The Legend of the Free Booters

Oberlin was never really what you would call a "sports town". A lot of that was due to the size - at that time less, but the latest census indicates greater than 8,000 people. 

Keeping it in perspective, my high school graduating class was a mighty 93 (or so). Baseball was always played. And we did have a few sports legends:

John Heisman (who the Heisman trophy was named for) coached at Oberlin College in 1892 and again in 1894.

Tommie Smith  (that is Dr. Smith now) also briefly coached at the College following his heroics at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968.  And I can say without fear of contradiction, one of the nicest, kindest, and coolest people I've ever spoken to  - albeit by telephone.

In the late 70s / early 80s my neighbor Dan Mason's Hot Stove (that was what we called little league) team won the Ohio state championship, and the next year (if my memory serves) they repeated.

Our high school produced perhaps the greatest wrestler the state ever saw - that was Erik Burnett who won the Ohio state high school wresting championship four years on the bounce.

My senior year, the Oberlin Indians (now the Pheonix) stunned everyone (except themselves) and took the Ohio state basketball championship for division 2. This was remarkable for several reasons, not least of which was that with the benefit of 2 or 3 families moving away, Oberlin High School would have been division 3. We were one of the smallest (by student population) sized schools in division 2.

But what does any of this have to do with the title of today's post - The Free Booters? Well, you will note that in all of the references listed, not one alluded to soccer (or football, as it is referred to in more civilized countries). Oberlin in the 70s and early 80s did indeed have soccer. But where today you think of kids in matching uniforms, eating orange slices at halftime and parents living and breathing their children's sporting lives, well soccer in Oberlin was something different. While the Middle School and the High School had soccer, there was nothing at what today might be called the "recreation" level. In truth, the closest thing was a buccaneering group of older, high school aged kids known as the Oberlin Free Booters.

The Free Booters were a rather rag-tag group of lads (with one or two notable female exceptions) that essentially barnstormed Northeastern Ohio in search of any organized amateur team that would agree to play them. The only reason you could discern that they were, in fact, a team was that each member had a red t-shirt with Free Booters in small font on the front, and a number and the player's nickname on the back, all printed by Bill Stetson at the Sports Shop at a reduced rate. The idea of team shorts or socks was alien. Shin pads were for weenies, and halftime refreshments usually consisted of warm bottles of Coca-Cola that were passed around. Bruce Cotton, Smith Brittingham, Ethan Steinberg, the older Andrews brothers, the older Sonner brothers, Mike Thompson and many others flew the flag of soccer in Oberlin. As it was not exactly a formal team in a formal league, there were not exactly formal dictates as to who could join the team. To that end, I believe that Billy Brittingham was the youngest ever player drafted into service, being a good two to four years younger than the majority of the team. For those of you unfamiliar with Oberlin Soccer, Billy Brittingham was, is, and will always be the most talented player that ever laced up boots and kicked a ball in anger on behalf of the town. He was so good, that word got around about him and he was pursued by more than one semi-professional team in the Cleveland metro area.

The Free Booters laid the groundwork for what would follow. They came to our school - Prospect Elementary, and gave a bit of a demo to us. Then thanks to Bruce Bostick (I think I have that right) they agreed to run a sort of summer soccer clinic where kids like me, David Sonner, Chris Andrews, and others chased after our heroes. And that led to a few pivotal things. The first was the creation of an intramural soccer league which we all got to play in when we turned 8. My team was the big winner that first year -


I am the fifth from the left in the Cincinnati Bengals jersey. 

The next year year Oberlin launched its first true youth team, playing in the AASL's 12 and under category. The funny thing about that was we actually could have played in the under 10 category. Needless to say, we were nowhere near ready for what awaited us that first year, and got our heads handed to us on a fairly regular basis. The year was divided into 2 seasons - fall and spring. That fall we went something like 0 - 10 -1. The one draw being cause for jubilation. The following spring we did a touch better, and by season's end myself and Chris Andrews were asked to join the team at Elyria. Elyria was a bigger city to the north, and they had just won the league. I went, Chris stayed put. It was a bumpy season, I played okay, but the team I played with was extremely good, and the coach had what I can only refer to in hindsight as a "challenging" disposition. But I learned a lot, and my father and I grew closer. So much so that when he saw how broken I felt by the constant screaming from the coach, he vowed he would get involved in soccer and make sure that it was not only competitive, but fun.

The very next autumn, fate would intervene and the middle school needed a coach. And as fate would have it, my father was the only one available / willing to take it on. We were just 2 years past our first introduction to organized soccer, but we rolled with the same carefree attitude of the Free Booters we had idolized. We all had matching long-sleeved jerseys (pale blue) and that was it. As soccer was still not a very popular middle school sport, we tended to play against parochial and private schools. At the end of that first season, Lake Ridge Academy organized and held a tournament with four teams. We were invited (I think they suspected we would be fodder for the other teams). And surprise, surprise - we won in a shoot out. History will record that I hit the right post with my shot, and that I yelled an expletive that I am fairly certain had never been heard in the leafy glens of Lake Ridge Academy. But it will also inform you that despite my miss, we won the shootout before we even got to the last kick. Which just goes to show you that rich kids might have matching uniforms and orange slices at half-time, but they couldn't hold their nerves. Yes, I did hit the post, but the Royals knocked 2 over the cross bar, one was saved by Chris Andrews, and I have no idea what became of the fourth, because it didn't matter -

That would by my father, Ed, sporting the tartan trousers, and I am a few bodies down the line, clustered by Chuck Randolph (standing lowest, next to Ed), David Sonner (standing next to Ed), Amy Dawson (standing just above me), and Chris Andrews (Standing to my right).

And that was actually the turning point. My father said for years after that that team (1980), should never have won the tournament. The next year we got knocked out by Lake Ridge and finished third (I believe). And my father also said that there was no way we should have lost. And it was true. We had the better team, we had been playing together for quite awhile, we had brand new uniforms with matching shorts and socks!

And as I look back on it, I wonder if that wasn't the problem? No, having a full uniform didn't defeat us, but it did take away a lot of that swagger, that feeling of being the underdog and beating the rich kids. Because the spirit of that first team, what made it special? It was that same thing that made the Free Booters special. I honestly don't know if the Free Booters ever won more than a handful of games. But if not for them in the 70s, there would be no soccer for me and the class of 86. 

So here's to the Free Booters - wherever they are now, may you still be kicking it.


Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.