I have a love-hate relationship with football. On the love, side, I am an avid fan of high school football. I think it is the last level at which you can see pure sport. Most high school players will never put on helmet and pads once they graduate and they are playing the game for the sheer joy of it. On the hate side, I am appalled by the lifelong damage the game can do to players. I think college ball is a vocational training ground for pro athletes and I resent that some players can slip through academically because they are on a team. Most of all, I don't like the money-grubbing pro football owners, rolling in dough, yet acting like skinflints in their treatment of players and referees.
I live within a football field's length from our high school stadium and I have been a regular at home games since I moved here in 1974. This year we have a particularly good team, so last Friday I traveled to a nearby town to watch the home town team (Summit, NJ) play the team from Cranford, NJ. The game was as exciting as any I have ever seen with no clear winner until my home team won the game in the last five seconds with an unusually long field goal. I went home cheered by the fact that "we" won.
To me, high school football is an important institution. It melds the entire community around its children. There is a part in the football ritual for everyone -- musicians, statisticians, girls who love to dance or are gymnastically inclined and nerds like me, who sit in the stands and are awed by the athleticism of the boys on the field.
As a boy in high school, even though I had no athletic abilities, I felt a part of the football ritual. During our pep rallies, held during the school day, a huge dummy dressed in the uniform of that week's opposition would be suspended from the top of the auditorium while the band blared and the cheerleaders went through their routines on stage, whipping the student body into a frenzy. My thrill was to stand off-stage and take a turn pulling the rope that made the dummy dance to the pounding drums and shouting cheerleaders, as each starting team member was called to the stage. Just that anonymous contribution to school solidarity made me feel a part of the effort.
Football played a major part in my high school experience. I lived in Miami when it was still a small Southern community. Most residents had attended one of the local high schools and a high school football game was a major event. The day after a game, it was the major topic of conversation.
My school, Miami Senior High, played in the big-time Orange Bowl stadium. The highlight of the year was the annual Thanksgiving Day game between two arch rivals - Miami Senior High and Miami Edison High. Real Miamians ate their turkey early so they could attend "the game". This annual game was so important that any time someone in Miami referred to "the game" it was this one.
We would eat dinner around 4 pm, relax for a few minutes, dress for the cold weather, which in Miami meant putting on a sweater, and join thousands of other people who would fill the Orange Bowl for a high school football game. "The game" was so significant to us as students and to the community that fifty years later, at a class reunion, the now accomplished adult, who dropped what would have been the winning pass for "the game" in our senior year, apologized to the alumni.
Since I attended high school in Miami, the conferences have been shifted and 'the game" has become a distant memory. My new home town used to hold a traditional, Thanksgiving Day game between Summit and neighboring New Providence, NJ, but a change of conferences eliminated this game too. It is a pity both traditional rivalries have been eliminated.
Football can teach young men discipline, teamwork, attention to detail and memory skills. But it can also damage a teenager's bodies. We are not designed to take the stresses to knees, backs and brains that football imposes. Over the years since high school, I have met many people who suffered bad knees and backs for the rest of their lives after a high school football injury. And every former football player I have met recently, tells me of the times he "got his bell rung" while playing the game.
I think one of the worst aspects of football in my day was the sense of privilege it bestowed on young men. Some, not all football players, got away with a lot, received lenient grades, and intimidated classmates because they knew they were needed to win the next week's game. Sometimes you hear about football players getting away with stuff ordinary people couldn't even to this day.
And, of course, there are the traditional gender-specific roles. The boys go out and battle for the home team and the girls nurture them by cheering from the sidelines. Occasionally, you will hear of a girl who is so athletic that she can play high school varsity football but it is very rare.
I wish there were a way to reduce the damage football inflicts on young bodies. I hope that young football players are taught that even though they may be stars on Saturday afternoon, they are regular kids the rest of the week. I am delighted to see more girls teams in lacrosse, soccer and other sports. I will be even happier when I see a boys' cheering squad rooting for a girls' team.
Even with its drawbacks, there is something magic about high school football for me. Though I know about its shortcomings, I will still root for my two favorite teams, the Summit, NJ Hilltoppers and the Miami High Stingarees. Much of my enthusiasm for high school football is nostalgia, but in this day when even college football teams are populated with mercenaries who play for the best offer, high school football remains a homegrown and home town nurtured exhibition of two communities coming together to play, root for their children and have some fun.
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Copyright Henry Bassman, all rights reserved.