The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

Sports

November 1, 2013

A Don McCormack column: High school football... it’s all about heart

The woman wasn’t being mean, but she had a question, actually a few, and they were direct.

“How many football stories have you written this season?” she said. “Why do you make such a big deal about sports,  especially football?

“Don’t you know, it’s only a game?”

With that, she turned and pushed her cart out the door toward her awaiting car in the parking lot.

Well, the answer to her first question was easy for me to come up with — I’ve written more than 130 stories about high school football this season.

But when it comes to explaining why sports, “especially football,” are such a big deal, it’s a bit more complicated.

It’s the most demanding team sport there is, one that begins each season in the blast-furnace of August and ends in the ice box around All Hallow’s Eve.

While no sport demands more of a total and complete giveth of body, spirit and soul individually than wrestling, there is nothing that compares to high school football when it comes to what it takes... demands, to be successful as a group.

Consider, your workplace. Look around and think about this — are there 11 of you who are on the same page, day in, day out? Or does office gossip and/or territorial turf wars thwart what could be a much more productive end game?

Taking it another step, consider, your family. If you have 11 in your clan who get along and love each other, unconditionally, on even a semi-regular basis, consider yourself extremely fortunate. And, regrettably, unique.

On every given play in football, it requires 11 guys being on the same page. All it takes is one breakdown for a play to be broken on offense or a big, potentially game-changing score to be given up on defense or special teams. If there’s even one weak link, the chain will snap.

Perhaps that’s what makes the Friday night lights so alluring, when collectives of 15- to 18-year-old young men take to 53-yard by 100-yard gridirons across the country with the psyche of not only a school, but often times, an entire community, riding on their strong, young backs.

It’s the lights, rising into the night like monoliths with giant torches attached, burning tunnels of vision through the crisp fall air.

It’s the aroma of fresh popcorn, lazily making its way from the concession stand to the bleachers, offering a come-hither attraction.

It’s the cheerleaders, who spend hours each week practicing and decorating the lockers of the players with signs of encouragement. The same young ladies who on game night, have glitter framing faces of hope, wearing soft, fuzzy sweaters and million-dollar smiles and carrying a bottomless pit of spirit that allows them to meet the demand of not being able to take a series off the entire night.

It’s the members of the band, marching in step with their backs straight, their shoulders square and playing the school fight song with pride, led by the majorettes, who dance and deftly twirl their batons like a Jedi swinging a lightsaber.

It’s the little kids, who show up armed with Nerf footballs under their pipe-cleaner arms, clad in their favorite team’s jersey and spend the time between each and every play running, passing and, eventually, dogpiling, before snapping to attention as the ball is hiked for the next play. In their eyes is the sparkle, the hope, that someday, they will be where their heroes are.

It’s the fathers, usually wearing a ballcap, armed with a big, steaming cup of coffee, giving that nod of approval that only dads can give when their boys score a touchdown, fire a great pass, or make a tremendous catch, or come up with a big hit, or throw a key block to spring a teammate to paydirt.

It’s the mothers, who often close their eyes before every collision, hoping... praying... their son, every son, gets up and trots back to the huddle after each and every play.

It’s the oldtimers, many of whom were out there on the field themselves decades ago, lining the fence around the stage, trading stories from back in the day, whose most common phrase uttered every Friday night in the fall begins with, “Remember that game against...”

It’s the coaches, who often come across as drill sergeants to the public because of the frenzied emotion they show most Friday nights. But behind the scenes, the great majority of these men care deeply for their players and have impacts on them they will carry the rest of their lives.

And finally, it’s the players. If you’ve never been hit playing football in full gear, you have no idea just what the game can do to a body, even a well-conditioned one of youth, speed and strength. Perhaps the only way to equate what playing a football game is akin to, is imagine being in a car crash. And for guys who play on both sides of the football, that’s about 100 times every Friday night for 10 weeks.

Basically, the game is legalized assault. And each and every player is hurting by the time the season ends.

For an unfortunate few, it’s a broken bone, or, even worse, a blown out knee, or maybe a concussion.

But every player has an assortment of bumps and bruises, cuts and scrapes and aching muscles.

They willingly wake up and stumble out of the rack before sunrise during their summer vacations to condition their bodies — and their minds — for the approximate 90-day torture test that awaits for them — then trudge home late in the afternoon, physically spent and not having the energy to go hang with their buddies and chase girls at Geneva-on-the-Lake.

And for the great majority of these young men, the games, the seasons, are anything but glamorous. While the quarterbacks, running backs and receivers usually get most of the credit and certainly get most of the headlines on every team, it’s what happens up front — in the trenches — that determines who wins, who loses.

It’s blocking.

It’s tackling.

It’s the ability of the five guys, usually squeezed into uncomfortable-fitting uniforms that weigh 10 pounds more by the end of the game than they did in the beginning, on both lines to figuratively bloody the nose of the guy six inches across the line of scrimmage from him. That, in itself, is tantamount to a super power to any winning program. And coming out on the short ends of the majority of those mano-a-mano matchups is kryptonite to the lesser squads, the teams that are most remembered for being opponents.

A football huddle is an absolute perfect epoch for what makes this life so blessed.

It’s 11 guys of different sizes, different colors, different demeanors, different faiths, taking just a few seconds to gather, to come up with a plan to formulate a successful result, one that benefits the many, not the few, and certainly, not the one.

If that isn’t life... if that isn’t special, what is?

McCormack is the sports editor of the Star Beacon. Reach him at donmac@suite224.net.

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