“We lost 5 yards, Tom,” says Hayden Shackelford.
Shackelford and his friend Tom Hasket stand behind the fence at a South Granville High School football game, slightly off the sideline where the players sit. The South Granville varsity football team, called the Vikings, play the South Nash High School Firebirds. The teams are red and blue under the spotlights.
Should we hit him again? Hasket asks.
“Yes, we do,” says Shackelford.
The Viking orchestra starts drumming. The noise escalates into a crescendo as the fans call out to the team. The tension is palpable.
“Let’s go, let’s go,” says Shackelford.
The referee blows his whistle. The drum roll reaches its peak and ends abruptly.
“Here comes the blow,” he says.
For fans who regularly attend Granville South football games, Hasket and Shackelford are a familiar sight. However, if anyone approached them, they would realize two things: that Hasket is blind, and that Shackelford is telling him play after game.
In the 1950s, doctors didn’t know that excess oxygen in incubators could lead to blindness. This can cause retrolental fibroplasia, found in infants with lower birth weight, but more commonly in infants born prematurely.
Hasket’s retina was damaged, preventing him from seeing shapes and most colors, though he can distinguish between day and night.
For over 20 years, he and Shackelford have been attending South Granville football games, and Shackelford’s descriptive commentary helps him “see” the game. Decades of memorizing moves, variations, attacks and defenses keeps him informed of the player or team’s next move.
When Shackelford asks Hasket what he thinks will happen next, he looks over the information he knows and provides an answer.
In most cases, he is right.
Long time football fan
“Nineteen seconds left, Tom,” Shackelford says. South Granville will play Hillside High School next week, which has a strong quarterback and offensive play. “A quarter of a half. Shotgun position. One back to the backfield. Wide and left, comes back to pass, and he throws in – oh, intercepted, Tom!
South Granville does one thing poorly: “No lockdowns,” Hasket says. Hillside does a good job of holding and receiving, and the quarterback shoots with incredible accuracy.
Hasket began attending football games when he was 17 years old in 1969 when his older brother Bill Hasket joined the South Granville football team. Their mother was a school teacher.
“My mom asked if he wanted us to go to road games,” Hasket said. “He said, ‘Yes, but mom, if I get hurt, don’t go on the field.’
Standing aside, Hasket and Shackelford were on edge several times. A stray ball will fly in their direction, coming too close. The player or coach will pick up the ball and talk to Hasket, who is referred to as their “No. 1”. 1 fan,” Shackelford said.
Michael Hobgood, Granville South football coach, first began coaching at the school in 2005.
“When I first started coaching at South Granville, he was the first person to call me – and I had no idea how he got my number, but he knew when I got the job – and congratulated me,” Hobgood said.
During the conversation, Hasket mentioned that he was blind and asked if he could stand aside, that was how the agreement was arranged.
Since 2005, Hobgood and Hasket have spoken extensively on the phone about the team. Who will start playing quarterback this week? How is this player with an ankle injury?
“We don’t get much coverage in the media, we don’t get much coverage in the papers or anything else,” Hobgood said. “He really does his homework to find out all this information, even ask about it. So it’s amazing how deep he explores it all the time.”
Hasket is also an avid fan of North Carolina State University. He was an annual three-ticket winner for NC State Football for nearly 45 years and only missed one game. Shackelford attended some of these games with him.
There was a hurricane during the season five years ago and other schools in the Atlantic Coast Conference canceled their games. The state of North Carolina did not.
“I told Tom and Tom said, ‘Are we going?'” Shackelford said. “I said no! I’m not going with these fools! It was on TV. And, man, there were people in shorts. And the wind was so strong that it was hard to see the game because it was raining from the side.”
There is little that can be done to keep Hasket from watching a football game other than dangerous weather.
Hasket likes to hear the audience scream and cheer for their teams. The excitement in the air cheers him up as he yells “Come on, come on, come on!” for South Granville.
Feel the game differently
But there is a difference between experiencing the game and analyzing it. To say that he “visualizes” the game is incorrect. Hasket remembers the numbers and names of key players, but he doesn’t have a table of where the players are in his head.
For example, Hobgood watches his team play and has a visual representation of how the players should block, move, or throw the ball. But, if something doesn’t go as he expects, he can figure out the error before watching the recording later.
“I’m sure we have different views on different things, but I think it’s a lot more similar than one might imagine,” Hobgood said.
There are other aspects that help Hasket understand how football works.
When Shackelford first met Hasket, he says that Hasket knew what football was like as a sport, but could not understand how it was played and what the players were doing.
“So I brought in some shoulder pads and a helmet, put them on and gave it a little beating,” Shackelford said. “I said, ‘It’s nothing compared to if you hear those big fights out there – that’s what you get into.’
Shackelford also guided Hasket around the field to help him estimate how far the players were traveling. 10, 20, 30 meters. If a player makes 30 yards, this is the distance the players need to walk for the first step. Shackelford led Hasket from the 20-yard line to the 30-yard line, fixing in his memory how far the players had to go to score a goal.
However, this guide was created at the request of Hasket.
“Tom has a habit – if he doesn’t remember something, he’ll ask,” Shackelford said. – He is not shy about it.
Hasket’s prized asset is the Amazon Echo Dot, which is installed with Alexa. A gift from his nephew, he uses it for football radio broadcasts, 50s music and more.
“I wouldn’t trade him for anything,” he says.
But even though he may have relied on the radio or commentary from a football announcer, Hasket is still full of questions for Shackelford, Hobgood, and anyone familiar with the sport. He calls Shackelford before the game to make sure they’re still together and calls after the game to talk about what happened – why South Granville won, why they lost, why certain players did certain things.
“And then in the week before the next game, we keep talking about what Coach Hobgood needs to do to get ready for the next team and his strengths and weaknesses,” Shackelford said. “This is his dialogue. That’s what he wants to talk about.”
The tradition continues
In South Granville’s poor game against Hillside, the players line up along the edges of the field, ready to disperse.
Shackelford gets up from his makeshift seat, dusts himself off, and tells Hasket it’s game over. He takes Hasket’s hand in his as he prepares to walk off the field and into the gravel parking lot.
In a way, the atmosphere is bittersweet. For these high schoolers, it’s one step closer to graduation, adulthood, and a world beyond those moments on the football field.
However, Hasket and Shackelford will return for the next home game, as they have for the last 20 years.