Two familiar figures on the sidelines crew this fall during local AA football games at Vigilante Stadium are Doug Shenkle and Bob Tipton.
Between them, the two men have worked over 75 years doing a combination of chains and downs markers. Shenkle is in his 46th season for Helena High games, while Tipton has served “at least 30 years” doing Capital High contests. And although they don’t know the exact number, the duo has amassed close to 400 home football games combined on the sidelines.
Shenkle and Tipton have worked a combined 10 AA State championship tilts, several of those being among their career highlights. Both guys noted “all the great crosstown games,” as well, along with memories of the “striping measurement/chain length” episode that gained national attention.
Doug Shenkle, a retired HHS chemistry teacher, started working the chains as a new teacher and football coach at Helena Junior High (now Helena Middle School) in 1974.
“The seventh- and eighth-grade coaches were assigned to the chain gang as part of our coaching duties,” related Shenkle, stating that his first game was a 13-9 loss to Libby. “I worked the chain sticks – the downs markers were primo, and not for newbies. Bernard McGinley did the assignments, I was probably first because I had parked in his space one day.
“I liked doing the chains and gladly worked (them), it helped getting to know others.”
He recounted how the School District disbanded 7-8 grades football in 1975, and the freshman were split into to two teams. The former HJHS coaches took over the chains, and Shenkle was part of a group of regulars that stayed together for years.
In 1982, Helena became a four-year high school. It was the inaugural school year of Helena Middle School, and the sidelines staff consisted of high school and the “old guard” from the Junior High.
“I moved over to Helena High in 1985, and it was all prep staff doing the sidelines. I only did sporadic downs box,” recalled Shenkle, who spent 27 years at HHS. “In 1991, I did downs every game, and am now in my 28th season for that. That same year, my sixth-grade son Bob, who later attended Capital, started helping with the clip. He helped with that through eighth grade.”
In 46 years, Shenkle has only missed “about seven” games – none the first 11 years at HJHS/HMS – and several of those were due to attending the Air Force Academy openers, when his nephew was a cadet there.
“There were many tough years before (coach) Tony Arntson came in 1994,” he remembered. “It was huge victory in 1977, Mick Dennehy’s first season, when after 26 straight losses we had our first win in three years.”
Also among his highlights were the 1980 crosstown win over Capital, after seven successive defeats, and again in 2001, snapping a 13-year losing streak to the Bruins. And in 1998, the eventual AA runner-up Bengals hosted their first playoff game in many years, and appeared in the only State chipper at home in program history.
“I got run over by a coach once,” Shenkle said, when asked about unique experiences, “and there was the time others thought I should’ve caught an overthrown swing pass by Dave Millier. I got the double fists for a long time after that.
“One time wideout Justin Olsen was running towards me and waved at me before making the catch. He later played for the Griz, and we laughed about that for a while.”
Shenkle spoke of Tom Altmaier, Joe Anderson and Greg Straw, as those he’s worked on the sidelines with the longest.
“I had many outstanding players in my Chemistry classes,” related Shenkle, who retired in 2012 after 38 years with the Helena School District, “and I always told them to say ‘Hi’ or wave at me if I was at one of their events.”
Bob Tipton, who teaches Honors Math at CR Anderson, has worked nine State title games for CHS at Vigilante Stadium, including seven AA championships; in 1993, 1996, 1999, 2000, 2002, and 2007-08.
Tipton handles the downs marker, and has missed only a couple games in 30 years, due to illness or being out of town. Among his longest sideline cohorts are Ray Troyer, Bruce Campbell and Wiley Rucker.
High on his list of big home games were the State crowns in 1996 and 2007.
“In ’96, under coach Walt Chancy, it was nasty cold,” explained Tipton, who has been the head coach of HHS golf for 30 years. “Vigilante’s Field was frozen turf, the kids couldn’t even make a cut, and everybody was dressed like an Eskimo. Lucas Nelson caught two long TDs from JD Emmert … it was hardest game I ever worked.”
In 2007, the Bruins overcame a 20-10 third-quarter deficit for a 30-27 come-from-behind triumph.
“Senior led the whole way, but Capital hung in there,” Tipton recalled. “Senior runs a trick kick play and scores, great play. Capital takes the ball down the field and scores, runs an onside kick, recovers and goes down to win the game,
“Bruins probably got out-played for most of the game, but never thought they wouldn’t win.”
The errant striping/short chain fiasco took place during a regular season game at Vigilante Stadium.
“The field had been newly painted and the distance between the 20- and 30-yard lines was a little wide,” Tipton recounted. “The chain guys – Bruce and Wiley - checked it before the game, and they told the official before the game. Well, sure enough the ball was placed at the 20, there was a measurement and it was short.
“The opposing coach then thought the chain was wrong, understandably. And the story ends up that we were using a chain that wasn’t the correct length. The chain was actually the right length, but we heard about that for years.”
The episode was reported in Sports Illustrated and on ESPN.
Shenkle’s memories of what he calls “The Famous Chain Game” involved the Bengals, playing after a Thursday semi-pro game when the chain was in fact the wrong length.
“The chain was broken or came apart somehow, and in fixing it the chain was altered,” he said. “But maybe I’m getting the issues of chain and lining blended. I do know that we had inaccurate lining more than once.”
Tipton said that his funniest memory is running down the sidelines with the chain, and it wraps up a coaches legs as they go. “But maybe not funny to the coach, this happened a few times,” he said.
And his worst memory?
“In 2003, Capital was undefeated and No. 1 seed, but lost to No. 8 Kalispell,” Tipton said. “The Braves threw a 50-yard TD pass late for the win. All four top seeds lost that first weekend.”
But to end on a lighter note, Tipton recalled one game when the side judge called him by his first name the entire time: “Bob, it’s second down…Bob, we have a penalty…Bob, we’re doing okay…”
Curt Synness can be reached at 594-2878 or email@example.com. He’s also on Twitter @curtsynness_IR