HELENA, Mont. -- For the past three years, high school football players who played at Vigilante Stadium had a tougher challenge than they realized:
The first-down chains that are supposed to measure 10 yards actually are 10 yards, 6 inches.
''It's just one of those things that you take for granted that it's accurate,'' said school activities director Jim Opitz.
The inaccurate markers, purchased new three years ago, have been used at home games for the city's two high school football teams, Helena Capital and Helena High. Carroll College of the NAIA played home games at the stadium through the 1999 season.
''We've used them five times, it was no big deal,'' said Carroll coach Mike Van Diest. ''There's a lot worse things to worry about than that.''
The error wasn't noticed until the second half of the season-opening high school football game between Helena Capital and Missoula Hellgate last month.
Hellgate started a possession on its 20-yard line, and ended up going for it on fourth-and-short. After the play, the nose of the ball was on the 30-yard line, but a measurement with the chains showed Hellgate was short of a first down.
Game officials awarded possession to Capital.
''The Hellgate coaches were beside themselves, which is understandable,'' Capital coach Mark Samson said. ''They called a timeout.
''When I got to the huddle, kids were asking, 'Coach, how can you go 10 yards and not get a first down?'''
A simple question, really.
The officials guessed that the maintenance crew hadn't lined the field correctly. They told Samson they were giving the ball to Hellgate.
The error rated only a brief mention during the radio broadcast of the game, with the announcer -- also a football official -- repeating the speculation that the lines on the field were crooked.
''Everyone just kind of ignored it after that,'' Samson said.
But that wasn't the end of it.
Dave Powell, facilities manager for Helena schools and in charge of chalking the lines on the field, didn't like that his crew was being blamed.
''When I heard they were running my crew around, doublechecking the fields, I was a little bit upset, because the first thing I thought they should be double checking was the chains,'' Powell said.
''Those guys are used to going 10 yards. They didn't work out and train themselves to go 10 yards, 6 inches,'' he added. ''In a way it's a little bit laughable.''
Samson is surprised the chain length was wrong for so long without someone noticing the problem and fixing it.
''Some coaches were thinking that, 'maybe that's why we didn't get that first down,' but the same thing happened to us,'' Samson said. ''I guess it's kind of a big deal, but in a sense it's not like we used another set (of chains) for us.''
Opitz said the chains came that way from the manufacturer. And he said game officials are embarrassed that they didn't notice it sooner.
''Our officials are the ones feeling bad about this,'' Opitz said. ''They're embarrassed. They like to do a professional job.''
Bill Sprinkle, an assistant director with the Montana High School Association, said he'd heard little about the flap.
''Basically, it's the responsibility of the schools to make sure they've got the right equipment,'' he said. ''But it's also the responsibility of the officials to make sure those things are right before the game.''
The entry in the official's rule book states: ''The game officials shall check the measuring device for accuracy prior to the start of the game.''
And that's being taken quite seriously these days.
''Now everywhere you go,'' Samson said, ''everybody's checking the chains to see if they're the right length.''
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