If you are looking for Bernie Lange on a fall Friday night, don’t bother stopping by his house. He will be attending the Oak Harbor High School football game.
Since returning to Oak Harbor in 1946 after a stint in the Army, Lange, who will turn 91 Sept. 17, has missed only a dozen of the nearly 700 football games Oak Harbor has played during that span.
Hospitalization and attending significant family events are the only factors that have pried Lange from his top-row seats at the Wildcats’ games.
During his most recent absence, fellow fan Jerry Grunwald wouldn’t allow anyone to sit in the seats Lange and his wife of 59 years, Mary, normally occupy.
“Those seats are sacred,” Grunwald said, according to Bernie Lange.
Mary is a fixture at the games as well; however, she often missed games when their four children were too young to attend.
More than football
Bernie Lange isn’t just a lover of Oak Harbor High School football. Until about 10 years ago, he attended all the Wildcat basketball games, and he’s “been to nearly all the rasslin’ matches since day one,” he said.
The Langes added tennis to their schedule when daughter Kathy, who went on to play for Central Washington University, was in high school.
Bernie viewed nearly every home baseball game for 50 years, and the Langes also took in a bushel of girls basketball and softball games.
The enthusiasm and passion of the players, they said.
“The kids are playing because they want to and not because they are getting paid,” Mary Lange said.
Getting to know the parents and the players is another pull, according to Bernie.
When Oak Harbor won the state football championship in 2006, the Wildcats’ first state title in any sport, a player came up to Bernie Lange after the game and said, “It took you nearly 100 years, but you finally did it.”
Comments like that make the games personal, according to Lange.
The state championship is the highlight of Lange’s 70 years of watching Oak Harbor football.
Another memorable game came in the beginning.
In 1947, a long pass play to Lange’s younger brother, Rich, sealed a comeback win over La Conner.
In 1966 against Anacortes, Jeff Short passed to George Johnson to set up a last-second winning score in Oak Harbor’s three-touchdown, fourth-quarter rally. That win helped the Wildcats go undefeated, one of only two seasons Oak Harbor went unbeaten and untied.
Lange also mentioned one basketball highlight: the play of Mark Anderson in Oak Harbor’s five-overtime win over Meadowdale in 1983.
Identifying the best, all-time Oak Harbor football players, Lange rattled off 20 names. The first three, however, were all stars of the 1960s — Jim Cope, Kenny Lee and John Brady — who went on to play for the University of Washington. Cope, an all-state quarterback in high school and a wide receiver in college, and Brady, a running back in high school and tight end in college, both set receiving records for the Huskies. Brady and Lee are the only two OHHS players to get drafted by the National Football League.
The biggest change Lange has seen in sports is that in the early days, the coaches were not allowed to talk to the players during the game, even at timeouts.
“One thing that hasn’t change,” he said with a laugh, “is the officiating — it’s still bad.”
“There aren’t any good umpires; some are just worse than others,” he added with a chuckle.
Lange was a competitor and not just a spectator in his early years.He played sports for Oak Harbor High School as a member of the class of 1945.
Lange was drafted into the Army and left for boot camp nine days after graduation. His tour of duty ended just over a year later when World War II ended.
“I came home on a Saturday, and the next Wednesday I played in a city league basketball game, and the next Saturday I played in an alumni football game,” he said.
He also raced dirt-track cars for seven years.
“When I quit racing, I needed something to do, so I started coaching Little League,” he said.
Not only did he volunteer to coach, but he was among a group of local men who helped start the youth basketball and football programs in Oak Harbor.
His coaching days ended when his children started to play: “I didn’t want anyone thinking I was favoring my kids.”
Bernie and Mary Lange no longer drive themselves to the away football games.
“I hate to drive at night,” Bernie said, so they hitch a ride with John Fisken.
“We’ll keep going to the games as long as we can,” Bernie said.
No problem — there will always be a seat waiting for them.