WELLSVILLE - "Dawson's Circus" was the term coined for the raucous atmosphere that encompassed Wellsville basketball at old Beacom Memorial Gymnasium.
The "Dawson" came from then head coach Bob Dawson, whose teams had an unprecedented 136-15 record in a six-year span from 1970-76. Dawson was at the helm of the Wellsville program for 13 seasons from 1968-1981, and his resume included three undefeated regular seasons, three No. 1 rankings in the Ohio polls and a trip to the state final four.
"Circus," came from the efforts of students, fans, and cheerleaders among others that made Wellsville such a difficult place to play. The Circus was highlighted by the "Big Orange Machine," a cardboard cutout of a tank-like vehicle that moved along the wall under spotlight in a pitch-black gymnasium.
Michael Reiner, a freshman at Wellsville High School, stands below the new 'Big Orange Machine.' Reiner first got the idea to reintroduce the 'Big Orange Machine' when he learned that the gymnasium would be receiving new lights, that would allow them to be turned off for player introductions. (Salem News/Jon Rudder)
A balloon emblazoned with that evening's opponent logo awaited the machine, and when it arrived, a hammer swung down and broke the balloon.
Up came the lights, as well as the decibel level, and the game began.
The Big Orange Machine was a mainstay for over a decade at Tigers' basketball games, until 1981. Beacom Memorial received new lights that took too long to warm back up after being switched off, which effectively ended the exciting tradition.
The Big Orange Machine was lost, but not forever; and certainly not forgotten.
The man behind it all
The idea to recreate the environment of "Dawson's Circus" was that of freshman Michael Reiner, who is anything but your typical 15-year-old.
Reiner, who walks with a crutch as a result of Cerebral Palsy, is as spirited as kids come, and a competitor to boot.
After winning the county spelling bee, Reiner competed in the Scripps National Spelling Bee where he advanced to the third round before being eliminated.
This spring he's got his eyes set on running track. Reiner has been working on building up the strength in his legs
"I've been working in the weight room," Michael said. "I do three days a week right now and I want to try to get up to four."
His complications do little to slow him down. Reiner also serves as the public address voice for the home team's player introductions.
"I get a little bit nervous, but it comes with repetition. I try and practice and do a good job under pressure, and I deliver most of the time," he said with a chuckle.
It hasn't been an easy road to ninth grade. In fact, it has had more than its share of bumps, but a few miracles along the way.
When he was 13-years-old, Reiner underwent a complicated surgery in an attempt to correct the problems that plagued his legs.
"He couldn't stand and needed to use a cane. He couldn't have walked from me to you before the surgery," his mother Paula, who teaches at Garfield Elementary School, said.
The procedure was revealed as a possibility while on a visit to a doctor's appointment for his twin brother, Mitchell.
"Mitchell had played football. He had been in the game not even three minutes, and took a hit that broke his leg," she continued. "We had him to the orthopedic doctor, and just chatting with him, I asked if he had ever saw kids with Cerebral Palsy. He said no, but I know this awesome man in Delaware. I went home and Googled him, and found people come from all over the world to be treated by him."
The surgeon, Dr. Freeman Miller, performed multiple surgeries at once. Seeing her son walk and move about now is nothing short of amazing for his mother.
"It's been life changing for him to be able to walk around now with one crutch, or no crutch," she said. "There were many things that fell into place. We shouldn't have been able to get in to see the doctor, he had no surgery appointments available, and everything just kind of came together like it was meant to be. He really did change Michael's life, for him to be able to get around now."
The ability to move about the gymnasium is of relatively little difficulty now, and it's not uncommon to see Michael socializing with fans before, during, and after basketball games.
"I always say that he's going to be the mayor one day," his mother added. "When we're out, we actually have to wait on him because he's talking to everyone from age six to 96."
Michael is just one half of the duo that is the Reiner twins. The two have a unique bond that has been strengthened by all that they have endured together.
"They were both born 26 weeks early; Michael weighed one pound, 14 ounces. Mitchell was one pound, 15 ounces," their mother said.
Often never far apart, Michael can always be found in the stands at basketball games, watching Mitchell, who plays on the J.V. team.
When Mitchell sunk a crucial free throw against Southern Local in the waning seconds of the J.V. game on Dec. 11, Michael could be seen giving a celebratory fist pump at the opposite end of the floor. He was also the first one to congratulate Mitchell when he emerged from the locker room minutes later.
"It was intense, it felt pretty good coming out of the locker room seeing everyone and giving me high-fives," Mitchell said. "He (Michael) never misses a game. He always wants to come watch and gives me pointers a lot too," he added with a smile.
"Even as a freshman, you can still do big things," Michael said. "Just look at my brother, sinking that free throw."
Throughout his surgical process, Mitchell watched as his brother painstakingly went though a rigorous rehabilitation process.
"Yeah that was pretty big. When he walked he walked with sort of a crouch. Now he has straight legs and is getting better every day," Mitchell said. "We had a hospital bed in the living room, a lot of therapy afterwards to keep him from going back to where he was. There was some pain involved, but nothing he would never use as an excuse. He's not like that."
On the move, again
Michael first learned of the machine from his uncle, Steve Poynter. Poynter, a 1972 graduate of Wellsville High School told his nephew the story of the "Big Orange Machine," and all of the festivities that went along with it.
When Reiner learned of the new lights that would be installed at Wellsville High School's gym, he became intrigued at the idea of recreating the Big Orange Machine.
"I had never seen or heard of anything like it, so I thought 'Hey let's start it up again because it's something positive and good for the school system,'" he said. "I'm loving it because it's getting people out to the games, and that's what it's for. It's about showing pride and bringing people together."
Michael enlisted a little help from Jeff Campbell, a 1981 graduate of Wellsville High School.
"Even though he coaches at Beaver Local, he still has some tiger blood that runs in him - he told me 'Wellsville Alumni always give back.' He's a wonderful human being and person," Reiner said.
"I thought it was exciting (the idea). We actually tried to do it a few years back with some signs that said 'the big orange machine is on the move, again' but it has to be adopted by the kids," Campbell said. "If not it's just some thing on the wall. If they get into it it's a lot of fun."
Campbell is also responsible for the tiger that leaps through the gymnasium's north wall. With a little work and some design changes, the newest rendition of the Big Orange Machine came to life and assumed its place along the wall.
"It's a little bit different, but a lot of it is very close to the original," Campbell said. "It used to have a hammer instead of a claw. There was never a tiger sticking out of the top, but the rest of it is pretty close to what it was like."
The tiger that is seen operating the machine further reinforced his idea for the name of the student section it would represent.
"The funny thing is, I was thinking about calling our student section the Orange Army," Michael said. "And when I saw the design of the Army Tiger in the tank, I thought it was perfect."
The new Big Orange Machine takes its place in a similar location to its predecessor.
"Size-wise it's almost exactly the same. I knew it was a cutout of a 4'x 8' and that's about what it was. It looks smaller in this gym, but if it keeps going and everyone keeps going nuts over it I'll make him a bigger one."
Campbell grew up during the Big Orange Machine heyday and got to have his name introduced among the starters during one of the final seasons of the tradition. He fondly remembers the thought process from kid to player.
"To me that was it man, you couldn't wait to go as a kid and sit there and watch those guys play like Joe March and Larry Baldasare," Campbell said. "Then when your brother is playing you're cheering and then when it's your turn, you hear the pep band playing 'The Horse' and 'Hawaii 5-0' and it was just fantastic."
"The band was into it, the kids were into it, and parents were into it. So many people came to our games that weren't from Wellsville just because of the brand of basketball," he went on. "It was fast, it was fun and high-paced, and the effort was always there or Bob Dawson would sit you on the bench. He was the Bobby Knight of the area."
Once the design was finalized and the machine was in hand, next came the task of securing it to the gymnasium wall. Help wasn't far away, and Joe Traina, district Maintenance Supervisor, was there to lend a hand.
"We have a lot of help in this," Reiner said. "I can't thank everyone enough. People say 'you've done a great thing here,' but it's not me, it's we."
The new machine is attached to a garage door track. With the push of a button, the Big Orange Machine is on its' way down the track towards the balloon. When it reaches the end, the arm swings down and pops the balloon.
"Every person that he talked to was excited about it, from administration to anyone," his mother said. "Joe Traina was so helpful getting that thing up and all of the kids are excited about it and it's great."
The motivation behind all of Reiner's work is the hope to bring unity amongst Wellsville basketball fans.
"I want to make it so kids' plans on Tuesday and Friday nights are to come to the games," he said. "It would be awesome to build it with the group that I'm with, because I love these kids, and we can have memories about 'when I was in high school we used to go to games and the Big Orange Machine came out and we would go nuts."
His first opportunity to introduce the Big Orange Machine came during a pep rally before the boy's first game against East Liverpool. Reiner spoke to classmates, described the new pregame routine and made sure to thank everyone that played a part in making his idea come to life.
With his mother in attendance to see him speak, Michael didn't disappoint.
"I came and watched the pep rally and it was amazing. I was asking him that morning if he had written anything down. He had a few bullet points but not much else," she said. "I would have had my whole speech on there and I've been teaching for years. He had a list of people he wanted to thank and it made me teary eyed."
Michael came up with idea after idea of ways to get as many people involved with the new Big Orange Machine as possible, and was constantly reaching out to learn more.
"I would go around to people and look for a video, and I got a hold of Randy Allmon, who was in charge of the "Rah Rah Shu Shu" cheer, so I thought 'hey let's get the cheerleaders involved," he said. "Then I heard that the band would play, so I thought we should get them involved so they could have fun with it too. It's not just basketball; it's a lifestyle of togetherness."
Seeing the reception that her son has received for his efforts is somewhat of a shock for his mother. She cautioned him of taking on such a daunting task as a freshman, but couldn't be more proud of how it has turned out.
"I think everyone is so pumped, and I think they love how pumped he is about getting the community involved and getting the kids involved," she said. "People ask us about the shirts. I see people on Facebook, that live outside of the community, asking people to get them a shirt for when they come home. "
So far, his efforts have been a success. Renewed energy in a growing student section is proof of that.
"It's very exciting to have students in the game now. We haven't had that in a while," athletic director Don Elliot said. "They stand, they cheer. That's all a result of the things that Michael has tried to do. The kids are into it and that's the bottom line, that's what we wanted to get out of it; more kids in the gym."
Michael started working toward bringing back the Big Orange Machine near the end of high school football season. For it all to have come together so quickly is something special in its' own.
"I wasn't sure if we could put it all together so quickly, but he went to everyone and put it together," Mitchell said. "Part of me is surprise, but part of me isn't because knowing my brother."
Michael believes this is only just the beginning, and expects much more to come from the Big Orange machine.
"It's just awesome feedback from everybody that we're getting from this," Reiner said. "The effort to try and make it huge, is what's going to make it huge, and I love it here because of that reason."