Autumn, Americana And High School Football

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Autumn announces itself with bright colors and reprieve from the heat. It raps at the door and tells you it will politely bridge the gap between summer and winter. In an instant, it gets darker quicker and finds its way into your living room. The wind slices through you and then comes back for more. It howls as it swiftly moves away, only to return with more force.

To some, it’s a harsh reminder that time can get frigid. Loneliness looks for the cold, weary and broken. It seeks them out and interrupts whatever coziness remained.

These lonely figures aren’t the boys on a high school football team. When they can see their breath on the field, they know it’s time to play as hard as they can. The homecoming days of 60-degree weather and girls in black dresses with carnations are over. Now, the only path to glory resides miles away in a town they’ve never heard of, accompanied by fans who only give a damn what their record is.

When most people leave high school, they leave it all behind. Whether they hated or loved it, they move on to schools, jobs and families. High school is for kids. Their sports are no different. Aside from an occasional glance at the scores, it becomes a universe several galaxies away from teenage life.

There is distinct and natural honor in high school sports. Football is no different. The boys put on their pads, cleats and helmets. Down the pavement they walk side by side. Click-clack, click-clack, click-clack. They hit the turf in someone else’s hometown with one goal in mind.

In Virginia, the state playoffs are a few weeks away. It’s a bastardized version of the original layout, which had three divisions. Now, 32 teams make the regional playoffs. The top four make the state semifinals. More than half the state’s schools will play in the playoffs, some with losing records. Most schools have a shot when regional tournaments start this Friday.

It would be a safe estimate to say 50 percent of high school athletes declare something along the lines of, “We’re going to states!” It’s not reality, but how much of teenage life is? They are boisterous, fun-loving and determined. The gridiron was built for 17-year-olds with few release valves for their newly found testosterone.

As charming as the players and as similar to caricatures as the coaches are, the value of the game isn’t with individuals. Instead, it’s about collections and communities. A group of kids – some zany, some serious, some on their way to changing tires and some on their way to med school – comes together for the grit and glory. In the small stadiums that feel like coliseums to them, people from all over the area combine to support.

On the road, diehards travel far and wide to see the pride of their hometown. For all the accolades baseball earned as “America’s Game,” one needs to look no further than high school football for the true crown. The games are the grandest slice of Americana we have. Bands play the national anthem slightly off-key. Fans cheer, kids play, teenagers find a warm blanket and snuggle next to their new girl- or boyfriends. When the ball crosses the goal line, the students with trumpets and drums lead the crowd as the cheerleaders dance.

No players are paid. There are no debates over merchandising. The closest thing to unfair play is a referee from a rival town. It’s a special evening – how many events in a town on a given week can bring thousands together?

It makes connections to the alma mater, the frigidity of fall and the communities seem much more bearable. Instead of forgoing memories of the old days, we can launch back into time and feel them once again. The boys in the pads don’t know that yet. The cheerleaders don’t realize how soon the real world awaits them. A touchdown scored is only as good as the next possession on defense. Character is built in five-yard increments. A chance to win the game of life isn’t offered, but an opportunity to win the game of your life is.

The game itself provides unbelievable feats of wild, wonderful football. Reverse passes, faked field goals and onside kicks are more prevalent than in college of professional versions. When you attend a high school game, you really have no idea what you’ll see.

Friday, I will drive 200 miles to cover a playoff game. Saturday, I will drive 180 more to cover another. There are sportswriters who will ache over the notion. There are those who lost love for the games long ago, likely swallowed by debt or loneliness or misery. All three are feasible in our field.

You will not hear groans from me. This is America. Those boys will put it all on the line for one more Friday, one more Saturday and one more shot at states. They will fight and claw until there is nothing left in their tanks. In two weeks, they’ll forget the pain a bit as they embark on the next chapter of their not-so-frigid lives. The scoreboard will only indicate who gets another week of unknown opponents and long bus rides.

Before I set out to work the last regular-season game last week, I read an excerpt from my favorite book, “Friday Night Lights” by H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger. The words stuck with me.

“Odessa is the setting for this book, but it could be anyplace in this vast land where, on a Friday night, a set of spindly stadium lights rises to the heavens to so powerfully, and so briefly, ignite the darkness.”

On a frigid night in a shroud of early darkness, the wind cut as it does so wonderfully. Loneliness kept me company until I entered the final stretch of my drive on a long strand of flat road, where the lights appeared in the distance. Those beams, this time of year and these high school playoffs make the temperatures less frigid, because one day it will end. Winter will turn into spring and back into summer.

I’ll miss the long drives with the lights guiding me. A part of my soul will be less ignited than it was before.

One Reply to “Autumn, Americana And High School Football”

  1. While I definitely don't miss driving 200 miles on a Friday in the fall … I definitely miss the excitement and purity of covering high school football games. Nothing like getting to know teams and coaches and players at a stage before the big pull of money and scholarships and everything else.

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