Eastern Wake: Opinion

Buckle those chin straps

By Johnny Whitfield

Johnny Whitfield
Johnny Whitfield ehyman@newsobserver.com

Hi. Hello. And how do you do?

Those words ring in my head about this time every year. They are the opening lines to one of the most popular cheers the Mighty Mite and Pee Wee cheerleaders used to yell from the sidelines during every game of the season.

I honestly didn’t notice it that much when I was playing, but after I aged out of Pee Wee football, we continued attending games because my sisters were cheerleaders. After those opening lines each cheerleader, one at a time, would do something gymnastic-ish and then go down to one knee and recite their name.

I do, however, recall hearing one cheer in the midst of a football game. As an eighth-grader playing at the old Vaiden Whitley Middle School, I got the breath knocked out of me. I’d never experienced that before and, honestly, I thought I might die right there on the 45-yard line. But my coaches, Sam Greene and Randy Stephenson, toted me off the field and sat me down on the bench right in front of the cheerleaders, where I heard the cheer no player ever wants to hear: It was the “injured player” cheer.

“Two, four, six eight. Who do we appreciate? Johnny. Go Johnny!”

But rec league football games have always been welcoming events to me. Oh sure, there’s always a dad somewhere cruising the sideline who yells advice to his son as if he knows more than the coaches. And there is occasionally a parent who forgets they are at a game played by little kids and not an NFL stadium where perfect play is expected.

Those are the exceptions and not the rule, of course. Instead, what you’re more likely to find is a group of football players playing in the actual game, a smaller group of players on the sideline watching the game action intently and a much larger group of players sitting on the bench with their backs turned to the field watching the cheerleaders behind them.

Then, of course, there are the cheerleaders themselves. Every bit the athletes of their male counterparts inside the lines, these cheerleaders work hard for several weeks before the first game and then throughout the season to perfect the wording of several cheers, along with the timing, the moves and the ability to deliver all those goods with some semblance of a smile on their faces.

I’m reminded of that memory because of two things. I’ve seen in recent weeks several signs around the community soliciting football players and cheerleaders to join the cause. I’m also reminded that the calendar turns to August on Monday and that date, as I’ve said in this space before, should be the unofficial start of the new year, because it’s the first official day of football practice at area high schools.

Of course our Mighty Mites and Pee Wees and Pop Warner leagues will start a few weeks later, but the excitement is palpable to me as players begin to gear up for another season.

In an interview I heard on the radio last week, Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney talked about his belief that the benefits of football, and I would add cheerleading, far outweigh the dangers associated with physical sports. He said the game of football teaches people how to work together for a single purpose, how to overcome problems and how to lose with grace.

Though it may not seem to be true, the joy of winning always outpaces the pain of losing. There is a remarkable sense of accomplishment among a group of athletes when they come off the field with a win. And, sometimes, when you feel like you really did your best, but just got beaten by a better team, you have that same sense of accomplishment that you did your very best.

If we’re honest with ourselves, we can’t always say that about everything we undertake. Students are often more interested in completing an assignment than in learning from it. Workers are often focused on the clock and what awaits them after work as opposed to focusing intently on the work at hand.

So, hello cheerleaders. Hello football players. Hello football season.