No Crying in Baseball, Sure, but in Football, Serious Tears

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By Preston Williams
Thursday, September 18, 2008

Rolling Stone magazine called the song a "Maserati of Mush." The liner notes to Rhino Records' "Super Hits of the '70s : Have a Nice Day, Vol. 20" dub it the "teariest tearjerker of 1975" and warn listeners to "have some hankies handy -- to wipe away the tears or plug up your speakers." It pops up on Most Annoying Songs and Worst Songs of All Time lists on the Internet.

Those critics can howl all they want. We call "The Blind Man in the Bleachers" the only hit song we know about high school football, and for that, songwriter Sterling Whipple deserves a long-overdue game ball.

Whipple's melodramatic tune about a football player and his father, sung by Kenny Starr, climbed to No. 2 on the country charts and was nominated for a Country Music Association Song of the Year award.

At the same time, a version by David Geddes, under the alternate title "The Last Game of the Season," crept to No. 18 on the pop charts. Whipple said some radio stations played both versions and invited listeners to vote for their favorite.

"Whatever the name, it's the song that's selling," Rolling Stone declared in January 1976, saying that the composition "works even on the most calcified of heartstrings."

"Blind Man" is a story song, with a spoken intro. A boy's sight-impaired dad is a fixture at his son's games, although the bench-warming kid never gets to play. The father is sure that the boy has untapped potential, and he longs to hear his name called over the loudspeaker.

One night, the dad doesn't show up at the stadium, and the boy finally gets on the field. If you want to know the rest -- and you know you do -- take 3 1/2 minutes and listen to the song here (the country version) or here (the pop version).

Whipple, 60, who had several hits after "Blind Man" and is retired from the music industry and living outside Nashville, said in a phone interview that "Blind Man" tied together several threads of his life. The song is based on a story he heard in church growing up in Oregon. Whipple played quarterback at Scappoose High School (also the alma mater of Cleveland Browns quarterback Derek Anderson), so he had a deft feel for the high school football setting.

The clinching inspiration for the song came when Whipple's father died in 1975. By dropping out of law school years before, Whipple had felt as if he had let down his old man, a lawyer, and his dad would not be around to enjoy any success his son might enjoy in the music business.

"I kind of broke his heart," Whipple said.

So in that vulnerable state, Whipple wrote "Blind Man" in about 25 cathartic minutes. It was not intended to be the heartstrings-tugger that it became. "It was so inspired," said Nancy Whipple, Sterling's wife and high school sweetheart. "This just rolled out of him."

Whipple liked "Blind Man" but was not sure the country music establishment would nibble on a song about an unconventional topic written by a Pacific Northwest interloper with a name like an obscure wedding registry item. At that point, he did not have much of a track record.

"It was going to be impossible to get cut for the very reason that it was about football," said Whipple, who is amused at the negative reaction the song has evoked over the years. "We wanted to hear about cheating and fighting and drinking and all that country stuff. It's icky and gooey, but it kind of gets you.

"A lawyer I knew back in Oregon said he would never listen to the song again because he didn't listen to music so he could pull off the road and cry."

Indeed, the song is simple, syrupy and cinematic, with a gut-punch ending. It perked the ears of radio listeners, got write-ups in Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone and launched Whipple's career, which included penning hits for, among others, Mel Tillis ("Ain't No California"), T.G. Sheppard ("Baby, I'll Be Coming Back for More"), Mac Davis ("Forever Lovers"), Bobby Borchers ("Cheap Perfume and Candlelight"), Johnny Lee ("Prisoner of Hope"), Tommy Overstreet ("If Love Was a Bottle of Wine"), Gary Stewart ("In Some Room Above the Street") and Joe Diffie ("Third Rock From the Sun," a title used by the subsequent TV show).

Although "Blind Man" is about football, the song touches on the faith a father has in his son, a son's desire to please his dad and (spoiler alert) even the afterlife. Starr's version is more affecting because it ends abruptly. The slicker Geddes version fades out on a repeated chorus.

High school football has been the subject of numerous movies. Think "All the Right Moves," "Remember the Titans," "Friday Night Lights" (based on the H.G. Bissinger book), "Varsity Blues," "Facing the Giants," "The Best of Times," "Radio," "Wildcats" and "Johnny Be Good." "Friday Night Lights" was made into a TV show. ESPN routinely televises high school games. Preps-related Web sites dot cyberspace.

Yet "Blind Man" is the only hit single we know of that's about high school football; throwing in a sportsy line or two in a song about something else doesn't count. Kind of hard to figure, because there is a lot to write about: small towns, Friday nights, proud parents, pressure, machismo, girlfriends, school pride, picking yourself up after being knocked down, under-the-bleacher shenanigans, the twilight years of youth. That's a lot of low-hanging fruit.

Steve Earle, with his achingly reflective "No. 29," and Randy Newman, with "Golden Gridiron Boy," a tale of a guy in the band whose crush is more interested in the quarterback than a horn toter, are among those who have tackled the subject.

The best-known example of the powers of "Blind Man" came in fall 1975 when Vanderbilt Coach Fred Pancoast read the lyrics to his team before playing mighty Tennessee. The Vandy players, after drying their eyes, pulled out a 17-14 victory in the regular season finale, their first win in the series since 1964.

Whipple, who for a time worked for a child protective services agency in Tennessee and is editing his first novel, said he is not much of a college or pro football fan. But he has a soft spot for high school ball. He attends games at Hendersonville High School near his home, and he and Nancy still receive letters from high school coaches asking permission to use the song. Whipple doesn't own the copyright, but he is all for coaches borrowing his breakthrough hit.

Players "still cry in high school, and they chew each other out for doing stuff wrong," Whipple said. " 'Innocent' is a strong word, but they care. That's a true game. The glory, the expectations, the fun of the game, representing your school, their name going out over the speakers. It all seems so sweet and silly to us adults.

"But for 90 percent of those kids," Whipple said, "that's the best it's ever gonna be."

Varsity Letter is a weekly column about high school sports in the Washington area. E-mail Preston Williams at williamsp@washpost.com.


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