Me and Friday Nights

Another year, another fall, another high school football season.

The older I get the more it seems that I reminisce, so it’s not really all that surprising that I’ve found myself once again thinking about the past a lot over this weekend.   I suppose that sort of thing is only natural when there’s a good chance that you have more life behind you than in front of you.  Every now & then those trips down memory lane find a way to teach you something that you really weren’t expecting to learn, nor really even thinking about at all when you began the journey.

My earliest recollection of high school football dates to about 1972.  I would have been five years old.  But I can remember watching the senior season of one of the greatest athletes my little north Georgia hometown ever produced.  Yes, I was that odd little kid, the one that went to the games to watch the games rather than spend the evening playing with friends off in the distance.  I may not have had the firmest grasp on the finer points of the game but I knew he was something special.  Hindsight, maturity, the record books and the internet have all helped me understand better just how special he was.  Three time All-State running back, school offensive records that stood for decades, a college scholarship.   Fred Anderson, you’re probably to blame for some of the time I’ve spent following high school football over the four decades that followed.

For anyone to be a high school football fan in Georgia isn’t exactly unusual but my route may have been somewhat less traditional than many.   With all due respect, it’s fair to say that I didn’t grow up in a football hotbed.  We were a basketball town, a girls basketball town to be more specific.  Between that earliest memory and my own entry into high school (1980, as we were a grade 8-12 high school) our football program had only one .500 season and averaged 3 wins a season.

But I wasn’t dissuaded.  The 70’s happened to be a decade when my dad’s old school went on a 32 game winning streak, went 40 games without a loss and won two state titles.   So I remember trying to tune in radio from Rome, GA an hour away, listening to the magnificent Tutt brothers – Johnny and Greg – lead East Rome through some epic battles, most notably back to back one point wins in the semifinals over outstanding teams from Commerce coached by Ray Lamb.  Those felt like title games, the eventual championship wins in ’77 and ’78 were almost anti-climatic.   That decade also featured the running battle for state supremacy between the power trio of Griffin, Clarke Central and Valdosta.  Those may have only been far away exotic places to my pre-teen self but they were big and important and they were the first thing I started scanning the Atlanta paper for news about the morning after.

The early 80s were my high school years.  As you may have guessed, there wasn’t an athletic bone in my body by that point so my place was in the stands.  Or occasionally on the sidelines in one guise or another.  If you look at the record books you’ll see that it wasn’t a particularly notable football era, a 6 win season that was the highwater mark in a decade but overall we averaged 3.5 wins per season.  But I experienced the blood, sweat & tears from a much closer vantage point than ever before.  I got to watch a fine human being ply his craft up close — the influence Coach Don Enis had on his players for the rest of their lives can never be measured by football wins & losses — and that has a value all its own.

When you aren’t going to the playoffs yourself there’s opportunity to become more familiar with programs that are.   This was the time when the balance of power in Rome shifted from the Gladiators of East to the Chieftans of West.   I remember wrestling with the emotional decision of whether to pull for them because at least they were from somewhere I knew or to pull against them because they were a hated rival of a favored team.   With four straight state titles and a 59-1 record over a four year span — under three different head coaches no less — I’m pretty sure they didn’t care one whit which way I cheered.   And I woke up early on Saturday mornings to listen to the scoreboard show on WZLI-FM out of Toccoa, GA.  A blowtorch of a signal that was a huge source of information for high school football fans.  We didn’t just get the outcome, we heard how a lot of those outcomes came to pass (or run, or kick).

Starting in 1985 my perspective on high school football changed.  Literally.

For most of the next two decades I spent my Friday nights in pressbox, it wasn’t just an adventure it was also my job.    I’ve detailed the best (and a little of the worst) of those years previously.   Across 4 radio stations in four distinct towns, as the “home” announcer for not just four teams but for nearly a dozen (because of “Game Of The Week” approaches at some stations).  Suddenly I didn’t have just one team that was “mine”, I had several.  On one memorable occasion I even had the challenge of being the voice of a team that was as “not mine” as humanly possible.

I even had the misfortune of being half of the most unhappy, disjointed, openly combative, ill-conceived high school football broadcast in history.  Here’s a word to the wise:  just because you happen to own radio stations in two adjacent towns, it’s not really a good idea to create an impromptu pairing of announcers that have literally never met before game night, both of whom are strongly attached to one of the bitter rivals and have them “just do the game together”.   It’s not going to work, just go ahead & take my word for that m’kay.

But throughout the years I took the responsibility very seriously, perhaps occasionally even too much so.   Having grown up listening to legends & icons handle college football on Saturdays, having strained through the static to listen to games on Friday nights, I knew the role was to be the eyes & ears of the listener at home.   I believed — and still do — that I owed those fans the best and most accurate account possible.

Sure, with an audience that was mostly partial to one team or another sometimes it’s wisest to find a way to phrase unpleasant things as gently as possible, and with players as young as 13-14 years old you try really hard to avoid pinning anything directly on a particular player.  You also avoid speculating on injuries, there’s a lot of already nervous parents and grandparents listening at home, don’t make things even harder for them.  But an honest accurate account was never far from my mind.   If you’re getting dominated by an opponent there’s only so many ways to sugarcoat that.  So you try to give at least attentive and knowledgeable listeners some idea of what’s really happening.  If you aren’t picking up the blitz, if their receivers are just too tall for you to cover consistently, if they outweigh you by a hundred pounds across the front, you make those observations.   They’re part of the story, they’re tangible things obvious to everybody in the stadium.  And the announcer serves as the proxy for people who can’t be there in person.

It’s also an entirely different way to watch, and think, during a game.  No longer is the game about just the last play and the next play and the scoreboard.   Now you’re looking at both those plays but also the bigger picture.  It’s not only about “what”, it’s also about “why”.  I’ve never called a single play in a football game at any level so I’m not any sort of expert at X’s and O’s but at some point there are things that become obvious.  If the defense is getting pressure on a shotgun QB from both sides and there’s been 7 sacks in the first half, it might become apparent at some point that leaving at least one back in to help block could be an idea worth trying.

You’re also watching not only the ball but trying to watch for what’s happening on the field away from the ball.  You start to notice the scuffles after the whistle that happen 20 yards away from the ball.  You pick up on the receiver that’s 20 yards past the DB on 5 straight plays.  You notice when the secondary is cheating the run because there’s a safety in or near every dive play into the middle of the line.  You’re looking for things that might give you both anticipation and better understanding of what happens 10 plays later.

Individual games are also considered more in the context of an entire season.  You not only see what’s in front of you but you’re also thinking about who both teams play next week.  About what this game and those games and what 5 other games in your region tonight mean in the long run.  About what happens in the next region over since they’re your playoff matchup in the first round next month.   About how the team the next town over is doing (since a portion of your listeners grew up there before moving).  About how the team your former coach is playing now that he’s got a new job for one reason or another.  And one thing I learned more times than I can count is that there’s no limit to what you may want to know about anybody & everybody else because it could unexpectedly come up in the natural flow of covering the game in front of you.   There just really isn’t anything such as being overprepared for a broadcast … because you’re there on behalf of dozens, hundreds, thousands of people and they expect you to know.  No matter the question, no matter how esoteric the subject.

All of that stuff is why to this day I’m still not entirely comfortable watching a game from the stands rather than the press box.   It’s feels … unnatural.  I think in the course of about sixteen years I saw somewhere around 200 high school football games.  Only four of those were watched from the stands.  It changes your point of view for better or worse, it’s unavoidable.

Then, finally, somewhere just after the start of the new millennium I took a little break from it all.  I was, I think, simply exhausted with it and by it.   Burned out on it maybe.   Too many hundred mile drives home through the dark and the fog.    Too many nights with technical difficulties, too many time where the directions to the stadium (or my dismal sense of direction) had a wrong turn.  I always said I’d know that it was time to stop when it wasn’t fun anymore, when I didn’t look forward to it.  That time came.  Once I realized that I was actively dreading the approach of fall and spending entire weeks with a growing sense of dread that Friday night was coming (for what at that point was strictly a very part-time job), I had to put some distance between me and it.

It wasn’t entirely cold turkey mind you.  By now the power of the internet was starting to be unleashed.  I could still tell you who was leading the vast majority of the regions across all the state’s classifications at any given moment from week zero to the end of the season.   I still knew what was a mild upset versus a shocker versus an entirely predictable outcome.    I even went to a few games a year, never really comfortable enough to just sit & watch like a normal person but I’ve had plenty of practice in all sorts of situations finding somewhere to observe things with just my own thoughts to keep me company so it was manageable.

Just a few years ago I got sucked back in for a while.   Working with those new-fangled webcasts at my son’s school.  A mixed bag of experiences, from the sublime to the ridiculous and frankly that’s probably enough said about that.  But for better or worse, once again I knew where I was going to be on Friday night for several months each year.

And when that relationship ended I returned to the stands for a year or so, maybe a little more comfortably this time.   I actually learned to allow myself to go get a coke and a hot dog even if it meant I might miss a play or two.  I could turn around and have a brief conversation about something not-football without feeling guilty if I didn’t see exactly who made (or missed) a block for one play.    But I also had at least 1-2 sources for scores elsewhere as handy as the cell service would allow.  I still knew not only who “we” played next week but also who our opponent would play next week and who our next opponent was playing tonight (and more often than not the score of their game in progress throughout).  Old habits die hard.

None of the kids on the field for the past 5 or 6 years has been my own.  But I’ve shed a few tears for them after both wins and losses.   You can be so proud and happy for them when they achieve something special, you hurt for them when they come up short of their hopes and dreams.  They become “my kids” just like they do for countless other fans.

I’ve seen three (or fewer) yards and a cloud of dust give way to 5-wide no huddle.  I’ve seen 170 pounds centers morph into offensive lines where the smallest starter weighs 305.  I’ve seen salt tablets and water-is-for-weaklings become mandatory lightning detectors and on the spot concussion testing.  I’ve seen linebackers and fullbacks as the typical placekicker become a trio or quarter of specialists for particular situations.  I’ve seen four classifications (from B to AAA) become six, I’ve seen one governing body & organization become at least three, more if you count 7-man variations and homeschool oriented groups.

I’ve stolen quietly onto the field after a few games over the past few years, just listening and watching.  The sights, sounds and smells of Friday nights are one of the few things that haven’t really changed much since I was a very little boy.  Considering everything that has changed in those decades, that’s rather comforting to me.

About two thousand words ago I said that I’d learned something this weekend.

It wasn’t exactly an epiphany, it was something that I definitely already knew on some level.  I suppose what really happened is that I more clearly understand the distinction I’m going to make.

I’m a fan of the game, of High School Football.  With capital letters.  I have my favorite teams like everybody else — got a few absolute least favorites too – but when you get right down to the very brass tacks of it all, it’s The Game that I really truly enjoy most, that I’m a fan of.  Not the games (lower case).   It’s the entirety of it all, from week zero kickoff to the final whistle of the final championship game, even if those two teams are from towns I’ve never visited and would need to stop three times for directions to find.

It’s about players from 40 years ago every bit as much as the ones four days ago.  It’s about 1972 as much as 2nd-and-2.  It’s about everything that came before and it’s about everything that will follow.

For better or for worse — and it’s been suggested to me that perhaps it might just be for worse — that’s what I love.  That’s what I’ve had a nearly lifelong relationship with.  The good and the bad.  The opinions, the memories, the rivalries, the experiences.  I’ve called three places home at different points in my life, not even counting the ones I broadcast for I’ve had at least three teams that were legitimately “my team” over that span, teams with some tangible connection beyond mere geography … but ultimately it’s The Game rather than the teams that have been the constant.  That’s what I have the most enduring relationship with.

And if I can’t have that for whatever reason, embrace it fully and honestly and without reservation, I’m not sure I could ever be satisfied by just bits and pieces.


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