Friday Night Lights

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That’s me – hiding, second from left.  My ill-fated run on the Drill Team.

Several months ago, my friend Jennifer called, ostensibly to wish me a happy birthday.   Towards the end of the conversation, she asked me, “how would you like to help out on our high school Boosters board? We just need someone to write a few checks now and then?” In her own sly way, she was asking me to join the board as their new Treasurer – a job somewhat more involved then “writing a few checks”. I knew this, but I said yes anyway. Mainly, because Jennifer is one of those people I can’t say no to (she makes a mean margarita), but also because I was looking for a new volunteer gig. Something outside my comfort zone, that might be a little challenging.

I have a love-hate relationship with sports, and especially with football. My husband no longer allows me to watch games with him. He seriously loves the sport, and doesn’t find my unsolicited remarks entertaining. In my defense, it’s impossible not to make fun of an activity, where the commentators say things like: “it’s all about the penetration”, “the way they squeeze the tight end in there”, “they got him from behind”. The last time Jim let me watch with him, I hypothesized that football is really an outlet for closeted gay men.   He didn’t appreciate my theory and I’ve been banished ever since.

Ironically though, I adore a good football movie, especially those based on true stories: Brian’s Song, Invincible, Rudy, The Blind Side, and my all time favorite, We Are Marshall. It’s the heartwarming account of the 1970 Marshall University football team that perishes in a plane crash, and the subsequent struggle to re-build the program. I’ve seen it numerous times and always bawl through the whole thing.   It’s so good.

I am admittedly jaded when it comes to male athletes though. It seems to me that they are often given special treatment or face no real consequences for their poor behavior. During my high school years, I witnessed a classmate struggling with basic reading.   He was a valued member of the football team though, so he sailed through his classes. Two other male classmates subjected me to a bit of sexual harassment. One instance could be chalked up to the ignorant frat boy mentality of the perpetrator; the other instance was not as benign.   I never told anyone.   Too embarrassing, and who would’ve cared anyway? Again, they were football players: beloved, popular, and crucial to the success of our winning team.

One would not be wrong to infer that I have been disdainful of the sports culture.   So, I would seem to be the last person who should be participating in the Boosters – an organization whose sole mission is to support high school sports. I disclosed as much to Jennifer, without giving her the ugly details of my history. She saw it as just the opposite. Opining that my lack of positive bias would lend to my objectivity. Plus, she said, “Susan, now you’ll be in the power position (sort of). You’ve come full circle!”   Yeah, she was totally playing to my ego, but she had a point.

Everything I know about Booster clubs, I learned from binge watching “Friday Night Lights”, that delicious TV drama about football in a small Texas town.   The episodes involving the Boosters were always the same: a group of washed up former football stars, still sporting their championship rings and letter jackets, the best days of their lives long behind them. Their adult reality never quite matching the glory they had hoped for.

I didn’t grow up in Texas, but football was a big deal in my small New Jersey town. In late summer, we would begin to see game schedules posted on the windows of local businesses.   We had a hugely successful team – Coach Bauer led the Rams to six state championships over his 25-year tenure (his obit made the NY Times). We had a marching band that performed professionally choreographed half time shows. And, perhaps most significantly, we had a well-appointed stadium, with a lighted football field.

Home games were a serious endeavor, and never more so then on a Friday night.   Traffic would back up along Millbrook Avenue, as folks jockeyed for parking spots. Even for a football pessimist like me, there was something a little magical about a Friday night game. I went to most of them. Under the bleachers, I had my first real kiss – with a trumpet player.   At another game, in the bleachers this time, my friend Debbie consoled me after said trumpet player broke my heart.   I barely watched the actual games, but to this day, I remember the words to all the cheers.  When you’re part of a school with a winning team, it’s hard not to feel a little pride.

It was perhaps this misplaced pride that made me think it was a good idea to try out for the drill team. I didn’t make the team the first time I tried out, and that was probably a good call.   I’m not sure why I succeeded on the second try, other then it was basically the equivalent of a mercy fuck. It would be an understatement to say that I was not well suited for large-scale flag twirling. The one time they actually let me participate in the half-time show, I accidently smacked my metal flagpole into the elbow of the girl next to me. The crack reverberated throughout the stadium.

I’m not sure how things are now at my old high school.   But, the current culture appears to be quite different where my daughters attend school.   School spirit doesn’t seem to be tied to sports so much, and athletes are not the rock stars they were in my day. There’s increased academic and behavioral expectations. My perception is that things are more balanced now, which I think is good.  The stellar drama department, the winning mock trial team, less mainstream sports like Golf, these kids seem to be as celebrated as the more traditional athletes.

The playing field, for lack of a better term, feels a bit more level. I suppose an actual high school kid may see it differently, but from my vantage point, we’ve evolved. It may not be perfect, but there is an improved ethic surrounding high school sports, and I like being a part of an organization that helps to promote this. So, I guess that’s why I said yes to Jennifer. That, and the margaritas.

Sadly, there is no lighted football field at our local high school, and thus, no night games.   I’m told it’s due to some ordinance – probably the result of some NIMBYs who didn’t want to deal with the noise, traffic, and potential game night shenanigans in close proximity to their homes (to which I would ask, why did you choose to live near a high school then?).  I get it, I guess. But, I think this does a real disservice to the sport, and is a lost opportunity for community building.

The Boosters should probably get on this.   Everyone should have the experience of a Friday night football game during his or her high school years.   Whether they are watching from the bleachers, throwing the winning touchdown, or being whacked in the elbow with a metal flagpole.   Go Team.

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