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Saturday, October 20, 2012

Friday Night Heroes

The following statement will reverberate on the political correctness seismograph somewhere in the range of 8.5. So be it, for I don’t care. You can quote me on this one: The popularity of high school football is rooted in chauvinistic tenants. The sign on the door still says “no girls allowed.” It is a guy thing, the last bastion of our society we can call our own. The doors at Augusta National have swung open, the job market is (supposedly) gender blind; and even in a war zone today, the front line fox holes are coed. But football – we still can give that smug shrug of insolence that so annoys our better halves - “honey, you wouldn’t understand.” Football binds males of all ages with a common legacy; one we tend to embrace more (and perhaps embellish) as our years pass from youth to old age.
Tonight I attended a high school football game in Herculaneum, MO. The host Blackcats took on the visiting Pirates from Perryville. The first football game I can every remember attending was on this same field, almost fifty years ago to the date. I was five years old. There were no state playoffs in those days. It was the last game of the season and both teams were undefeated. My dad was a huge fan of the Crystal City Hornets. I remember it was very cold. Crystal City won on the last play of the game and I remember fans storming the field. Herculaneum’s head coach was Bill Holmes, who would later be my coach in college. One of his young assistants was Dick Cook, who would be my high school coach. Twelve years later, during my senior high school season, I scored a couple of touchdowns on this field, both in the west end zone. As I have traveled the back roads of small town high school football, I have come to appreciate that no matter what we as a male accomplish in adult life - no matter how grand the reaches of our triumphs and joys, nor the depths of our failures and sorrows - we can still throw the switch and revert back Peter Pan style to those glory Fall days of long ago. It is always with you. Like a puff of smoke from an unseen fire, the memories come flooding back at the most unlikely of times- the high anxiety and discomfort so familiar to high school swimming to the surface, our self-worth once again measured by the brutal honesty of the Friday night scoreboard.

Herculaneum is a River town dominated for over a century by the St. Joe Lead Company, the biggest iron ore smelter west of the Mississippi River. The large factory and its intimidating smoke stacks, just beyond the east end zone, tower (or loom) over the entire town. Herculaneum has made national news on a regular basis the past decade, infamous for the federal government’s declaration that the unsafe lead rates from the smelter have made much of the original town uninhabitable. Most of the homes around the football field have been purchased in a federal bailout and torn down. The smelter itself, and its full three shifts of jobs, are set to disappear in less than two years. But for at least five Fall Friday nights a year, the pride of this dying hamlet raises its head in defiant support of the Blackcats. This evening, the north side stands were full with Black and Red clad hometown supporters.
The local grid iron heroes over the last 75 years have gained the reputation of a hard hitting troop, the gritty realty of a childhood spent in a community so dominated by a lead smelter. Akin to the tough brand of high school football played in the steel mill towns of Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River Valley, for generations, Herculaneum has prided itself as a hard nosed football team, reflecting the values passed down by tough men to each succeeding generation of sons.  Much of the current roster of players no longer live within the old boundaries of the original company town, nor do their fathers labor at the soon to be shuttered factory, but the legacy is there; the coaches making sure that the current players respect and appreciate the standards the town expects them to live up to.  On Friday night, they did not disappoint as the Black Cats bested the Pirates by a final score of 40-12. More importantly, they pounded away on both sides of the line of scrimmage, with a fierceness for 48 minutes that would have left Mike Ditka pleased.

On the last play of the third quarter, with the outcome of the game safely on the side of the home team, a Blackcat Senior lineman, London Lowe, was in the right place the right time, resulting in 15 seconds that will change his life forever. I doubt the young man at this moment appreciates the profound effect his fortuitous spot on the field will have on him as he grows over the years into an old man. As the Perryville ball carrier was being tackled, with Lowe a mere bystander 10 yards away from the point of contact, the ball awkwardly squirted from the hands of the offensive player and right into the unsuspecting Lowe’s midsection. Almost out of self-defense, Lowe caught the fumble in mid-air and rambled unimpeded 40 yards to the end zone. His coaches said it was his first touchdown. Watching him run, I would say it is a safe bet to add “and only” to the description of “first.”
A little over a year ago, I was in South Dakota standing in the end zone of perhaps the worst kept high school football field I have ever seen. The small town the field was located in was itself in a decrepit state. A gentleman approached me that if we had been in an urban setting, from his appearance, I would have speculated was homeless. In small towns, I have learned, they take care of their own; no one is allowed to be homeless. The man readily admitted to me that his life had been a complete failure, with one shining exception. “One night, much like this night, 40 years ago” he told me, “right here on this spot, I scored a touchdown, and the whole town stood and cheered for me.” I will not attempt to put a societal spin on his statement, dissecting the folly of a wasted life buoyed only by a mere touchdown four decades prior. It was a moving and poignant moment and I choose to leave it at that.
I hope that someday, forty years from now, a middle aged London Lowe can reflect back to October 19, 2012, and have such fond memories of the night the whole town “stood and cheered” for him. High School Football binds men together, from generation to generation and across every demographic line that so often creates the societal separation and disparity that today challenges our great nation. This bond is what makes high school football so special to so many of us.

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