Updated: Oct 11
The ERHS football games are the most attended sporting event at ERHS. However, this does not mean that everyone understands the game, even those who attend them. One of the most overlooked things is how the downs work and the people who run them. Have you ever noticed the two orange poles connect with chains where the teams are lined up facing each other? And what is the black pole with a number on top? I will explain it all in this article.
What are the downs? Downs are how many tries each team gets to advance the ball 10 yards. They have 4 tries but on the last try (down) they can kick it to ensure that when the other team gains possession of the ball they are as far away as possible. Downs are essential to football as this is what wins or loses your possession of the ball.
Now back to the poles. The observant fan will have noticed many poles and posts on the sideline that seem to follow the team's progression down the field. The orange poles connected by a 10-yard chain signify how far the team has to run, ten yards. Since each team has 3 tries (and a fourth unless they choose to punt) the black post shows where the players are currently at and the down number on top of the post. If you were to walk up to the chains (bad idea!) you would see a small clip on the chain. This clip's sole purpose is so that when we switch sides at the half, it serves as a reference guide to picking up where we left off as the field is only marked every three yards. The official name for the people is the chain crew (commonly referred to as the chain gang) who have signal poles that consist of the rear and forward rod (orange posts) and the box (black post with a number).
We have looked at how tackle football’s downs work, but what about flag football?
Contrary to tackle football, flag football only uses the box for downs. The field is only eight yards long and considerably narrower than tackle football. To get first down, you must run twenty yards, not ten. The way flag football runs without chains is that the ten yards you run do not start from your first down where you go down; rather you must only finish the next twenty yards you would need to run if you ran exactly twenty yards. That is why, all you need is a box to show where the ball is at and what down it is. For example, if you receive the ball on your twenty-yard line and you run 10 yards for the first down 5 the next, and then 20 yards for the third down, all you need to run is 5 yards to get to the 40-yard line.
At a typical tackle football game, the chain gang is on the away team’s side. That way, the press box can see us adjust the big scoreboard. We listen to our sideline referee who is almost never happy about how we do things, either we are too early and need to wait or we take too long. Either way, they are always showing or telling us how to do our job correctly which can be quite funny when they repeat what we just did. Usually in the end though, they are just trying to keep the game running smoothly and are not trying to be mean. The team on our side is usually pretty nice but can also be annoying. They will range from offering us water, chatting us up, and being all around pleasant (more common when they are winning and we are being good sports about it) to yelling at me because the ref told me to put up a number, crowding us, not giving us room and being a bit hostile.
At my first flag football game, the person doing the box is still on the same side but more on the field since the flag football field is narrower. This means I was crowded less as they had more room on the sidelines. The flag football players were a lot nicer and were happy to explain rules to anyone who wanted to know and strike up a conversation. The referee still complained no matter how fast or slow I was going and was not always clear but was pretty nice as he was the same ref for all the games.