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Waiting for the Ax 

An underage sex ring threatens Massillon's greatest asset: High-school football.

The investigation kicked off, say the rumors, when a 14-year-old girl was found passed out on the speckled linoleum of a Washington High School hallway. She was rushed to Affinity Medical Center in Massillon. And that's where the story splinters into dozens of different versions.

Doctors discovered she was pregnant, claims a dapper young man outside Primp Palace, a Massillon barbershop.

No, they found an STD, says a Washington truant in a frayed hoodie, who's sitting on the steps of a nearby video-game shop.

"Yeah, I heard that too," says a Vietnam vet drinking gin at a vets-only bar. "Or maybe she was just plain oversexed — I heard that's why she passed out."

Perhaps the fainting girl is a made-up detail, Massillon's way of neatly explaining how Detective Bobby Grizzard stumbled onto one of the ugliest scandals to ever befall this community.

Exaggeration, speculation, and plain fabrication: That's how the pieces of the story have been put together since November, when the Massillon Independent set the town chattering with news that police had uncovered a sex ring involving girls as young as 11. "An ongoing investigation centers around students at Washington High," began the terse but vague article.

Police have been reticent to offer their own narrative. All they'll say is that over a several-month period, at least 14 boys — ranging in age from 14 to 21 — were suspected of having sex with three young girls, the oldest of whom was only 14.

With only these spare facts to work with, the town began filling in its own details.

The disaster began, the tale goes, when a boy met a girl at Whiskey Ranch — Massillon's version of Tequila Ranch, featuring $2 Miller Lites and a mechanical bull. On the night in question, the Ranch was hosting teen night.

The girl apparently claimed to be older than she was. The boy didn't press the issue. So the girl introduced him to two of her friends. The boy, it seems, introduced her to 13 of his.

Over the next few months, they would get together for sex, according to Detective Grizzard. And since girls this young can't legally consent, it seems to constitute a massive case of serial rape.

A sex ring at the local high school would rock any hamlet of 33,000. But it was a little detail in the Independent article — that four of those being investigated are athletes — that sent a jolt of fear through this town. The Tigers — Washington's legendary football team and winner of 22 state championships — aren't just the city's favorite pastime. They're Massillon's very identity.

"It's our communal thing," says Tim Todoran, co-owner of Howard's Tiger Rags, a team souvenir shop that sells all things orange and black, from baby bibs to tuxedos. "This is what everybody does: We go to the football game every Friday."

During the season, rallies and parades stomp through downtown at the slightest provocation. Stores close en masse at game time, when 18,000 residents flock to Paul Brown Stadium.

When a baby boy is born in Massillon, an orange-and-black football is placed in his crib. Men are buried in caskets decorated with the team logo. And if a store or restaurant doesn't have a team banner or stuffed tiger displayed somewhere, it probably doesn't have an American flag either — which pretty much says it all.

The adulation makes it easy to forget that the targets of this obsession are mere high-school kids. But the kids repay Massillon with success and achievement, things the city has struggled to produce on its own for decades.

Once a thriving factory town and home to a Republic Steel plant, Massillon was stripped bare by a mean economy that left Buffalo Wild Wings as the most bustling enterprise around. Tiger football, it seems, is the only thing Massillon has left.

"A townsman told me, '365 days a year you can work in a steel mill and feel like a nobody,'" says Ken Carlson, director of Go Tigers!, a documentary on the town's football obsession. "'But nine weeks out of the year, you feel like a king because you're from Massillon.'"

In most downtown stores, identical autographed posters of Chris Spielman hang like shrines. Of the 23 Washington kids who rose to the NFL, none has managed to fulfill the town's ideal like Spielman, an All-American at Ohio State and Pro Bowler with the Detroit Lions.

But when you make it big beyond Massillon, the town feels it's owed a debt. In that respect, even Spielman has disappointed. "People say he forgot where he came from," says handyman Jim Collins. "He's disappeared. It's hard to please this town. It can be suffocating. It's like the football players are the town's only hope. Nothing else matters. Sometimes I think that the team is just a distraction, so we're not reminded that we're just another shit town in Ohio."

But if Spielman let them down, the townsfolk are now grappling with a whole new level of disappointment — football players who may have thrown away future stardom for rendezvous with a 12-year-old girl.

School administrators want nothing to do with the incident, noting that it took place off-campus. "I'm somewhat confused as to why the media contacts the schools when things of this nature take place," says Superintendent Fred Blosser. "It's no different than contacting Wal-Mart or a Baptist Church. If there's any guilt, it has to be borne by the parties involved."

"Until we know what happened," adds head football coach Tom Stacy, "there's nothing we can do about it."

Detective Grizzard has clammed up about the case, and Stark County prosecutors aren't any more forthcoming. Assistant Chief Prosecutor Chryssa Hartnett confirms indictments are coming, but won't say when. "It won't be this week, and in all likelihood won't be the next week either. That's all I can tell you," she says before closing her door.

When charges are announced, prosecutors should expect an uproar in Massillon, especially since many residents loudly insist that no crime was committed. "As far as I'm concerned, there wasn't no rape involved," says Larry Rashid, a bartender at The Alibi. "Those girls are a couple of little wildcats. You tell me what you would do if you were 16, and a 12-year-old whore like that was throwing herself at you . . .

"The girls need to be scolded. The boys, they just need a stern lecture."

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