I haven’t felt this much pride for the home team in years. I was able to watch a team tonight who out of the gate sits at 0-2 with morale levels so abysmal that even the players don’t think they can win. I watched this team take on a rival who came in smelling blood. This really could end up turning out to be a tough year for these guys, and the visitors knew it.
No, I’m not talking about the NFL. I’m talking about a local city’s high school football program…under the Friday Night Lights of the home stadium.
I witnessed helmets on the sidelines shaking in the first quarter, as they failed to make a first down on three different drives. The cheerleaders didn’t give up. They had to be good at what they do, keeping hopes alive. This team lost a lot of seniors last year. The term “rebuilding” gets used so loosely that even an occasional fan like me sees right through it.
It’s looking grim. The marching band sitting next to us blares their horns and percussion to energize the crowd. How about the players?
The slug fest continues. Back and forth, and the visitor knows that their opponent has little staying power; that eventually they’ll crack and start giving up the big plays.
But they don’t. And then it happened. These kids started doing the little things that the coaches pacing the white lines kept telling them. They were picking up their blocks. They were opening the smallest of holes, and the backs were hitting them.
The quarterback aired it out, and 30 yards down the field, the kid with wide eyes turned as the ball fell into his hands, just out of the defenders reach. The crowd erupted.
Suddenly the talking around me quieted. People around me startied to pay attention to the game as the back ran in for a score. The band had a sharper, more enthusiastic sound as it played the touchdown song.
I witnessed with my own eyes the monumental tidal wave of confidence that could have decided the fate of their whole season come crashing over the entire football field, and slowly I felt the currents like high tide ripple through the crowd.
The visitor came back strong-they realize that this wasn’t supposed to happen and they make their adjustments, but the home team kept coming.
Our linebacker broke through and got to the quarterback, slamming him to the ground. The sideline was full of buzz, as you could hear the players chanting “O – zone! O –zone!” referring to the fully charged offense who came out next, calling plays always one step ahead of the enemy.
They get to our quarterback who scrambled out of the pocket and fell forward. They hit him hard. Skinny number 12 got pummeled. The flash of light dims for a fraction of a second while we all watched him slowly rise to his knees. Then he hopped quickly to his feet and looking to the sideline, theatrically signaled “first down” and belly slammed a teammate.
I saw one kid take the ice pack off his shoulder and put his pads back on. He wasn’t missing this one.
Every play, I sat there rooting for these kids, silently saying “we need a big play here”, and no sooner said that they delivered. Whether it was deflecting a pass and having a defender come up with the ball, or the very next play with a 20 yard slant that goes for a TD.
The coaches had more spring in their steps, calling the shots from the balls of their feet.
Players standing on the sideline appeared to be BEGGING to play, wanting to contribute to the team’s success. They took the momentum away from the visitor, and never gave it back.
I saw the fundamental connection; what this game is supposed to be about. It’s not about overpaid athletes who need to have reality shows or media attention. It’s not about the millions of dollars in payroll, merchandising or advertising. It’s where the heart is.
Final score 40 – 34. The quarterback proudly took the knee to tick the last moments off of the clock to end the game, as the band screams out licks from “The Final Countdown”.
These kids played their faces off tonight, and deserve to walk the school halls on Monday like rock stars.
They connected with the game tonight in a way that only happens very rarely, and I couldn’t be more proud of them. I’m just thankful that I was paying attention to be able to experience it with them.