The Massillon Washington High School Tigers, in Massillon, Ohio, are arguably the most celebrated high school football team in the United States. They played their first game in 1894 and as Gary Harwood and David Foster point out in Tiger Legacy: Stories of Massillon Football, published by Daylight Books, historians believe their rivalry with the neighboring Canton McKinley Bulldogs “had a key role in the evolution of pro football.” But for all the team spirit here, the book’s subject is not really the game but a shared love for the team that defines this multigenerational community. Over the course of four years, Harwood and Foster, along with a team of six Kent State University visual storytelling students, photographed and interviewed a wide cross section—maybe even a small percentage—of the town’s 32,000 residents, recording the many ways their lives are connected by the deeply rooted social structures that support the players and celebrate their accomplishments.
As the book reports, “In Massillon, football is a cradle-to-grave tradition that is woven into every phase of life,” starting with orange mini footballs placed in the bassinets of baby boys born to Massillon parents, and ending with caskets decorated with images of Obie, the team’s live Bengal tiger cub mascot. In between, Harwood and Foster document players, coaching staff, the school’s principal, the Tiger Swing Band, cheerleaders, the Booster Club, Orangemen, a group that provides financial support for the team, Sideliners, who are adults offering guidance and support to the players, Tiger Moms, whose sons are or were on the team, tailgaters, season ticket holders, who pass down their seats through generations, as well as regular fans. The images, about of third of which were taken by the Kent State students, record this community and their rituals in exuberant images of the games and their run up, and quieter off moment of preparation and contemplation.
Although football is what brings the subjects of Tiger Legacy together, the bonds created by this shared passion ripple throughout the town. These connections are the real subject of the book, and perhaps the point of the game—despite a sterling record, the Tigers have not won a state championship since 1970, but that hasn’t cooled their fans. As a Tiger Mom notes, “I think football is an excuse for the sense of community that we have. People say it’s all about football, but it’s not. It’s about people coming together, and the one good thing we have, we all like, is our football team. Even the football team isn’t only about football. They’re like a family. And for those four years, those players are their brothers,” along with the rest of Massillon.