From the staff

Column: A fresh perspective on what makes high school football special

sgilman@newsobserver.comNovember 14, 2013 

I arrived in time for the coin toss. But I knew it was the coin toss only because the announcer said so.

The last time I was at a high school football game must have been at least six years ago at a small, private school, and I never watched. I was dishing out nachos and cheese in a little concession stand to help my mother rack up volunteer hours.

As I approached last Friday night’s football game at Raleigh’s Sanderson High School, the teams roared great shouts at each other. It made my heart beat faster.

Though I grew up in a college town, where game days slowed traffic to a crawl and brought out Oregon State’s finest window flags, I never attended a game. No one in my family plays, and we never had any interest in sports. I studied ballet at a local academy, played violin and read books. To me, spectator sports were a foolish waste of time.

Twice in my four years at Hillsdale College in Michigan, I went to the homecoming game. But homework called, so I always left at halftime. I never understood the game or the enthusiasm.

That changed last Friday night, though.

In the center of the stands, high school students wearing mostly black sweats and hoodies stood tightly together. Later, someone told me that “blackout” was the theme of the game.

“Millbrook wins the toss, defers to the second half,” the announcer said.

Wish I knew what he meant.

A marching band big enough to stretch across most of the 100 yards wore uniforms of angled red, silver and black. ROTC cadets posted the colors, and the band played the national anthem. Spread out as the performers were, their tones were crisp, and they stayed with the conductor – standing on a podium reached only by a 6-rung ladder – almost perfectly. I had never seen anything like it.

The last note brought cheers from the crowd, and sent the cheerleaders, whom I just noticed, bouncing. I clapped with them.

Wildcats and Spartans

Suddenly, I noticed tiny huddles of football players, blue on the far right and black-and-white on the far left.

“Please welcome the visiting team,” the announcer shouted, “The Millbrook Wildcats!”

Boos echoed over my side of the stands, and the woman behind me shouted, “Go, Spartans!”

The teams charged across the field, along with their banners, and both stands erupted. Amid the noise, a Sanderson fan to my left turned to me and yelled with a grin, “Make sure you put down that this is the most wins (six) we’ve had in five years.”

I noticed that everyone around me was talking excitedly. A woman next to me said, “We just come to cheer.”

In the row in front of me, a man was tossing back popcorn from a brown bag, and I smelled butter. All around were warm conversation, bright lights and the snap of cold air.

Suddenly I saw something I understood. A Spartan was running with the ball, clustered ever-tighter by Wildcats. He was dangerously close to the out-of-bounds line, when the Wildcats stopped him at the 7-yard line. Cheers arose from the Spartan side, and even I knew he had just done a good thing.

The Spartans got the ball to the 2-yard line, the 1 and finally a touchdown. Fans screamed in approval. I turned and high-fived the woman behind me, and she grinned even bigger.

Tense 2 minutes

The game grew tougher for the Spartans as the Wildcats’ score crept up. In the last 2 minutes of the game, Millbrook had gained a 1-point lead. But it’s not over yet, people around me murmured.

Pass, penalty, huddle, third down, 10 yards to go.

Timeout, Sanderson.

My fingers were frozen, and my toes ached, but I cared who won. Sanderson, it had to be Sanderson. The crowd around me pressed the field with their eyes, and we held our breaths.

Kick.

The field goal attempt didn’t go through, and Millbrook won, 41-40. Millbrook fans exploded in hysteria.

A shocked silence enveloped the Sanderson side, and then like popcorn from the depths of their good-natured souls, they said, one after another, “Good game!”

“Welcome, thanks for coming,” the people nearby told me.

One man said, “You won’t find a school with more pride.”

Somewhere in that cold night, the push and pull of competition cracked my world and warmed me to my feet.

Samantha Gilman, who grew up in Corvallis, Ore., is serving an eight-month fellowship as a reporter at The N&O.

Gilman: 919-829-8955 or sgilman@newsobserver.com

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