COLUMBIA – The head linesman signals and the four of them spring into action.
First comes Rebecca Bruton, jogging forward with the first down marker in a gloved right hand. Close behind is Ilayna Pickett, in charge of clipping the chain to the nearest five-yard marker. Next is Patty Avery, clutching the down marker and changing it to read “1” as she runs. April Sulze is the final member of the crew to arrive at her destination, carrying the other end of the 10-yard chain and setting up at the line of scrimmage on first down.
Ian Patterson kicked a 21-yard field goal that allowed Rock Bridge to escape with a 24-21 overtime victory over Liberty in its district opener.
The Bruins led 21-0 with 9:24 left in the first half. Mark Pickerel found Austin Ray in the end zone twice for scores and ran one in himself.
Things turned around for the Bruins with 3:31 remaining in the half, when Sheldon Gerau’s punt was blocked and the Blue Jays ran it back for their first points of the game.
The real blow came with a minute left in the opening half, when Mark Pickerel bruised his shoulder trying to extend a third-down play and coming up inches short of the first down. Pickerel did not return but said after the game that he will play next week at Blue Springs South.
He was replaced by Bo Bell, who was unable to get the Bruins on the board in the second half while the Blue Jays scored two short rushing touchdowns, with the second coming just after the start of the fourth quarter to even the score at 21.
Bell drove the Bruins to the 15 before a controversial call with 33 seconds remaining allowed Rock Bridge to keep the football. Bell appeared to have fumbled on a third-down scramble but was ruled down. Ian Patterson attempted a 30-yard field goal but missed it, sending the game into overtime.
The Blue Jays got the ball first in the extra frame, failing to score when Tyler Pate missed a 31-yard field goal wide left, giving Patterson the opportunity to kick the game-winner.
This is the life of the Rock Bridge chain gang, billed by the school’s public address announcer as the world’s only all-female unit. Though that fact is unconfirmed, it is a rarity to see four women in charge of moving the chains on the sidelines of the male-dominated sport.
“I’ve never seen it anywhere else,” said Arnie Shearer, head linesman for Friday’s Rock Bridge-Liberty game and a 17-year veteran of football officiating. “But I always look forward to coming here because they do such a good job.”
The job is not an easy one. Between the 25 yard lines the sidelines are a crowded place and the chain crew must avoid players, coaches and the occasional play that spills out of bounds.
Just two plays into the game, Rock Bridge quarterback Mark Pickerel scrambles out of the pocket and out of bounds right where Avery and Sulze were standing. Both dropped their markers and sprinted away back toward the track. Though no one has ever been seriously hurt during the group’s tenure, there have been collisions.
“They tell us to pay attention to the game,” Avery said. “The players have pads and we don’t.”
The all-female chain gang began in 1998 when Jeff Moore took over as football coach and approached a group of women teachers at Rock Bridge. The original crew consisted of Pickett, Avery, Lisa Holt and current Rock Bridge Athletic Director Jen Mast. All math or science teachers at the school, they used to eat lunch together regularly and took their friendly chemistry from the cafeteria to the sidelines.
“We had all done chains at other schools,” Avery said. “One day, all of the sudden we were the chain gang here,” Avery said.
Mast had to leave the chain gang behind when she became the Athletic Director in 2007 and said that she definitely misses being a part of the team.
“I loved it, it was actually one of the things that I put on my con list when I was thinking about taking the [athletic director] job,” Mast said. “The camaraderie and hanging out during the game is what I miss the most.”
Holt, Pickett and Avery still remain from the original crew but Holt has been out recently after surgery to repair a torn labrum. The crew has substituted various people for Mast over the past four years, even letting boys be part of the team a couple of times according to Pickett.
“That didn’t work out too well,” she joked.
All four of the women on Friday’s crew grew up watching football. Pickett watched the 1960’s Green Bay Packers with her dad during her childhood in Wisconsin, while the other three spent time watching Mizzou games as youths. Sulze, a former soccer player at Westminster College, even kicked for the football team for three games while its kicker was injured.
“I think I kicked twice the whole time,” Sulze said. “I really just wanted to get the pads and the stink off of me.”
The overall performance of the group has been well received by officials. Pickett claims the crew has “never done anything really stupid.” Considering MU’s chain gang once let Colorado have a fifth down, the group’s clean record is an impressive feat.
“We’re math and science teachers,” Pickett said. “We want to get it right and do a good job.”
Though Pickett and Avery are retired now, Sulze teaches biology at Rock Bridge and Bruton taught math for four years before returning to MU this semester to pursue her PhD. Their subjects are never far from their minds.
Seven minutes before the game, Avery was describing an advanced calculus problem and Sulze was diagramming triangles on the turf near the 20 yard line.
“It’s a little geek community down here,” Avery said. “We like to tell math stories.”
There have been times that officials have been skeptical when they first arrive at the field and see four women. Pickett has an answer for that too.
“They would ask us ‘have you ever done this before?’” Pickett said. “Just to kid with them we’d tell them that we did it for soccer all the time.”