By Garrett Mitchell, Staff Writer
Mac Lancaster stood as he has on every fall Friday night for the past 50 years, on the visitor’s sideline at W.L. Varner Stadium, with the down marker in his right hand as the final seconds melted away from the scoreboard, each tick of the clock seemingly passing faster than the one before it.
In five decades, Lancaster has seen the same scoreboard count down too many times to recall, more often than not with the Wolverines marking the moments to another forgone victory. This time, however, was different. If you looked closely enough, this time, you could see the welling of small tear in Lancaster’s eyes.
This time was the last time.
Lancaster, 78, was honored with the Wolverine Distinguished Service Award prior to the Wolverines’ Nov. 2 game against Broome. It was the culmination of a remarkable journey for Lancaster, who started his career on the famous Woodruff High ‘Chain Gang’ in 1971. In 50 years, he never missed a season, could count on one hand the number of games he had not worked, but for Lancaster, he knew the time was right to step away.
Before every ending, however, there is a beginning. Lancaster’s story began prior to the 1971 football season when he was just 28 years old.
“Back then, the chain crew was usually just made up of students, and a lot of times they were younger eighth and ninth grade kids,” recalled Lancaster. “Evidently, they were making a lot of mistakes, but Coach Varner was just dissatisfied with what was going on. So, he called Harold Melton after a game one night and asked him to put together a chain crew that pretty well knows what they’re doing.”
Melton’s first call was to Lancaster, his longtime friend. Along with Melton and Lancaster, Jack ‘Pee Wee’ Jones and Harold’s brother Marvin formed to become the first official Woodruff High School chain crew.
The new, professional Wolverine chain crew officially took the field for the first game of the 1971 season. Though he never played football in high school, Lancaster knew and understood the game, and understood the expectations of his new role.
“I had attended games all through high school and even after high school,” said Lancaster. “I was a farm boy and didn’t have time to play, but I always went to see my friends play. I pretty well knew everything that was happening. I didn’t quite know all of the rules but it didn’t take long to learn what I needed to know.”
For the first three decades of his chain crew career, Lancaster was responsible for holding one of the two pole markers onto which the actual measuring chain is attached. It would not be until 2003, when two long-time members left the crew, including former Woodruff mayor Bill Black, that Lancaster assumed responsibility of the down box.
A role reserved for the eldest and most experienced member of the crew; Lancaster carried the down box for the final 18 seasons of his tenure. For those devoted fans of Woodruff football, it would be that instrument of his trade for which he would become synonymous.
“Believe it or not, when I first started, each of the sticks had about a four-inch extension on the bottom of the stick and we could stick them in the ground and just let them stand there,” said Lancaster. “The high school league did away with that because it was dangerous and we actually had to stand and hold them in place.”
He continued, “When Bill (Black) retired, I took over and have been holding the down marker ever since. I was on the line of scrimmage on every play. Where the football is, the down marker is, and all of these last 18 years I was looking right down the line of scrimmage.”
Working on the chain crew provides another unique perspective as well for those who are lucky enough to experience it. The chain crew works on the visitor’s side of the field, and as such, the sights and sounds are different from those experienced by the home fans. Working in enemy territory, Lancaster said, was one of his favorite parts of the job.
“I guess one of the biggest things that you experience being on the chain crew that folks in the stands don’t really know is, what you hear from the coaches and officials. They know sometimes there are arguments between the coaches and officials, and since we are also part of the officiating team and not allowed to say anything, we just stand and listen and hear what goes on. Sometimes coaches get really upset with the guys with the stripes on.”
Lancaster added, “On the whole, as a chain crew and a visiting team, 99.9 percent of the time (opponents) are very complimentary. I have had many visiting coaches tell us we did a good job, the officials have always told us the same thing, and I had one official tell me he wished he could take our chain crew with him wherever he called a game.”
Under Lancaster’s supervision, and even long before he took over the leading role, the Wolverine ‘Chain Gang’ had earned a reputation for being among the best, not only in South Carolina, but anywhere in the country. By word of mouth, referees’ praise for Lancaster and the crew reached well outside of the Palmetto State. Whenever word would get back to Lancaster, he said it was always received with a sense of gratitude.
“It really makes you feel good,” he said. “It’s one thing to have your own fans and people compliment you, but whenever a visiting team comes to whip your rear end, and after the game they tell you that you did a great job, it makes you feel really good.”
Loyalties aside, Lancaster never found it hard to work with a sense of professional decorum. There is a way, he described, to do the job and still tactfully cheer on the Wolverines at the same time.
“The entire time I have been on the chain crew, we realize we are an extension of the officiating crew, but we are all Woodruff fans, too,” Lancaster explained. “We have to keep comments to ourselves, but if we are at the end of the field, and maybe we score, we do a little fist bump between ourselves or something to that nature. We never make it a big thing because we never want to upset the visiting team and coaches.”
Fifty years is a long time by anyone’s standards, but Lancaster insists that there was never serious thought of stepping down until the last several seasons. Incredibly fit for his age, Lancaster always tapped into his passion and zeal for Woodruff football as each season drew near. Five decades, he figured, was a nice, round number.
He wanted to make 50.
Still, as the final seconds drained from the clock against Broome, Lancaster admitted he was aware and knew full well what it would mean once the scoreboard finally reached zero.
“The closer it got to the end of the game, the more I realized, hey, this will probably be the last time I stand on this sideline, run up and down this sideline, hold this down marker, and I knew I was going to miss it. And I will. The camaraderie we have with each other, we are like a five-man family, and I’m really going to miss that.”
You would have to forgive Mac Lancaster for not remembering every game he has worked. There are simply too many. You can see a lot in 50 years’ worth of football and Lancaster has seen more than most. In that time, he has watched countless Woodruff legends like Tony Rice, Willie Casey, Gene Reeder, and dozens of Hall of Famers come and go. Lancaster has reveled in hundreds of victories and experienced the heartbreak of defeat amid the exhilaration of victorious opponents.
Lancaster worked four state championship games from the Varner Stadium visitor’s sideline, wins in 1975 and 1983 against Bamberg-Ehrhardt and St. Johns and gut-wrenching defeats to Batesburg-Leesville and Silver Bluff in 1979 and 1991.
Through it all, the Wolverine ‘Chain Gang’ has remained mostly the same, too. Including Lancaster, four of the current crew’s members have been together for at least 14 years. If Lancaster is living proof, it is a rare position many covet, that few ever get, and do not easily part with it once you do.
Lancaster has always worn his Maroon and Gold heart on his sleeve, even if he could not always let it show.
“All of it was exciting, win or lose,” he added. “You’re a Woodruff fan and you take it to heart. Every Friday night that I took that chain pole or down marker, I expected us to win. I never expected us to lose.”