Friday, November 12, 2010

america's pastime

if you've spent any time watching sports in the last fifteen years, then you know one thing is certain. baseball is no longer america's pastime. i guess people got tired of watching wwe stars jack homers instead of actual baseball players. sure it's been around longer than basketball and football, and there are few things more american than going to the ballpark on a summer afternoon, enjoying a hot dog and some peanuts, but now football is king.

despite the love/hate relationship between the press and brett favre and the unending saga that is the impropriety of heisman trophy winners/candidates, football reigns supreme across america - from the plains of kansas where they still play 8-on-8 to the deep south where football fans are just soccer hooligans with a different accent and from texas's friday night lights to the little schools all over the map who just want to play the game. sure maryland's got it's crabcakes and lacrosse (sorry carson elrod) and southern california digs the beach volleyball (see what i did there?), but they can't hold a candle to the overwhelming hold football has on america... especially small town america.

how can you not love a sport where something like this takes place:

contrary to the overwhelming similarity of most towns in america these days, every town doesn't have a walmart or a target or even an institution of higher learning. we don't all live in city x, but what every town in america (and if not town, county or parish) does have is a high school. and that high school serves as the locus point for much of life in rural communities. as i've said before most rural communities are made of folks whose families have been there literally since they first walked up a decided to stake their claim there. there's a deep investment in the community and all it offers.

furthermore, the alliance for excellent education says that rural high school graduates are half as likely to complete a post-secondary degree than others. so while college grads will hoot and holler for their team on saturdays, those who ended their schooling a little earlier turn their attention to fall friday nights.

on those friday nights across america, stadiums are filled with parents supporting their kids, younger children dreaming of one day being the one to catch the pass that wins the big game, and a lot of teenagers texting one another while they pretend to watch the game they paid 5 bucks to see. the wins and losses are tallied and often used as a barometer for the health and well-being of the community. apparently to some, the success of a group of 15-18 year olds playing a game can be a determining factor in how one community perceives itself. that's almost as crazy as thinking that a group of 435 adults of various persuasions can have lucid discussions and make policy decisions.

and from saturday to thursday the highlights are recounted not just from the last game, but from games years ago when something similar happened (only better and in spite of more difficult circumstances).

there are also lots of uncle rico's out there claiming that they'd have won state if their coach had just played them, and blaming him that they're now selling tupperware and breast enhancements instead of playing in the nfl.

despite the exaggerated expectations put on high school football and the overblown inferences of success or failure, high school football really is a beautiful thing when seen in person. a few weeks ago we went to a local school's homecoming game. unbelievable.

there was a sea of people in the stands and around the field. the stands were packed with parents, alumni, children, students, everybody. it's safe to assume that the entire county was in attendance for at least part of the game. there was an alumni dance team, an alumni band, and enough stories going around about how "back in my day..." to fill a book. the lights on the field were just powerful enough so the kids could play at night, but dim enough to give the view that vhs feel, nostalgic and a little out of focus. it was truly a community event like nothing i've seen before.

i also heard that another school in the area, if their team won the state title, school would be canceled for a couple of days. really? i thought those privileges were left for the men of troy, free shoes u, and the u itself. i guess not.

elizabeth hates football, but there's something about high school football - knowing the kids who play on the team, in the band, or on the cheerleading and dance teams, having relationships with them, and wanting them to succeed - that gets her. it's that sense of community, that sense that we know each other and see each other around that appeals to her, i think, and i have to agree.

do i wish this was the case? do i wish sports were the common rallying point for small communities? despite my love of sports, no. and there are some who agree with this notion and are doing something to shift the rallying point to something a little more constructive. i sincerely hope they can.

for now, all i know is that you can walk into just about any small, rural town in america, ask about the high school football team(s), have a conversation that goes on for hours, and perhaps even leave with a few new friends. maybe one day the conversation will revolve around something else, but until then rural communities will continue to talk about sweeps, options, and the occasional flea flicker executed by a group of teenagers. it's true wherever you go.

photos and video from here, here, and here.

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