The fans of the South Eastern Conference take their college football very seriously. Year in and year out they lead the country, dominating overall attendance records. In 1999, 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004 the conference drew more than 5.5 million fans at its home games; a national record for a conference. Football Fanatics, you bet, and they wear the badge proudly.
I on the other hand reside at the other end of this spectrum. My parents were not sports people and it simply was not part of our family structure. I would half-heartedly follow our local sports teams but only if it was convenient. If the game was on and I happened to be sitting in front of the television then great, or if there was a radio handy I might tune in. Never in my wildest dreams could I have envisioned the journey on which I would embark with my own child.
Like most baby-boom-era parents my wife Stacy and I were determined to expose our children to everything we could from sports to music to dance to theatre to whatever. Following the generational trend, we wanted to afford our kids those things that we simply did not have available to us as children. It is amazing how much has changed over the course of only a few decades. What really accentuated this point was one Christmas when Santa brought a Game-Boy for Willy, my eldest of three; while he was sitting there on the floor playing Ninja Turtles he looked up at me and asked if I played Game-Boy when I was little? That simple, innocent question tells the whole tale. Game-Boy – PS2 – Xbox 360 – Wii, heck, all I had access to was Pong which came onto the scene when I was about eleven years old; my cousin had one so the only time I was able to play it was when I went to visit him. I try to explain to my children that the first time I had access to a computer was in college. We had to sign up for computer time which often was in the wee hours of the morning. They look at me, while texting a message to their friend, as if I am speaking a foreign language. Even our vocabulary has changed; is texting a proper word?
Growing up in the inner city during the late sixties – early seventies the only organized sporting activities available to me were baseball, basketball and football. Tennis and golf were primarily for those belonging to a country club, hockey and soccer simply did not exist and opportunities for swimming, track, wrestling and volleyball were not available until high school. Today children have instant access to the world and exposure to almost anything; baseball, soccer, tennis, basketball, swimming, scouting, piano, you name it. I told my children early on that they could participate in anything except football and boxing. My wife and I were determined that our children participate in something; what they chose was for the most part up to them. The risk of chronic and even severe injury from football is just too high and boxing is just plain lunacy. Had Extreme Fighting existing during that time it would have been prohibited as well. Everything else was fair game.
Jump ahead about ten years. Alex, my middle child, came home from school one day and told me that he had joined the football team, catching me off-guard and momentarily speechless. He knew the rules, football was off limits. ‘Really, what position?’ I asked. I’m going to kick, he explained, assuring me that it is the safest position on the roster; kickers never get hurt. I then asked how this came about. Alex’s gym class was outside on the football field where he and a few of his buddies, who were already on the team, were goofing around kicking field goals. As it turns out Alex was popping them through the uprights, with ease, from thirty five yards out so his buddies suggested he try out for the team; the coach obviously liked what he saw and Alex became the starting varsity kicker his senior year.
WE’RE FOOTBALL PEOPLE NOW
The most ironic part of this journey is that prior to Alex joining the football team I had never attended a high school football game as an adult and attended only a handful as a student. Perhaps if I had friends on the football team when I was in high school or dated a cheerleader the Friday night games would have drawn my interest.
For all practical purposes high school football was a new experience for me so naturally I had no idea what to expect. I figured that my family and I would attend the games, watch our son kick a few balls and enjoy an evening out. My wife on the other hand jumped in with both feet and did not look back. From the very first game Stacy looked and acted like a veteran football mom. She wore the traditional red, white and black scarf displaying the school colors along with the big button proudly pinned to her chest showing off a photograph of her son in his football uniform. Number fifteen, that’s MY child. The photo-button is the official badge of honor for all of the mothers with children who are members of the team, the various cheerleading squads and the marching band. It truly is a beautiful sight to look into the stands and see a wall of moms sporting big photo-buttons accented with red, white and black scarves. Simply put, football is addictive. There is so much emotional purity involved at this level that you cannot help but get caught up in all the excitement. I think the reason for this is that the fans are more vested than at the college or professional level; the high school setting is much more intimate. Parents are obviously going to cheer for their children regardless of level or venue, but the true difference rests with the kids in the stands. They are rooting for friends that they grew up with, friends whose birthday parties they attended and sofas they slept on. These are the same kids who were lab partners in science class and were teammates on the recreational soccer team. The kids on the field and the kids in the stands have literally known each other all their lives. This depth of connection on such a wide scale simply cannot occur at the college or professional level. The kids being raised within the same community is what makes high school sports so special and unique.
From the time my children reached middle school my opening line when I got home would be the same; “How was school, do you have any homework?” Now though, now that we’re football people there is an added wrinkle. When I speak to Alex it is, “How was school, do you have any homework, how did you kick today?” Like I can advise him if he proclaims that he did not kick well in practice? The only piece of advice I would be able to give that made any sense at all would be to keep your eye on the ball; how profound and utterly obvious. But it was important for me to get a progress report. I wanted to be involved; I needed to be involved, for we’re football people now.
My parents lived ten to fifteen minutes from us yet, when our children were little it would take us forty five minutes to get everyone situated for a ten minute ride. Attending our son’s football games resulted in a similar ordeal. We graduated from a checklist of formula, diapers, toys, snacks, juice bottles and extra clothes to stadium chairs, blankets, gloves, hats, umbrella and directions. The one constant was that someone always had to use the restroom at the last minute just as we were ready to walk out the door. A few things in life transcend gender – religion – geography – nationality – economic status – education and language; having a family member run to the bathroom just as you are ready to leave the house can be deemed a universal truth.
THE PORK PIE HAT
When my children were old enough to attend school I went out and purchased a black leather Pork Pie hat which I would dutifully wear to all of their outdoor events. Initially, I wanted to wear a Dr. Seuss hat but my wife said I looked silly; my kids thought it was funny. The Pork Pie is a cool looking hat which I still wear to this day. The main reason I bought it was so my children could easily find me in a crowd. If we ever got separated, just look for the odd looking hat. In a sea of baseball caps my Pork Pie hat stuck out like a sore thumb. It worked well and my children got used to the idea. As they grew older and started playing organized sports they would use the hat to easily find me in the stands. Alex tells me he still looks for the hat while standing on the sideline. Old habits die hard.
FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS
Being a disciple of the ‘Just in Time’ theory the parking lot is already packed as we approach the stadium, so once again I am relegated to waiting in line to drop off my family at the front entrance then park the car. Most nights, the nearest parking spot is a quarter of a mile away which is not a problem unless it is 30 degrees and windy or pouring rain. Unfortunately, I got to experience both. As I make my way to the field I pass a used car lot full of automobiles neatly arranged on the grass between the ‘No Parking on Grass’ signs. The scope of influence the football program has on local law enforcement is impressive. I purchase my ticket and call my wife to find out where she is sitting. Thank heaven for cell phones, without them I may not find her until halftime when the stampede occurs to line up for pretzels, hot dogs and the all important restroom.
A high school football game is a roller coaster of emotion and excitement from waiting for the team to run onto the field through the tunnel of cheerleaders, crashing through the home made banner – to the halftime show featuring both high school marching bands – to the end of the game when the entire football team runs over to the stands in front of the marching band to pay homage to one another as the band plays the school’s fight song. I have come to realize that this spectacle simply has to be experienced first hand to be appreciated and understood. The electricity and energy of a live high school game is invigorating. Boys without shirts, chests painted all screaming at their counterparts across the field – the opposing bands dueling back and forth, these kids were having the time of their lives and it was easy to get caught up in their drama. It made me wonder what I had missed when I was in high school; perhaps Alex, by being a part of the football team is affording me the opportunities I missed out on when I was a student? Maybe it is better this way, as an adult I appreciate it more.
A dominating high school team brings a celebrity status not only to the players but their parents as well. All of a sudden people I had known only in passing were stopping to partake in detailed conversation with me; at the gas station, the grocery store, and coffee house. Alex is really kicking well, have any colleges approached him yet? Wow, Alex is having a great season I didn’t know he could kick like that. Truth be told, I didn’t know it either? He must have inherited it from his mother. It is a great feeling being the parent of an athlete. You cannot help but stick out your chest with pride when you hear others in the stands cheering on your son and yelling his name. It turned out to be an experience I never could have anticipated. I savored every minute. In addition I had the good fortune by sheer happenstance, of experiencing events a-typical to a normal football season like watching Alex set a new school record by booming a 48 yard field goal with one second left in the half to helping his team win a State Championship posting a flawless 16-0 record; moments like these are indeed rare.
Alex told me the highlight of the season was playing the conference championship game at Heinz Field, home of the Pittsburgh Steelers. I cannot imagine how cool it is to play in a professional football stadium, I can tell you though as a parent of one of the players, it is an awesome experience to watch. To sit in the stands and watch your son on that field, kicking up the same dirt as Hines Ward and booming field goals through the same uprights as Jeff Reed is surreal. Ticket to the game – $10, soft pretzel with mustard – $4.50, hot dog and drink – $7.50, watching Alex, larger than life on the Jumbo-Tron, running off the field pumping his fist after burying a field goal – priceless.
As impressive as watching Alex play at Heinz Field was, the highlight for me came several months later at the Pennsylvania East-West All Star Game. When I saw Alex run out of the tunnel onto the field my jaw literally dropped. I was stunned, almost paralyzed from the sharp chill piercing through my body; I was covered with goose bumps. There it was, as plain as day sprawled across the back of my son’s shoulders; ROMANIAS. His name, my name was on the back of his jersey. I was overwhelmed; I never saw my name on the back of a jersey before yet there it was staring at me, taunting me, seducing me. Seeing my name on the back of that jersey was a profound experience. It caught me completely off guard; it was phenomenal. Several times during the course of the game I would lean over to remind my wife just how cool it was to see my name on the back of that jersey.
WHAT A RIDE
Who could have imagined that kicking field goals in gym class for fun would have resulted in such a magical journey? Prior to this season the last high school football game I attended was in 1978 when I was a junior. Now, we’re football people.
Next stop, college; I guess Stacy will have to get another big photo-button and a new scarf while I dust off the Pork Pie hat. Thanks for the ride son!