Friday night under the lights is a phrase that rolls off the tongue—or the fingers, I guess—a phrase that encapsulates everything there is to know about high school football. It’s the culmination of an academic week interrupted by a pep-rally and school spirit. It’s the manifestation of film sessions, extended practices and walk-throughs. It’s where former players and alumni get to relive their high school days and where current students unknowingly are in the process of manufacturing memories of their own. It’s all on display under the lights on a Friday night.
The phrase is strong enough to grace the title of a television show with a cult-like following, preaching the message of clear eyes and full hearts. It’s something that is so common to the masses yet harnesses a uniqueness of it’s own for the individual. The rivalries, the student sections, the traditions—these characteristics are almost universal. The schools, the mascots, the fight songs, the hometown heroes—there’s no real difference in a generation of memories. The only tangible difference, I guess, is zip code.
But each person recalls his or her time with varying degrees of nostalgia, and a few questions beg to be asked:
“What truly makes one year, one team, one playoff or championship drive truly memorable? Is it the players? Is it the coaches? What about the Win-Loss column or the stats? Is it only about how far a team gets in the post season or whether or not they win a State title?”
I think to truly understand why one specific year transcends others, you have to go back and look at the anatomy of a roster and understand the chemistry of that team. I think what you’ll find is something that can’t be measured with numbers or stats.
What Lies Beneath
Coaches enter every year knowing their duty is to evaluate the talent present from the ground up. They see what they have and set the expectations from there. They always say they can teach proper technique but they can’t teach pure skill. They say they can teach a playbook but they can’t teach intuition. They can improve sprint times, but they can’t produce pure speed. The nuts-and-bolts that fasten a talented squad together are tweaked and tightened by those in coaching positions.
However, there’s one specific characteristic that permeates the genetic make-up of a truly legendary athletic team that can’t be enhanced through drill work or expanded by film-study—and that’s love.
Shrouded with community expectations and sometimes haunted by decades of tradition, the burden that rests on the shoulders of a high school football team is sometimes hyperbolic. An ironclad veneer of toughness has been in the works since these young men strapped on a helmet for the first time as children. Jockeying into position to form a particular pecking order of talent as seventh-graders in middle school PE class, the formation of a truly special team relies on so many unpredictable factors.
Is It Even Worth It?
Developing a legendary team is like developing a Triple Crown winning horse. Once a trainer realizes his horse has the talent that could possibly set him apart from all other history makers, the obstacles begin to arrive—injuries, field conditions, travel.
The odds are ever so against you that all efforts seem to be performed in vain.
Obstacles wage war on high school football. The turnover of coaches and the residential restrictions from the department of education seem to be hurdles that are nearly impossible to clear. The patience needed to watch a sizeable 8th-grader turn into a powerful senior lineman is enough to drive any coach insane. And then there’s the politics of it all. Sometimes you never know if you’re dealing with the management of a football team or stuck in the middle of a soap opera.
Amongst all the melodrama of parents and teachers and administration and eligibility and locker room dynamics, there’s a genesis of chemistry that will become the backbone of a team. For better or for worse, the team must journey through treacherous roads to develop this chemistry that will allow them to become untouchable, and the one element needed to make a team stronger than any alloy is something so delicate, it could almost be destroyed without knowing.
The Strongest Softness
There’s a softness in football that is ever-present, but is often discarded. Football players are tough. Football players are hard. Football players get knocked down and get back up again. The ferocity and violence of a defensive end or linebacker is to be paralleled with the brute force of a hungry tiger. It would produce such an unfathomable fear in the average person.
But this softness, this fragile lining sometimes survives the purging fires of adolescence, and when this softness is recognized and nourished, it produces greater strength than any weight room could claim.
I’ve seen one team that was overcome with this engulfing power, and it has made all the difference.
These guys practice hard. I’ve watched them practice as middle schoolers, as very green freshmen, and as Championship bound brothers. They do all the things a championship team should do. Their coaches mandate an organized practice, and the players make the most of their time. They prove themselves every afternoon.
These guys play hard. I’ve been on the sideline for a series or two, watching the All-American destroy a tackler or the Fastest Kid Ever make a mockery of an entire defense.
I’ve seen the New Kid reset a dislocated finger and make a spectacular touchdown catch on the next play.
I’ve seen two Baseball Playing Wide Receivers dance through secondaries while the Legacy Wide receiver flies down the sideline, wide open.
I’ve seen a Defensive End “slash” Linebacker deliver bone-crushing hits while the Two Smiling Linebackers make goal line stance after goal line stance.
I’ve seen a kid who wore a Youth Large in middle school become such a threat on both sides of the ball, that I can’t help but smile.
I’ve watched the Senior Kicker and the Young Kicker challenge each other to become better while we all know the Holder has saved a few bad snaps along the way.
I’ve seen Giant Linemen with a hearts of gold realize how influential they truly are. And I’ve gotten to see a team fight for what they truly believe is theirs.
These guys truly work hard. I’ve even taught a few of them, and I’m always proud to say they performed in my room like they do on the field. They may falter or stumble, but they’ll give their fullest to finish strong.
These guys are hard. These guys are tough. And some of them have a grand future ahead of them. But this team, this family, possesses that one element needed to truly become legendary.
These guys love hard. They love with a purpose.
They support each other in a way that I didn’t think still existed. The bond found in this brotherhood is like something only seen in a war movie. I’ve seen them show tough love to each other on the practice field. I’ve seen them not allow anyone to give up and push forward together.
But I’ve seen them laugh like brothers during an intense game of Uno. I’ve seen them share the struggles of life with each other, sometimes inconveniencing themselves to help their brothers out. They’ll show up in support for their brothers during honor society inductions or academic recognitions and cheer each other on as if the week’s game depended on it.
These hard football players, they still let the fact that they’re kids show every once in a while. I sometimes catch them wide-eyed when they don’t know anyone is watching trying to make sense of all they’ve accomplished.
I don’t think they truly understand what they have right now. The season will end. They’ll move on to future games, future lives, and they’ll always have this season as their claim to fame (last season too…let’s not forget). All good things come to an end, but the path they took to reach their destination is one for the record books.
This group has truly made a name for themselves on the field, but I’ll never forget what all they’ve done off the field. They embody the definition of friendship, of brotherhood. They’ll put it all on the line for their friends, and no other love is greater than that.