steps but still make it out to our games.”
That lifetime fandom is something that’s instilled from the moment residents of the town take their first breath. As famously chronicled in the documentary “Go Tigers!” about the Washington program, babies born in Massillon are given a black-and-orange Tigers football on the day they’re born.
“Most of us are born into it,” Crabtree said. “We wait all our lives to be seniors here. Massillon is one of those places. When you’re a baby, they put a football in your crib. Every kid that’s a boy that grows up in Massillon – and even some girls – you’re bound to play football. It’s in your blood, and you have the whole city behind you.” Even those who aren’t born in Massillon find themselves drawn in by the pull of the program’s history.
Sophomore quarterback Danny Clark, a four-star prospect who is committed to Ohio State, moved to Massillon when he was in fifth grade. His dad was in attendance for some Massillon playoff games in the late 1980s and early ’90s and decided that he wanted his kids to don the orange and black one day. Clark became the first freshman to start at quarterback for the vaunted program, which has won 22 state championships and pulled in nine Associates Press national titles from 1935-61.
“It’s a magical feeling,” Clark said. “When you put those colors on and see Massillon across your chest and run out of that tunnel, it’s something else. When you wake up, you’re just like, ‘It’s time.’ You just think about the fact that you’re a Massillon Tiger and this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s a special thing.”
From the pregame Tiger Walk to the presence of Obie the Tiger, the traditions at Massillon are almost too many to name. While certain alterations are allowed, the program largely operates the same way it did under each of the previous coaches. Such is the commitment to continuity at Massillon that each new head coach is handed a book detailing everything that needs to be done.
“Every coach here puts their stamp on something that carries on, and that’s a big part of this program,” Hall said. “It’s not like programs where there’s a coaching change and everything changes from the top down. When you walk in, you get a black book of the staples that’s like, this is what we do. It’s a pretty good road map. There are definitely guidelines you follow.
“Obviously there’s things you can’t touch, but at the same time some things had to be caught up with the times. I think we’ve done a good job with that from how we run our youth program now to how we fundraise and how we drive numbers in the program. We still have great numbers even though we’re a small district. There are certain traditions that will never change, and those are things that all these legendary coaches started.”
The biggest tradition of all, though, is the program’s famous rivalry with Canton McKinley. The first meeting between the two teams took place in the 19th century, and the rivalry has only grown over time.
“I don’t want to use the word hatred, but there’s an understanding and a respect that you have to win that game for pride in the community, pride the rest of the year and pride in Stark County,” Hall said. “Both communities have a lot of respect for each other. I don’t think there’s anything better than if Massillon is 9-0 and McKinley is 9-0. I think it amplifies how important the game is. At the same time, it doesn’t matter what the records are because you’re going to get each team’s best effort for four quarters.”
The stadiums of both teams have hosted Ohio’s state title games over the past two decades, but even those matchups with championships on the line can’t compete with the atmosphere of a Massillon-McKinley game on a Saturday afternoon in the final week of the regular season.
“That’s a game I’ve told people you really don’t know until you experience it,” Hall said. “You can’t rationalize the 20,000-30,000 people at that game or that they start prepping for that game weeks in advance. It’s like a college-day atmosphere from motor homes to standing room only. It’s truly something special. When I look at it, I think this is what America is supposed to be like. These communities coming together for an event like this puts goose bumps on your arms.”
When it comes down to it, though, the rivalry and facilities and traditions are merely facets of what makes up Massillon football. At the heart of it, the people who elevate football to a level that few others do make Massillon a place unlike any other.
“You hear stories about these 30,000-person towns that do this, and I would say we’re probably one of the few that are left,” Hall said. “This is truly that old-school town where everybody can’t wait to go to the game. You can even see it with the amount of people who come to our scrimmages. As soon as the football season ends, there’s a countdown with everybody in this town until the next one begins.”
That level of devotion to football might seem insane to some, but those who are under the most pressure still seem to relish it. Hall spoke repeatedly about getting chills because of the history of the program, and the players said they thrive off the crowd and embrace the expectations.
Former head coach Bob Commings, who left Massillon to coach in the Big Ten at his alma mater of Iowa, years ago uttered a quote that succinctly sums up the impact of Massillon football on the community.
“If anyone wants to get anything worthwhile done they should come to Massillon and see how they do football,” he said. “Nothing ever suffered from football and much has improved because of football.”
OSU Signees Since 1984:
Gareon Conley (2013)
Devin Smith (2011)
Devin Jordan (2003)
Justin Zwick (2002)
Travis McGuire (1992)
John Schilling (1988)
Wes Siegenthaler (1986)
Chris Spielman (1984)
Notable Current FBS Players
Kyle Kempt – Oregon State QB
Jeff Myers – Toledo OL
Justin Olack – Toledo WR
Kentrell Taylor – Kent State LB
Darien Terrell – Eastern Michigan OL
Notable Former Coaches
Paul Brown (1932-40)
Chuck Mather (1948-53)
Lee Tressel (1956-57)
Earle Bruce (1964-65)
Bob Commings (1969-73)
Lee Owens (1988-91)
Legacy Of Faust Lives On At Moeller (Aug. 27)
Hard Work Trumps All At St. Edward (Sept. 3)