It’s been a year since Jayne and I left to spend the fall semester 2008 in London with our great group of Wingate students.
As wonderful as that experience was, I couldn’t help but miss the things that were uniquely American. One of the biggest was football. American football, that is. I watched or listened to a few games on the Internet, and Jayne and I went to an expatriate bar in Chelsea one Saturday to watch some college football via satellite TV. And the NFL brought a regular season game to London’s Wembley Stadium, an entertaining matchup between the New Orleans Saints and the San Diego Chargers that we caught a little of at a restaurant called The Big Easy. But otherwise it was a lost season until we returned in time for the bowl games.
That’s why I’m particularly excited about covering my first high school football game of the season tonight. (For those of you who are local, it’s Vance at East Meck, which should be a pretty good game.)
Since 1976, I’ve spent most Friday nights in the fall in a press box at a high school football stadium somewhere in this great country of ours. That covers both Carolinas, Florida, Alabama, Texas and Pennsylvania. (And I count last fall, as I made it a point to cover a game on opening weekend, just a few days before we left, to keep the consecutive seasons streak alive. )
To put it in context, when I started, I wasn’t that much older than the players I was watching, and now I could be a VERY young grandfather of one of them. I’ve written about the grassroots appeal of high school football before, and how, especially in small towns, going to a game can give you the flavor of a community. That’s the kind of thing I think about at the start of each season – and about the places and people I’ve encountered in previous seasons.
I couldn’t name the great majority of players I’ve seen, of course, but a few that I’ve covered on a regular basis ended up in the NFL – Derrick Brooks (Pensacola, Fla., High), released this spring after 15 seasons with the Tampa Bay Bucs comes to mind, as does linebacker LaVar Arrington, who played seven seasons with the Washington Redskins and New York Giants. I remember him as a precocious 9th grader starting for the 1993 Pennsylvania 4A state champion North Hills Indians in Pittsburgh.
But what I remember most about the games is the atmosphere and how much it all meant to the people who were there. National Public Radio is exploring this with a series of reports called “Friday Night Lives” – the title is almost certainly a play on Buzz Bissinger’s marvelous book about Texas high school football called Friday Night Lights.” Oh yeah, there’s also that TV show.
Two NPR reporters will do stories from across the country during this season to relate to listeners what it’s like to play and coach the game and what its place is in the community. That should be fun to listen to. I’m looking forward to it, and to taking yet another journey of my own through this territory in American sport and culture. I am glad to be back.
UPDATE: East Mecklenburg 18, Vance 7 tonight. Freshman place kicker David Marvin drilled three field goals to help East Meck hang on for the win. Let’s see, when he was born I had been covering high school football for…never mind, it’ll just depress me.