An unlikely alliance between ‘jocks’ and ‘theater kids’ teaches lifelong lesson

It’s a truism of high school life that jocks are jocks and theater kids are theater kids, and never the twain shall meet.

Somebody apparently failed to pass along that message to the Fairmont High School Theatre Department and the Firebirds football team. The players and thespians have formed an unlikely support system that began last year when the Firebirds made the Ohio Division I playoffs for the first time since 2008.

Director Darren McGarvey looked at the playoffs schedule and realized he had a problem: The game was scheduled for the same night as the second performance of the 2017 fall play, “The 39 Steps.”

Without consulting anyone, McGarvey tweeted that Friday’s performance would be canceled and a Sunday matinee would be scheduled. “If we are going to be in playoffs, that’s where we need to be,” he told himself.

“It was the right thing to do, no questions asked,” said McGarvey, who teaches English and theater at Fairmont. “Our priority was to support the football team and the band and all the kids who had worked so hard.”

Fairmont’s victory over Alter last season “electrified the student body,” McGarvey noted. “You know it’s something big when you have theater kids going to football games. So if there’s a game, we’re going to be in the stands. We respect each other and celebrate each other.”

Head football coach Dave Miller was so impressed that he decided the players should return the favor by attending the Sunday matinee.

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“It’s important for the players to look past themselves and care about others,” Miller explained. “We all show the same grit, effort and perseverance.”

He told the players, “These are your brothers and sisters; we are a family, and we support each other.”

The experiment proved so successful it will be repeated again this year, as the Firebirds’ stellar record again placed them in the running for the playoffs. Performances of “The Elephant Man” are scheduled for Nov. 1, 3 and 4. Miller intends to escort the team to the Sunday matinee again this year.

Attendance at last year’s play wasn’t mandatory; instead, Miller “gently nudged” the players. Junior Ryan Haas, who played for the team last year, asked himself, “Why not give it a shot?”

Matinees are usually sparsely attended, but last fall’s show was packed.

“Coach Miller paid for every seat,” McGarvey recalled. “The actors were ecstatic. They were beaming to hear the audience laughing in all the right places.”

At one point, one of the characters taunted another as “pompous,” and every player’s head swiveled to stare at Miller.

“I’m always telling them not to be pompous,” the coach said with a laugh.

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It was many players’ first theatrical experience, and they were surprised by how much they enjoyed it. “The acting by Fairmont students was out of the park,” Haas said. “I didn’t think it would be so well-acted and directed, and the storyline was cool. I was really shocked by how much I liked it.”

Junior Max Dykes said “The 39 Steps” was his first dramatic play, although he caught last year’s musical, “The Music Man.”

“The theater department is underrated,” said Dykes, also a former player. “The plays are really good, and they really give it their all. Of course, there’s always the classic high school drama between groups, but coach Miller introduced a nice concept that we all are going to support each other, and that we’re all Firebirds. We have watched the marching band load up before a game and applauded and thanked them.”

Senior Jadyn Stargel, who starred as Richard Hannay in “The 39 Steps,” initially was upset about the rescheduled performance. ‘Friday night is such a great night for your second show,” he said. “And it felt like another example of seeing all the attention going to sports versus extracurriculars.”

Stargel’s feelings changed when he learned the players were coming to the Sunday show. “I really appreciated that they showed the same respect for other extracurriculars,” he said. “I’m honored and humbled by that. And it was pretty cool that they actually enjoyed it. It ended up being a fantastic thing that brought together two extracurriculars that can be pretty far apart.”

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Concurred senior Melody Wagoner, “It’s really good we formed a bond. It just showed the character of the kids on both sides. It was so nice of the coach to take them to something they wouldn’t normally do. It was really cool to show them what we are capable of, and how fun theater can really be.”

“The 39 Steps” was a comic romp, while this year’s play, “The Elephant Man,” is an intense drama based on the true story of John Merrick, a severely deformed young man living in 19th century London. “This is the other end of the spectrum,” Stargel said. “If they enjoy this, they are well on the way to becoming lifelong theater lovers.”

Observed Wagoner, “I’m happy we are doing something as deep and important as this one. It’s about trying to find a little of ourselves in people who are different from us. The way that Merrick affects people’s lives is really important.”

“The Elephant Man” is the 25th play McGarvey has directed, and he finds the message very contemporary, despite its 19th-century setting. “I think this play will hit student and adult audiences in places where they did not think they a play could,” he said. “There is a tremendous amount of humanity, compassion, and heart in this play. It has been refreshing to see young actors take on this task and want to do it well, not only for themselves but for their audiences.”

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Miller predicts that message will be well-received by the student-athletes. “Fairmont is a very unique school,” he said. “Our kids really like each other, and they’re pulling for each other.”

Miller and McGarvey agree that Fairmont football players and thespians have learned a lot from their unusual alliance – including how much they have in common, and how profoundly they can inspire each other.

“We are all following each others’ leads,” McGarvey said. “The actors follow some of the same rules as the football players. They have to attend school a half day in order to be on stage; they have to keep up their grades; they can’t have behavior issues; and they can’t miss a lot of rehearsals. It’s the same standards the athletes are held to, and that sends the message that what they do is as big as what the players do.”

Added Miller: “I truly believe our football players have developed an appreciation for all the hard work and dedication that goes into pulling off successful performances like they witnessed last year. They see much the same from groups like our marching band. I have no doubt that perspective has been a big part in our players’ willingness to put in more time and effort, which has allowed them to have success on the field the past two seasons. It has been really cool to watch and be a part of.”


What: The Kettering Fairmont High School Theatre Department will present its fall play, "The Elephant Man"

Where: Kettering Fairmont High School in the Recital Hall just off the main entrance of the building at 3301 Shroyer Rd.

When: Nov. 1, 3 and 4. Showtimes are Thursday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. There will be no show on Friday, Nov. 2, so as not to conflict with the Fairmont Firebirds football schedule.

Cost: Tickets for adults are $10, students and seniors are $7, and seniors with the "Seniors are Special" cards are free. Tickets can be purchased in advance by calling 937-499-2647, by visiting our ticket office during the school day, or via the internet using this link:

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