SNOHOMISH — The ’67 Ford pickup has 18 speakers, a bubble-blowing machine and red-and-black Panthers flags flying.
It’s a rootin’-tootin’ tribute to Mike Carver’s high school alma mater.
Carver didn’t play football at Snohomish High School and he hasn’t been to a game since he graduated in 1972.
Panther pride goes beyond the football field, the sidelines, and the stands.
It’s a loyalty that Carver emits and feels when he drives his truck. He tricked it out after attending his 40th high school reunion.
“We were Number 1 in my day. I’m trying to keep it going,” said Carver, 65, whose livelihood was milking cows and mowing grass.
He tools through the bricked historic downtown to the cookie-cutter Fred Meyer parking lot, attracting high-fives and leaving a trail of bubbles behind. The mayor asked to ride with him one day.
Carver says he was pretty much a nobody in high school.
What was once dairy and logging country now has boutiques and a growing population of 10,000.
Shops for bait and bridal gowns are a block apart. Wedding venues and pumpkin patches dot the countryside. Skydivers dip overhead as trains rumble below.
For many who live here, the heart of Snohomish is football.
The school that turned 125 years old this year has about 1,700 students and is a short walk on the main route to downtown.
The Panthers aren’t the only team in town. The Grizzlies are at suburban Glacier Peak High School, opened by the school district in 2008 and splitting the student body. Snohomish competes in Class 3A and Glacier Peak is a Class 4A school, based on enrollment.
It is standing room only when these two face off in a rivalry non-conference game.
A bronze statue of longtime Snohomish High coach Dick Armstrong stands at the school’s Veterans Memorial Stadium, which honors heroes on and off the field. The stadium has a granite monument with the names of fallen servicemen. The 81st name belongs to Marine Corps Cpl. Jeffrey B. Starr, 22, Class of 2001, killed in Iraq in 2005.
Coach Armstrong led the team from 1963 to 1994. He is one of the winningest football coaches in state history.
Mark Perry served under Armstrong and then coached the football team for 18 seasons. He’s been the school’s athletic director for the past seven years.
“In the ’70s, we had two state championships. In the ’90s we were in the state’s semifinals,” Perry said.
The team went to the state playoffs last year.
“Now we’re back on track. It’s a new hype and a new energy around the community and student body — everybody.”
Joey Hammer, a 1998 Snohomish grad and standout quarterback, started as head coach last year.
The Panthers were 8-3-0 in his first season. They lost, 66-33, to the Bellevue Wolverines, holders of 11 state titles.
A Daily Herald coaches poll this week has Snohomish as the favorite to defend its Wesco 3A South title.
Coach Hammer, 39, instituted the motto “One heartbeat” to promote unity among all — the band, cheerleaders, parents, community.
“It’s making sure everybody knows they have value,” Hammer said.
He tells players, “I love ya.”
He’s positive, but no softie. He yells. He scolds. He pushes hard.
Example: “I need that foot to the floor. The motor can’t stop … You guys are all capable of A-plus all the time.”
Hammer said it was a dream to someday come back Snohomish to coach. His freshman son, Kale, is on the varsity roster.
The coach’s reputation has attracted new recruits.
Angelo Leyde, a junior, wrestles in the 220-pound weight class. He joined the football team this year as a way to stay in shape.
“It’s fun, it’s tough,” said Angelo, a junior-varsity lineman. “It’s like having another family.”
“Football is the glue that keeps the community together,” said Tricia Kaminski, booster club president. “What goes on on this field brings so many people outside and within it together. It is so powerful.”
Her son, Drew, plays center on the offensive line. She wrangles volunteers to raise money, feed the team on game days and organize events.
This year a record 133 boys came out for the team.
Parents provided all the food for the first team meal, a taco bar, for the players, 13 coaches and a sign language interpreter.
Players sold Gold Cards, a plastic coupon card with local dining and store deals. At $25, it can be a hard sell, but it’s also hard to say no to a kid in uniform, especially when there’s two at your door. Funds raised cover things beyond the program’s budget.
“This year we scholarshipped 31 kids to go to football camp, so everybody could go together,” Kaminksi said.
It takes more than a show of grit.
“Brotherhood is a really big component of it,” she said. “For a lot of these kids, they find it out here. And that all goes back to Coach Hammer and his belief about ‘One heartbeat.’… I think the community was ready for something like that. It kind of gives you goosebumps.”
Jesse Podoll, class of 1998, found that sense of belonging during his varsity days playing with Joey Hammer.
“Being part of a team, you’re wearing a jersey through town and everybody knows, ‘OK, hey, there’s a bunch of football players.’ Every Friday back then you either wore a tie and a shirt or you wore your football jersey and camo pants on game day,” Podoll said.
“We had open lunch, so on a Friday, it could be 15 football players would go up to The Hub and have a burger and walk in as a big group. Everybody would know who you are and say hello.”
This year his twin 14-year-old sons, Mason and Caleb, are Panthers.
“Watching their journey, from freshman team to JV to varsity, it will be a cool next four years,” the dad said.
That Snohomish experience for his sons brought him back here after serving in the Air Force.
“It’s Friday night, all these lights are on,” Podoll said. “Everybody is here.”
The stands are empty as some 130 teens in white football helmets take to the field on a gray Wednesday afternoon in mid-August.
It’s the first practice for the Panthers.
Nobody is watching, except the coaches.
Their commands ricochet around the field:
“Your mom is a yoga instructor, you can go deeper than that.”
The frequent shrill of whistles grabs attention over the muffled horn of a train that sounds in the distance.
Faceguards help mask the identity of the players. Some are beefy, others scrawny. One is blind, another is deaf.
All will make a team, whether it’s varsity, JV or the freshman team.
Football is a no-cut sport.
“If a kid wants to come in and work hard, he’s going to be a part of the team,” athletic director Perry said.
The positions are competitive. Not all will make the field under the Friday night lights.
The first three practices are without pads.
After that, it’s game on.
Chrissy Teigen cheered during her student days here in the early 2000s, before her Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue debut and her marriage to singer John Legend.
Old photos of the supermodel in her SHS uniform is “a fun little connection” for the squad, said cheer coach Kendra Peterson.
It’s easier to get on the football team than the cheerleading squad. This year, 52 girls tried out for 16 cheer positions.
Peterson said candidates are graded on more than dexterity. GPA, in-person interview and motive factor in.
Five sophomores, five juniors and six seniors made the squad.
Four girls from the Life Skills special education program cheer with the squad during one quarter of each home game. The Sparkles, as they are called, wear uniforms similar to the squad. They don’t have to try out.
“When I was in school the Life Skills kids were left out of a lot,” said Teresa Patnode, a ’97 Snohomish grad. “A lot of those kids didn’t get the chance to have those memories.”
She hasn’t been to a game since. Now she’ll be at every home game.
This is her daughter Erin’s first year as a Sparkle. Erin, a senior, has mild autism.
“She wanted to do it last year but backed out,” Patnode said. “She doesn’t interact well. She’s a sit-at-home and draw type.”
Cheer has been good for Erin.
“She has come a lot more out of her shell,” Patnode said.
Erin chants and shakes pom-poms with zeal equal to her cheermates’ spirit. She was in the Kla Ha Ya Days summer festival parade. So, too, was Mike Carver and his flag-flying red truck.
“I feel like I’m being part of the group,” Erin said. “I am more confident in myself.”
Meantime, her mom is working on her own skills.
“I get nervous. As a parent, I don’t want her to mess up or look out of tempo,” she said. “I have to teach myself to enjoy it and not stress out.”
Sara Larson, the school’s athletic trainer for 21 years, has medical gear at the ready.
Bags with splints, tapes and bandages. Face mask removal tools for head and neck injuries. Kits to repair helmet breaks.
Sore muscles are the top preseason malady for players.
“Some like to do ice baths or they’ll go sit in the cold river,” she said. “It helps get blood back into your muscles.”
Stretching also helps.
During practice Wednesday, two days before the first game, she taped and iced up Angelo’s finger after it got smashed between two helmets. He returned to the field.
Football is a high-risk, hard-contact sport ready-made for pain.
“Ankles, knees, concussion, broken collar bones, we get a lot of those,” she said. “We didn’t have a lot of broken bones last year. We’re lucky there. Mostly ankle sprains last year.”
Larson takes care of athletes in all sports. After football, swimming saw the most concussions last year, she said.
The Zackery Lystedt Law enacted in 2009 prohibits young athletes who sustained a concussion from returning to the field without medical clearance.
Larson’s sons, Tyler and Kyle, are on the team. Tyler, a senior, rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season. Kyle is a freshman.
Does Larson worry as she watches them?
On the field, Larson considers them all her sons.
For the band, the audience doesn’t get much better or bigger than a football game.
Band director Joseph Boertmann credits football with building the music program.
“It is so much more than just playing for a game. We are playing for the community,” he said.
“What we do on the football field convinces people to support us in the concert hall. That’s one of the reasons we have a beautiful performing arts center. The Snohomish community has a value of the arts.”
Band is an extracurricular activity. Band kids raise money to pay for uniforms and other expenses. Band parents are in it for the long haul as well.
Boertmann said coach Hammer approached him last year to be part of “One heartbeat.”
“He said, ‘Your band is great, we love your energy. Before the team comes out of the locker room, can you come to the tunnel and do this drumbeat?’”
It starts with one drummer making a heartbeat sound, then more drummers are added as the team comes out. It leads into the school’s fight song.
“To have a football coach come to me and say what your kids do is really helping my team, that went a long way toward making my kids feel valued,” Boertmann said. “These are high school kids giving you their time. And there’s 120 of them that do that.”
About the same number as football players.
Twenty-four are in the drum line. Other instruments include trombone, baritone, mellophone, trumpet, clarinet, sax, flute and piccolo. And, of course, sousaphones.
This is Boertmann’s fifth year at Snohomish High. The California native applied after seeing a long post on a Facebook page for band directors from retiring director Pete Wilson saying what a great job it was.
“I thought if a guy has finished his 37th-odd year and he’s still feeling that good, this is something I want,” Boertmann said.
The players, coaches, managers, cheerleaders, band, parents — everybody — all have been gearing up for the season.
Tonight is the first game. It is at home, against Marysville Pilchuck.
Close your eyes and you can hear the horns, whistles, grunts, clacks and cheers. See the three drum majors march across the field in black capes and black feathered hats, leading the band in formation as dozens of brass instruments shine under the Friday night lights.
The Friday ritual is played out in stadiums across the country. Coach Hammer’s “One heartbeat” mantra could be said about any football town. At Snohomish High, it’s on shirts and on bracelets and in pep talks. It’s expected and embodied.
“It’s like the entire town shuts down and comes here. No other sport has the ability to bring people together like this one does,” said football booster mom Kaminksi.
“I wish you could bottle football and sell it throughout the year. It’s such a magical time.”