The North Marion High chain gang has been policing the football field for decades.
Members of the North Marion High School Colts chain gang, from left: Nat Scherer, Jimmy Stroup, Steve Rogers and Chip Dixon, pose together before the Colts’ game against Hawthorne at Stan Toole Stadium in Citra on Friday, Oct. 20, 2023. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2023.
Out of all the diehard North Marion High School fans packing Stan Toole Memorial Stadium during football season, Jimmy Stroup figures he and his three cohorts have the best view of them all.
From masterful quarterback passes to stinging tackles and fumbles, heart-stopping first downs, and game-winning plays in the end zone, they get to see all the action, up close and personal.
Stroup, along with Steve Rogers, Chip Dixon and Nat Sherer make up the North Marion Chain Gang, an all-important sideline crew who marks the line of scrimmage, the down number and otherwise keeps track of those crucial 10 yards that can make or break a pivotal drive.
“It’s the best seat in the house; I’ve seen some great football games, and some great coaches,” said Stroup. “But I’ve also seen some games that were not a pleasure to watch.”
The all-volunteer team has a walloping 115 years of combined experience working the sidelines along the opposing team’s side during home games, earning them respect from boosters, officials and coaches alike.
The chain gang at North Marion has been in existence since the early 1950s and is one of the oldest continuous serving crews in the state. Stroup’s father, the late Noland “Jeff” Stroup, who served on the Reddick Town Council for 35 years, including 20 as mayor, began serving on the crew in 1954 and kept at it for 44 years. He reeled his son in one autumn afternoon in 1970.
“My Dad came by and said, ‘Let’s go, I need someone to help run the chains,’ and that started it all,” said Stroup, a 1959 graduate of North Marion who played football all four years of high school. “So far, I’ve run with all 13 coaches at North Marion.”
These days, Stroup, now 82, who also served as mayor of Reddick for 30 years before retiring earlier this year, operates the clip, while Rogers, president of the Reddick City Council, keeps track of the downs, with Dixon and Sherer running the chains.
Keeping the pigskin game flowing is critical, but the latter task can be daunting – and an intense workout.
“When you run the chains, you might be on the five-yard line, then 25 seconds later you’re on the 25-yard line on the other end of the field,” said Sherer, who joined the gang 15 years ago. His sons Zac and Brad both played football at North Marion.
“The style of the game has gotten faster,” he said. “The offense wants to go faster. With that being the case, you’ve got to be faster on the sidelines, too.”
Rogers said he’s enjoyed seeing generations of kids come through the program since he joined the gang 28 years ago, when his son Adam started playing football.
“You watch these little kids start to learn the game and then all of a sudden they are on the field as varsity players,” said Rogers, a 1967 graduate of North Marion, who was on the team that played the first-ever game at Stan Toole Stadium, which was built solely by the booster club.
“Jim’s dad was on the sidelines when I was playing,” said Rogers. “Then I was on the sidelines when my son started playing, and my hope is to stay healthy long enough to see my grandson play.”
The community service aspect of volunteering is what nudged Dixon into being on the chain gang after an invitation from Stroup 19 years ago. His son Kyle was also on the football team at the time.
“I love the opportunity to see kids thrive, and organized sports is a good part of teaching discipline and teamwork,” said Dixon, who co-owns 28 Sonny’s BBQ franchises. “It’s something I do for the kids and for the community.”
“I look at it as a privilege; I love those guys on the crew,” he said. “It’s very encouraging to me to be surrounded by people who are selfless and give back to kids and schools.”
The Colts are currently struggling with a 1-7 record under fourth-year coach Greg Carr, a graduate and former standout player at North Marion who went on to have gridiron success at Florida State, the NFL and the CFL. The team plays Williston, 8-0, tonight.
Last year, however, North Marion made it to the Class 2S-Region 2 quarterfinals before being eliminated by Gainesville Eastside 27-14. The Colts finished out the 2022 season with a 7-3 record.
In 2018, the team defeated Trinity Christian 29-25 in the Class 5A state semifinals, securing its first state championship appearance in school history. The Colts went on to lose to Cardinal Gibbons, 48-10.
Big games mean lively—and loud—crowds.
“One thing you can feel in a big game is the intensity,” said Sherer. “You can feel the hair on the back of your neck stand up, the crowd is loud, and it’s quite an adrenaline rush.”
“It’s so much better when the games are packed,” he said.
Over the years, the men have witnessed impressive leadership from their position on the sideline.
“The good part of being on the crew is to see the great coaches in action from the opposing side,” said Stroup. “David Hurse from Bradford in Starke was the best I’ve worked with, but there was also Corky Rogers from Bolles in Jacksonville.”
Sadly, and perhaps too often, they’ve also seen the opposite.
“I’ve seen some examples of great leadership, but I’ve also seen some folks who are probably there for the wrong reasons.” said Dixon.
Rogers said the thrill of witnessing the joy of victory and the heartbreak of defeat, is twofold.
“You’re right there in the heartbeat of the game, seeing everything, but you’re also right in the middle of the opposition, listening to coaching against your home team even though you’re there for the officials,” he said.
Being so close to the action can also mean being in harm’s way at times.
“You’ve got to keep your head on a swivel,” said Rogers. “When those kids are coming at you, they’re not looking at you, they are looking to make a tackle so when you’ve got a 220-pounder coming at you, you better get out of the way.”
“We’ve all been knocked down a few times,’’ he said, “but fortunately, no one’s been seriously hurt.”
More than a dozen years ago, Stroup was plowed into by then-Colts quarterback Chuckie Looney.
“The only thing that saved me was that I came down on Looney, instead of the track,” said Stroup, who was honored by the Florida High School Athletic Association in 2021 for his 50-plus years of service. Craig Damon, former athletic director and head football coach at North Marion, heads the organization.
Looking ahead, Stroup said he’s not sure how much longer he’ll serve on the chain gang.
“The way my feet were hurting after last week’s homecoming game, there’s no telling,” he said.