Saturday, August 27, 2016

Going back to high school

You forget the allure of it, until you go back. Friday nights in America are where football goes to loosen its tie, its home place, somewhere it can kick off the shoes and yank out the shirttail and pop open a cold one while Bachelors of Bachelorettes fulfill the roles for which God made them -- namely, to provide mindless background chatter for those times when even TV is too much work.

Friday nights in America are where football goes to just be football, in other words.

I hadn't covered a high school football game in almost two years, having (mostly) given all that up when I retired as a daily sportswriter after 38 years. The last game I'd covered was in November 2014, a playoff game out in Indiana farm country, where the wind blows unimpeded over the tableland out of eternity itself. It was 21 degrees at game time that night, and the eternal wind felt like a fistful of razor blades. You could stand on the sideline and watch the field turn white as it went from turf to permafrost.

Last night was different.

Last night was warm and humid and there was specklish rain coming out of a flat industrial sky, and when I got out of the car, Friday night in America took me in like long-lost kin. How quickly it all came back: The long (and for me, precarious) climb to the pressbox; the soft breeze coming through the window, smelling of grass and wet earth; the band doing its band-thing.

And the game, of course, was still the game. Running backs surfing through shoals of bad intent. Footballs launched across the darkening sky toward calamity or  glory, spiraling tightly sometimes and sometimes wobbling like a satellite in a decaying orbit. Fans filling the stands and spilling out along the fences, all those former players leaning over with their forearms on their knees or planted on the fence rails, critiquing the young 'uns.

The home team, Carroll High, lost this one, and it was over early. Across the way was Snider High School, a perennial state power and the defending 5A state champs. Implacable as a Roman legion, they went up and down the field like lawnmowers, scored on five of six possessions in the first half, led 34-0 at the break on the way to 41-7.

At the end both teams spilled onto the field before the final seconds ran off, formed their lines, shook hands. The Snider kids whooped and shook their helmets and went tearing off to salute their fans. The head coach, a trim, genial man, talked to the media about his two running backs and his new quarterback and his defense. Up in the stands, small boys leaned hard over the railing, imploring a running back named "Money" to autograph ... well, money.

You could see present and future in that tableau, current Friday gods and future ones. The small boys leaning over the railing hero-worshipping Money would someday be Money, and there would be other small imploring boys. And one day those small boys would be the ones being implored.

On and on and on. The unspooling of football ancestry, going on without end.

It's what sustains and makes Friday night football the purest strain of the game, that unspooling. Beyond it, the game becomes just another 9-to-5 slog, a corporate monolith enclosed and diminished by corporate protocols that somehow become more important than the simple, sublime act of the game itself.

Last night, for instance, the college football season opened in Australia. Cal vs. Hawaii. Corporate college football's version of the relentlessly corporate NFL playing a handful of games in London each year. And so the former becomes just another version of the latter, with only a thin veneer of tradition and other appealing trappings to distinguish itself.

Not like my Friday night, or all the hundreds that preceded it. Not like Friday nights in America at all, home place of our American game.

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