If you’ve been to very many Manhattan High football games, you’ve probably seen them.
Black jerseys, with the pirate symbol of a skull and crossbones in white.
Grown men, some of them young, others starting to get old, wearing them proudly, as if they were a badge of honor as they cheer for the Indians on Friday nights.
These jerseys have been around for decades, given to football players who meet the high standards of the Manhattan High football program. Earning one has never been easy, whether you played for J.W. Emerson in the 70s or for Joe Schartz today.
The tradition started with Emerson when he became football coach at Manhattan in 1969. The jerseys were to be given out on Saturday to individuals who had played to a certain, unwritten standard, as determined by the coaches.
“He started the bones jerseys, which means you played very well — that you played the way you were coached,” said former coach Lew Lane, who was an assistant under Emerson before taking over as head coach in 1976. “You played hard and you played from start to finish.”
Lane said most teams have something to reward their players for good games, whether it be helmet stickers or something else. At Manhattan, the bones jerseys served that purpose.
“There’s all kinds of awards type of situations, some people put them on helmets, some people use stickers, some people use jerseys, at Manhattan High we did it with jerseys,” Lane continued. “It was a skull and cross bones on the front of the jersey, and a number on the back. That’s all it was.”
Earning the jersey didn’t mean you could slack off. At that point, you had more responsibility as a leader. Fail to live up to that standard later in the season, and you could lose your bones jersey.
“It was a badge of honor,” Lane said. “Players were expected to wear them to practice. They wore them to school, and it was a very serious badge. If you had one of those things, you were a marked individual. That was a very special thing.
“They could lose them,” he continued. “But that didn’t occur as often as a player would turn them back in on the Monday after a Friday game, because they felt that they hadn’t played well. It didn’t always happen, but they’d mostly do it on their own.”
Emerson also brought a radical new way of playing high-school football to Manhattan, a two-platoon system that meant each player played either offense or defense, not both, as most schools did at that time.
“It’s very unusual,” Lane said. “You have to have a very good staff to be able to do that. Which at the particular time he started it, there was a good staff in place. There’s always been a good staff in place since then.”
With the two-team system in place, bones jerseys were blue for defense, and red for offense. Some parents and fans complained about not necessarily having the best 11 kids on the field, but the depth built from playing so many kids at the varsity level soon showed positive results for Emerson.
“He was at a school in Missouri,” Lane said. “They hardly had any seniors coming up at all, so what they decided to do was two-platoon. No matter what, they were going to get those kids ready to play the next year. They would either play offense or they would play defense.
“You’re playing at least 22 kids, and probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 30. That made a lot of people happy. That made mom and dad happy, that made grandma and grandpa happy. It made administrators happy. An awful lot of people were happy with two platoon football.
“We won a very high percentage of our football games, and it was due mainly to two-platooning. We were blessed with a great coaching staff.”
When Lane took over as coach, he continued Emerson’s traditions and managed a 169-50 record over 20 seasons. They would hand out bones jerseys on Saturday mornings after voting as coaches Friday night after the games.
When Butch Albright took over in 1998, the tradition stuck. Today, Schartz continues to dole out bones jerseys to deserving players.
“We hand them out on Saturday mornings as a reward for kids living up to a certain standard as far as their play, and their preparation and their overall attitude,” Schartz said. “It’s been a tradition here since Coach Emerson, and I think they used to wear them to practice on Thursdays, but now they don’t wear them to practice, but they wear them to school on Thursdays.”
Much like Emerson, Lane and Albright before him, Schartz doesn’t have specific ways of earning bones jerseys.
“There’s no criteria,” he said. “It’s just in the coaches’ view, this kid is living up to the standard of what it means to be a Manhattan High School football player, on the field and off the field. They meet that level and get their bones jersey.”
If a player doesn’t stay at that high level, they are expected to hand them in on their own, just as they did in the 70s.
“It’s an honor to get them, but once they get them, it’s also hard to keep them,” Schartz said. “They have to stay at that high standard. If they don’t, we’d like to think the kids that have that accountability and they’d turn them back in.”
Over the years, the tradition of the bones jerseys is still dear to the players that earned them many years ago.
Chris George, who now teaches at Manhattan High and coaches girls’ golf and bowling, still has his.
“It’s been a tradition since I played there — I still have mine,” George said. “I still break it out at the Junction City game.”
Various former players, some of them now coaches at MHS, still have theirs too after playing for Lane in the 80s.
Walking the halls at Manhattan’s West campus, you’re likely to see bones jerseys worn by players on Thursdays, uniting the past with the present as the success of Manhattan High continues.