Michigan City chain crew

Warren Foster, third from left, has been on the chain crew for Michigan City football games, either Elston, Rogers or City, for 53 years. His grandson Travis, left, joined the group six years ago. His son, Dan, second from left, has worked the sidelines with his dad for 33 years, and Pat O'Leary, right, has been with the Fosters for 12 years.

John J. Watkins, The Times

When Michigan City Elston defeated Portage for its first and only football sectional title in 1984, Warren Foster was on the sidelines at old Ames Field as part of the chain crew, just as he had been for every single home game since 1964 and just as he has been for every single home game since.

"Nobody believes me," the 73-year old Foster said. "My wife can tell you, I've not missed a ball game, home or away. I know where all the schools are."

It's not only a testament to Foster's dedication, it's a testament to his loyalty. He saw an awful lot of awful football in the cavernous old ball yard, where the best times were those of watching the Alou brothers, Juan Marichal and Johnny Orsino playing baseball for the Class D Michigan City Whitecaps. After the '84 team, coached by current Wolves assistant Ken Bye, Elston didn't have another winning record before the school closed in 1995. Rogers was even worse, with no more than six wins in a season between '79 and '94.

"Unfortunately, I hate to say there were years with the Elston program when there were less people in the stands than there were on the field," he said. "There were some bad seasons."

The consolidation didn't bring the success people had hoped either -- three finishes north of .500 in 21 years — before Phil Mason took over last season. The Wolves' 15 wins in the last two years are one shy of the most ever in that span by a Michigan City high school, dating back to 1904.

And you thought the Cubs used to be bad?

"What coach Mason has done in two years is phenomenal," Foster said. "The big thing for the kids was the Pop Warner league coming in. We knew they were going to get better. I wish we had something like that when I played. The kids are in the weight room the day after the season. There's all the stuff they do in the summer now, seven on sevens, that they couldn't do before. It's crazy. You've got to be committed."

Friday's sectional title ended over 30 years of high school football misery in the city and few could appreciate more than Foster. An Elston graduate, he entered the military out of high school but was discharged after hurting his knee. He returned home, working for the city water works department before going into the wholesale live bait and tackle business, retiring six years ago. He was part of the committee that put the new stadium project together.

Foster was 20 when he caught on with the chain crew at the request of Red Devils coach Vic Overman. Elston and Rogers shared Ames and he worked games for both schools, enduring the harshest weather the lake could blow at them.

"You dress warm and make sure you've got rain gear," he said.

Foster's son, Dan, who played for Rogers, joined him on the sidelines in 1985. His grandson Travis, who played for City, came on in 2012. Rick Koepke was a long-time partner before Pat O'Leary took his place 13 years ago.

"It's our night together," he said. "That's what makes it great."

In that same time span, Foster has missed just one boys basketball game, handling the team score book. Ironically, that one game was the 1966 Elston state championship.

Why?

"Our son was born," he said. "There were no tickets available but friends offered us tickets. We watched it on WTTW, Channel 11, in black and white."

The incredible string of longevity was threatened five years back when Foster had to have surgery that summer to remove a tumor from his spinal cord. He recovered in time to put the vest back on again. That same year, he was inducted into the Michigan City Football Hall of Fame for his service to the program.

"There's been a lot of good memories," Foster said. "There was the year we had the goal line stand against Penn. I've seen some good games. I'm not thinking about retiring yet."

He'll be in the stands Friday at Concord.

"Hopefully, we can get another one at home," Foster said. "With three good backs, the way our quarterback runs and the passing game, I think we'll be hard to stop."

This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at james.peters@nwi.com

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Sports reporter

Jim was keeping standings on his chalkboard from the time he could print and keeping kickball stats in grade school at St. Bridget's. He covers all manner of prep sports for The Times and is a long-suffering Chicago Cubs fan.