Saturday, September 05, 2009

Football in a small town

It has been a while since I had a rooting interest in a high school football game, twenty-six years to be exact, the game and the atmosphere has changed little. No matter the size of the school or the town, a Friday night game under the lights is a special thing.

The girlfriends of the players wearing the jersey numbers of their sweethearts, the grandparents cheering in the bleachers, the parents pushing strollers carrying the next generation of football players and cheerleaders, these sights are universal. I always thought if you wanted to teach a foreign visitor about America, take them to a Friday night football game in a small town.

High school football is a competitive, strenuous, disciplined, strategic game with controlled violence. It's no wonder the Birkenstock wearing, Prius driving people look down on it. It's no wonder the rest of us are drawn to it. I was reading a piece in the Wall Street Journal about football of all the things, and found this quote by former Notre Dame Coach, Lou Holtz;
"You aren't entitled to anything. You don't inherit anything. You get what you earn—your position on the team," Mr. Holtz said. "You're treated like everybody else. You're held accountable for your actions. You understand that your decisions affect other people on that team…There's winners, there's losers, and there's competitiveness."

Last night's game in Esparto was a study in the struggles and changing fortunes found in football. Last year was last year, and unlike politics, there are no incumbents. The Spartan junior varsity went undefeated in 2008; the varsity did pretty well also, 5-5 I believe. This year both the junior varsity and the varsity were man handled by their rivals from Winters High. In both games, it seemed the Spartans just didn't have the horses.

Many of the starters from last year's undefeated JV team are now juniors, leaving a depleted roster of experienced players. This year's juniors are getting their first taste of the speed and hard hitting of varsity football. Not to say this season is over, far from it. The coaching staff will get the best out of the players, and the players will grow into their new roles.

Even though both games were blow outs, it was still great night because the teams didn't quit. I know they felt terrible, and I remember that feeling from my playing days. Seeing the frustration and dejection on their faces, I wanted to jump over the ropes and tell them, it would be all right. I wanted to tell them, you gave it everything you had, and no one can ask anything more than that.

Sometimes your best in not enough, in football and in life. Either you can shrink from a loss like the one they suffered last night, or you can dig down deep and find something you did not know you had inside you. That is football, that is life. Here’s hoping the Spartans bounce back and a few young men step up to help their teammates become better.

As I walked along the sidelines, I ran into a bunch of my friends, even a person I played softball with 20 years ago. On Friday nights in the late summer and fall, all you have to do is follow the glow of the stadium lights and you will meet just about everyone. This was especially true last night if were in line at the snack bar. It seems this year the Esparto Boosters were told they must use a cash register, instead of doing what had been working for decades. This caused a single choke point in the concession process, and the line to buy a hot dog or hamburger looked like the lines to get toilet paper in Soviet-era Moscow. I am not sure how much money was lost last night because of people just giving up and heading back to their seats after waiting in a unmoving line for fifteen minutes, but I am sure more than a few folks did. I think this falls under the, it may not be perfect, but let’s not replace it with something worse, situation.

All in all, a wonderful evening. Both teams shook hands after the game and I saw players from both schools talking with each other as they left the stadium. Some of them are friends from 4-H and FFA. They have learned to play the game the right way, play hard, but leave it on the field. You did your best and you can hold your heads up, but don’t be surprised if Monday’s practice is a gut buster. Good luck Spartans, can’t wait for the next home game.

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