John, Louie, Mark and Don figure their weekend job marching up and down the sidelines at Washington-Grizzly Stadium is a lifetime commitment. They figure that because death is about the only way they'd give up that job.
As members of the "chain gang," they hold the all-important markers at University of Montana Grizzly football games that determine whether a team has made a first down.
They're certainly not in it for the pay or the glory. Chain gang members are volunteers, but they get two free tickets to the game and the thrill of always being right at the line of scrimmage. Their greatest moments of glory probably come when the TV cameras zoom in as the chains are stretched to see if a team has made a first down. Even then, you're likely to see only their feet.
"It's the best seat in the house," said Mark Thane, principal of Chief Charlo Elementary and chain gang veteran for about a decade. "We have the opportunity to be on the field, on the line of scrimmage, listening to the coaches. It's a nice atmosphere."
The Grizzly chain gang as something of an institution got its start in the early '50s, when John and Louie Chinske's father, Eddie, was the Grizzly football coach. Four die-hard Griz fans had taken over the chain gang's helm - and they weren't likely to be replaced until they died or moved away.
John Chinske started filling in on the chain gang in 1988, when the games were still played at Dornblaser Field. In the early '90s, when he was in his early 50s, he was asked to join the gang permanently when one of the chain gang regulars was just too sick for the job. A few years later, when one of the members died, John got his brother Louie on board.
After another death within the foursome, John got Thane, a fellow teacher at Prescott School, on the team. Two years ago, Fred Lerch, a chain ganger for some 30 years, retired and Don Whalen took his place.
"It's a whole different perspective on the game," said John Chinske. "Different sounds, different smells …" The aroma of pizza makes its way down to the sidelines, he said, but it's mixed with the scent of analgesic balm and big sweaty guys.
Louie Chinske is a retired railroad engineer and John Chinske is now retired as a school teacher, but he still works for Beach Transportation part time and Whalen works for Missoula Emergency Services. They all love the game.
Jainie Haight, of UM's Department of Intercollegiate Athletics, said the chain gang has a reputation for being one of the best in the state.
"We have a wonderful crew," said Haight. "Wonderful … they are true sports fans and not just Grizzly fans. They love the sport. They love helping. They're a very, very delightful group. We get them signed up at the beginning of the year and I don't have to worry about them the rest of the year, and that's a good thing."
And they wouldn't give it up for anything. "There's hundreds of people waiting in line for one of us to die so they can take our jobs," said Thane.
But the foursome is not going anywhere, anytime soon.
"As far as I know I'll make it to the death I guess," said John. And his brother Louie? "Same with him, I'm sure."