By Budd McLaughlin • Photos by Jennifer Johnson
They could be Huntsville High’s version of “The Three Musketeers.” Instead of their loyalty toward the King of France, these three are die-hard loyalists of the Crimson Panther nation. How loyal are they?
The veteran, Ben West, has been with the Panthers for 17 years; Jeremy Blair has 15 years of service and Tommy Neupert, the young one, is a 7-year veteran.
So, what do these Crimson-blooded guys do? They’re not teachers nor are they coaches, though they do have the best seats in the house at football games.
They’re the managers for the football team; the guys in charge of the team’s water supply and making sure dry balls are put in play for the offense along with other responsibilities to ensure that everything runs smoothly on the sidelines.
And they’re under the charge of Eddie Hyter, the equipment manager who’s also known as “Mr. Huntsville High School.” A Huntsville High grad, he’s been with the program for 30 years.
Year in and year out, like the postal worker, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these managers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” So, why do they do this?
“We enjoy the game,” said West, the assistant equipment manager and Hyter’s right-hand man. “This is how we can help the team.”
Head Coach Scott Sharp emphasized the importance of Hyter, West, Neupert and Blair. “They are the glue of our program,” he said. “Every day, they are the behind-the-scenes guys that take care of all the other things. “From washing clothes to getting equipment out and ready for practice, they are always there.”
They were able to take a few minutes during halftime of this year’s Homecoming game to talk. It was really the only free time they’ve had in the last few hours.
Their jobs may require them to be on the sidelines, but they don’t just stand there. They’re involved in the game – literally. You can see them reacting on every play: pacing, cringing, cheering, high-fiving and fist-bumping. They also have their share of the action on the field.
West and Neupert alternate running the balls out to the referees after every offensive play for the Panthers. And they don’t jog, either. Since the play clock is running, it’s an all-out sprint for them.
So, who’s fastest?
“I am,” West said.
“I am,” Neupert countered.
They take their jobs seriously, too.
Like the players, there is no summer vacation. They’re out there during the two-a-days in the late summer heat and, during the season, they’re at every practice and, of course, every game.
“They are willing to come most every day and make the sacrifices to be a part of the program while also holding down other jobs,” Sharp said. “The program means as much to them as anyone.”
West is at the field around 1 p.m., six hours before kickoff. Blair and Neupert get there a couple hours later. When West arrives, though, Hyter has already been there for about 4 hours.
“My day starts about 9 a.m.,” he said. “I get everything set up for when Ben gets here.”
West goes through his routine, checking and double-checking equipment and the players’ gear. When Neupert and Blair arrive, they work like a well-oiled machine. After the final horn, they still have work to do: Making sure the ball-count is accurate, the bottles of water are ready to be cleaned and making sure the equipment is accounted for.
“I don’t think any other school does what we do,” West said. “Or together as long as we are.”
As long as they’ve been with the program, they also have their share of game memories – good and bad.
“We’ve had a bunch of good teams,” Blair said. “I’d have to say the Pell City playoff game – we never gave up.”
Neupert said the 2008 quarterfinal win over Hewitt-Trussville was his “best memory. That was a great game.”
West agreed. “That got us against Hoover … but we lost.”
The referees head back onto the field and the teams are exiting the dressing rooms, so it’s time for the interview to wrap up so the crew can’t get back to what they love: helping the team.
Hyter offers some simple praise for his crew.
“I don’t know what I’d do without them,” he said as he heads back to work.
Sharp echoed Hyter’s remarks.
“There are not many people around who are willing to give like they are,” he said. “We have always said that when Eddie retires, we all will leave! “He is that valuable to the program.”
Well, coach, that may be a while.
“How long will I be here?” Hyter said. “As long as the Man above lets me.”