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Caster will cast aside chains

After 40 years, Phoenix sideline volunteer to step down

Otto Caster is a very unassuming gentleman.

When the 70-year-old speaks, it's with the sort of soothing presence a favorite uncle or grandfather might possess.

It's his lack of fanfare that has kept Caster in the shadows of Phoenix High athletics.

It's his humble nature that allows Caster to keep quiet the significance of tonight's football game between Phoenix and Henley.

When Caster enters Jack Woodward Stadium and plants his feet on the blend of mud, chalk and grass at 7, it will be the first step in the end of an era, one that began in 1958 when he first volunteered his time to Phoenix High athletics.

Hopefully, the weather will be nice and it won't rain, Caster says.

Caster doesn't plan on making a big deal of his stepping down as head of the chain gang, the crew that mans the down-and-distance chain and markers.

After 40 years of leading the volunteers who toil up and down the field with their bright orange and yellow implements, Caster simply will close that chapter in his life by putting away the tools of his trade and heading home to his wife of 45 years, Pat.

Since being asked in 1958 by Woodward to man the sideline markers, Caster has missed only one home game -- and that came three weeks ago when the weather proved too bitter.

The guy is just so tremendously dependable, says Pat Halpin, athletic director at Phoenix. I can always rely on him showing up to run the chains. He just is always there for you.

He's just a real gentleman that's willing to just flow with the tide. If you need him, he's there and he'll tell you that.

To his credit, Caster also will tell you when he just can't be of assistance any longer -- as hard as that is to say. He's leaving the chain gang now because arthritis in his knees simply won't let him fulfill the duties he so capably handled in previous years.

It's getting to the point where it's awful hard to run out on the field to measure or even changing ends of the field with each quarter, he says. It's getting to bother me a little bit because I was having to walk instead of run like everyone else. I was holding everyone back, so I just thought it was time to say 40 years is enough.

The loss of Caster might be one of the toughest for Phoenix in quite some time, according to Halpin.

I don't know what we're going to do without him, says the seven-year AD. I'll probably forget next year and not have anyone on the chains the first few games.

Caster's introduction to the chain gang was simple enough, with Woodward asking him to give it a try. There wasn't much training involved. Caster just had to hold the marker straight and make sure the chain was thoroughly extended.

I always thought it would be interesting, says the 1946 Phoenix High graduate. It looked like a good place to watch the games from, and I just thought it would be something I would like. Turns out I was right.

But what's so alluring about working on the chain gang?

The best part, to my notion, is the view and getting involved in the game more than sitting in the stands, Caster says. I know nobody pays that much attention to us except when there's a close measurement or something.

Caster has purposely remained out of the spotlight, refusing to sway from the impartiality for which he takes great pride. When he started at Phoenix, Caster was told he was to act like an official and not be a boisterous fan handling the chains. That message stuck with him, even during the days when his three sons starred on the gridiron for the Pirates. While Ron, Rollie and Tom starred for the football team, Caster remained calm and offered up an occasional clap or two -- but never anything too distracting. While his wife and daughter, Dawn, sat in the stands, he maintained his obligation to the chain gang without hesitation.

Through it all, Caster has happily plowed through the football schedule in relative anonymity.

I bet only about 10 percent know I've been here that long, but then there's no reason for them to know that I've been here 40 years, he says, adding that being anonymous is just fine with him.

In truth, it's hard for a man to remain anonymous in a city where he has served as mayor, city councilman, volunteer firefighter and booster club member.

It's pretty rare that you would have someone in a school system volunteer himself for as long as Otto has, says fellow chain-gang member Ron Goff. The school should give him a big round of applause for that (tonight). Hopefully, they will.

Caster says he's not looking for a big send-off, especially since he plans to still attend future Phoenix football games.

I'll probably still come to the games, unless the weather is too bad, he says, adding that his eye won't always be trained on the players. I'll probably watch the sideline guys more than most fans. It's going to be hard not to do that.

And it's going to be even harder to replace someone as genuine and giving as Otto Caster.

Otto Caster has remained dutiful and quiet on the sidelines, even as his three sons played for the Pirates. - Photo by Jim Craven