DANVILLE — Pigskin and ’coon. Does it get any better than this? Not in Danville on the first of February.
Hundreds of people stood in line Monday night at St. Luke Community Center for a heaping helping (or two) of slow-roasted raccoon with all of the fixings, although for some, not so willingly.
“I came kicking and screaming,” said Mark Hershner of Lexington.
Claiming he had no intention of eating the wild delicacy, Hershner said he asked for ham instead of the raccoon.
“They thought I was kidding and scooped up the raccoon. I didn’t want to hold up the line, so I took it,” he said.
“Honestly, it’s awesome,” he confessed. “If you had mom’s Sunday roast next to the raccoon, in a blind taste test, you couldn’t tell the difference.”
The tried and true recipe keeps generations of families coming back for more.
Hershner made his first trip to the annual dinner at the request of Jody Akres of Mansfield.
“I’ve been coming for 12, maybe 15 years,” Akres said. “It was something I did with my dad. Now, it’s what I do on the first of February.”
In its 66th year, the annual raccoon dinner packs the hall on a rotating basis. Volunteers scour the crowd, collecting trays to recycle through the line so others can carry their meal back to their seat. Random announcements are also made encouraging those finished with their meal to move on to the high school auditorium so those in line will have a place to sit and enjoy their meal.
Young volunteers, including the Danville Boy Scout troop, float through the maze of tables offering up seconds of the raccoon.
As busy as the dining area was Monday night, it was in the kitchen where the excitement, and fun, was taking place.
Lauren Mickley, 10, is part of the Mickley family, which has been heading up preparation for the meal for decades.
“It was good,” Mickley said of her raccoon dinner while waiting for a refill of her serving bowl.
When asked how long she has been volunteering to serve second helpings, she admitted she wasn’t sure, but Don Hawk offered this explanation, “She’s been doing this since her grandma thought she was big enough.”
Hawk was filling in for his wife, Janet, dishing out raccoon from the roasters into bowls for the second helpings.
“This is such a unique meal. You just don’t run into something like this often,” Hawk said. “My wife wasn’t feeling well, so she asked me to fill in.”
Former head of the cafeteria at East Knox High School, Sheila Bartok knows her way around a kitchen, and was having a great time working with her longtime friend Helen Austin making the mashed potatoes.
“Helen was doing this and I thought I’d help out,” said Bartok, who put in her third dinner Monday.
“You have fun here,” said Austin, who wrapped up her sixth year. “It’s not like work when you have fun.”
Looking down the rows of tables, Jim Fausto of Howard stood out from the crowd.
In his coonskin cap, Fausto devoured several helpings of the raccoon, and patiently weathered the interruption to talk to the News in hopes of getting yet another spoonful before calling it a night.
“This only happens once a year, so you have to take advantage of it,” Fausto said. “This is delicious to me.”
Invited by his boss last year, Fausto said he was an instant fan in his rookie year, and plans to make the dinner a tradition of his own.
His dining partner, Jennifer Palmer, said the dinner was good, but wasn’t quite as enthusiastic as Fausto.
Following the dinner, guests were invited to listen to the Danville High School Jazz Band in the school auditorium across the street. Following the performance of “Hang on Sloopy,” former OSU quarterback Greg Frey led the crowd through the infamous Minnesota game of 1989 when he led his team from a 31-0 deficit to one of the most exciting finishes in team history.
“I remember kneeling, looking up at the scoreboard. I had to make the conscious decision to not accept defeat; the decision to not quit and keep fighting. I thought ‘we have got get back in this game,’” said Frey.
Following a Minnesota penalty for having 12 men on the field, Frey and his fellow Buckeyes put eight points on the board with just five seconds left in the first half.
“That was a silver lining,” Frey said. “With that penalty, they were giving us a shot. We went into the locker room with a new outlook — we were only down by 23 points.”
The Buckeyes prepared for their comeback at halftime and dominated the Gophers on offense in the second half, Frey said.
“It was 37-32,” Frey said. “I looked at the scoreboard again and reminded myself to stay focused. We made adjustments with our last drive anticipating changes Minnesota would make.”
Frey told the crowd he was “in the zone” and in that mindset, anything was within reach.
“Offense gets fun when the defense knows what’s coming and they can’t stop you,” he said.
The remainder of the drive played out just as Frey imagined it, he said.
“We had a fourth-string tight end by the name of Jim Palmer (Loudonville native) who made the biggest play of the game against a guy who played for the National Football League,” Frey said.
The drive culminated in a score and the Buckeyes went on to win, 41-37.
The lesson Frey took away from the game was “Don’t quit.”
“Sometimes you have no choice but to push on. Sure, you can lay down mentally, but it’s going to get ugly,” Frey said.
That story was just one of the life lessons he learned as a Buckeye, both on the gridiron and on the baseball field, and shared Monday night.
Frey lettered four years in football and two years in baseball for the Buckeyes.
“It was an exceptional night,” said Sandy Crow, Danville Lions Club president. “We officially ran out of raccoon.”
Nearly 700 meals were served.