The football field in Crawford, Texas, is dotted with cow pies. At least it was last time I played on it. The field was next to a pasture, and the gate, judging from the number of pies of varying freshness, was left open more often than not. Visitors who watched from the stands must have wondered why there occasionally were odd splits in the offensive line. They could not have known why defenders would sometimes gang-tackle the ball carrier and drag him to a particular spot of grass before slinging him down. Only the locals and the players knew for sure.
Crawford wasn't the only exotic field where I competed in high school. In Troy (population: maybe 1,200 on cattle auction days), the field sloped noticeably toward one sideline. In one half, you'd run most of your plays to the right to gain downhill momentum. In the other half, you'd run to the left.
When you visited the Hutto Hippos, you had to remember not to drink the water. In Hutto, as in many farm communities throughout that area, the town's water came straight from a well, perfectly potable but full of minerals. Hutto's water had a high sulfur content that made it more of a taste to be endured than acquired, unless it was ice cold. It was never cold when slurped from a hose on the sidelinesthe only practicable option before bottled water became ubiquitous. Sulfur water was Hutto's secret weapon. One year, it made half our team sick. After that, the coach wouldn't let anyone take more than a sip, even if was 95 degrees and we were huffing like a spent mule.
I think of Hutto and those other places only about once a yearabout this time of yearand it's almost always because of a specific sound and a particular smell. The sound draws me back to high school football games, and the smell transports me back in time.
I live six blocks from a high school stadium. I can't see the lights, but on autumn Friday nights when my windows are open, I can hear every word spoken by the stadium announcer over the PA system.
A lot of people in my neighborhood don't like hearing the play-by-play. But for me, the announcer's voice is like a siren's alluring song.
I have no connection to this school, no reason to take any personal interest in the fortunes of its team. Yet I find myself going to some of their games because I hear the announcer's call. I may not know a soul in the stands. But a high school football Friday exerts a magnetic pull I cannot resist.
If only vicariously, you can be part of a community there. Isn't that what we seek and what we're missing? A high school football game is a community event in a country where the sense of community has receded like water into the cracks of a dry lake bed. Being part of a game is one of the few remaining common experiences most of us fractured and compartmentalized Americans share.
I mentioned the smell. Football games have an aroma that is distinctively their own, and it is always the same, everywhere. It's a smell of freshly mowed grass, mingled with the smoke of sweet, cheap cigars and the scents of hot food wafting from the concession stand.
Some people time-travel through songs. Hearing a particular tune takes them to a certain place or feeling. The smell of a football game brings me back to Friday nights from which I'm 30 years removed.
Sometimes in my reveries I'm carried to highly specific memories. One night it rained so hard we played in ankle-deep water. They threw trash at us from the stands in Bartlett after we beat them when we weren't supposed to.
For some reason, I remember how my teammate Harold Dorsey put his arm around me and laughed, in a way that was somehow comforting, when I dropped an easy interception that I could have returned for my only career touchdown. Or how our coach kept making us punt on first down because we were already beating the neighboring town 55-0. Or the way my arm slid on top of my hand in the game when I broke my wrist (which to this day tells me when a cold front is coming).
But, mostly, being at a high school game rekindles in my mind a glimmer of what it was like to be alive and 17 on a Friday night with no other care in the world. It is only a glimmer, and it burns a little fainter with each too busy year. But I think the glimmer is one reason we still go to the games. It's one reason I go.
I went to a high school with a total enrollment of 130. Our non-marching band consisted of a bass drum and two snares. Our weight facilities involved a few barbells of heavy steel rods embedded in cylinders of poured concrete.
High school football today, particularly in large metro and suburban schools, is nothing like that. It is a serious, year-round business, with spring drills, summer camps and conditioning the rest of the time. It is so serious that only a few athletes dilute their focus by playing other sports. It is so serious that some parents hold young boys back a year in school so they'll be bigger for football.
But the feeling at any game at any level is still the same. It doesn't matter who's playing. You don't even have to know them.
You see the players running onto the field and the band and the pep squad and the students chattering away, and you, too, can travel in time. You can do it even if you're not fully conscious of it, even if it brings back no specific memories. You can feel a little like the baseball players who find themselves on an Iowa cornfield where they can play the game just a while longer.
It's not just a time portal but a dream portal. For many of us, high school was often a conflicted, painful time; like Hutto's sulfur water, to be endured rather than savored. But reliving it through the communal experience of a football game can be curative; we're allowed to view high school as we longed for it to be, not as it really was.
The final shot in the magical, wistful film, Local Hero, is a telephone booth by a pier. The shot is perfect. The movie is about a young, Type A oil company executive who's sent temporarily to Scotland. His assignment is to negotiate the purchase and relocation of an idyllic fishing village to make way for a huge terminal for North Sea oil. He keeps his superiors in Texas abreast of his progress by calling them from the booth, the town's only public phone.
Over the course of the buyout negotiations, the loosened young suit becomes so enamored with the place and the people that he is eager to abandon his career, his fancy condo and fancier car and move in with the locals. That's not to be, of course. In the movie's next-to-last scene, we see the executive arriving back at his high-rise in Houston. We hear the night-time noise of the vast city as he pins up photos of himself with the villagers. And then we see the red booth by the Scottish pier, bathed in early morning light, as the phone repeatedly rings.
I understood what the caller was feeling half a world away. I get that feeling, too, these days when I sit under the lights on Friday nights.
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