Republic football coach Eddie Miller once told a reporter, “When you get into the race, you give the ball to the thoroughbred.” Republic’s football teams won a lot of races in the 1980s, and for a big chunk of that time, Miller’s thoroughbred was Blake Cramer.
“He was fast, had good acceleration. He was talented physically. And he never choked,” Miller remembers. “His junior year, we were playing Branson and down 14-13, with not much time left. (Quarterback) Todd Smith threw the ball as hard as he could…and Blake caught it on his fingertips, and we beat them 19-14.”
Those years bring back a lot of good memories for Cramer, who says his most enduring memory is the Friday night atmosphere at home games. At that time, games were played at the football field next to what is now Price Elementary.
“The Friday night atmosphere was the real deal. Small town – for a young kid, that was a thrill,” Cramer says.
Just as much as the games, Cramer remembers a pre-game ritual that is the product of a particular time and place in Republic. Players dressed in the locker room at the high school (now Republic Middle School) and walked from there along the road, across the railroad tracks, past J.R. Martin Park, to the football field.
“They gave you about ten minutes to get there,” Cramer remembers. “It was pretty quiet when we left the locker room. But the closer you got to the stadium, the louder it got. Your heart started pounding. Depending on who we were playing, you knew what you were in for.”
The tradition that created Republic’s game-night atmosphere was the same tradition that drove Cramer to succeed. He and his teammates worked to live up to the standard set by the players before them.
“I wouldn’t say it was pressure, but when you’ve got the Shadwicks, the Mooneyhams, [teammates] whose older brothers played before you, you didn’t want to drop the ball. You wanted to carry that tradition on.”
Cramer did more than carry on the tradition. He built on it and took it to new heights. Three of his school records still stand today: he returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown in 1986; he scored 272 points during his career from 1983 to 1986, still the most ever; and his 3,610 career rushing yard are an all-time high. (Cramer jokes that in 2015, he heard from many of his old high school friends for the first time in years when Jerney Jones mounted his assault on Cramer’s records–including the single-season rushing record, now held by Jones.)
Cramer was the workhorse of Republic’s teams, but he remembers wishing he could carry the ball even more often.
“I was 165 or 170 pounds. I never ran the ball over 30 times until my senior year, I really beefed up and got on the weights. They were afraid of hurting me because I was so fragile,” he says. “They protected me, and when I was hurt, they put me in a hot tub and they didn’t push it. They truly took care of me, and I appreciate that now.”
Cramer earned all-state honors as a running back twice–on the second team in 1985 and on the first team in 1986. He did it behind a line that cleared the way, for him and for which he’s still thankful.
“Shawn Russell, John Wilson, and the others … they were some brutes. I’d mess with a lot of people, but I wouldn’t mess with the big boys,” he says. “They were some of the greatest linemen I’ve ever seen in high school. I was really fortunate.”
Cramer got the call to varsity as a freshman, entering the game for occasional action. “The Statue of Liberty was my play,” he remembers. “As a freshman, I was a fish out of water. It wasn’t until my sophomore year against Buffalo, I ran for 150 (yards) and scored a touchdown, when I thought, ‘maybe now I belong.’”
Cramer and the rest of the Tigers were good enough to compete with anyone in the COC and beyond, and they showed it. In 1985 and ‘86, they advanced to the state semifinals, knocking off a loaded Ava team in the quarterfinals each time. But in the semifinals–first against Pembroke Hill, then against Oak Grove–Republic fell short of its goal of a state championship game.
“Those were hard,” Cramer says of the semifinal losses. But he doesn’t let those losses define his time as a Tiger.
“To get that close was very nice. It was something special,” Cramer says. “Even though we didn’t make it, there weren’t very many teams that got that far.”
And despite those difficult losses, Cramer says he still carries the lessons he learned on the football field.
“Football taught me so much about hard work, perseverance, teamwork,” Cramer says. “I couldn’t imagine not playing.”