Written in 2012- Republished here for our NWPR readers and teh discussion of what is happening now.
It’s late September and it’s another glorious night in the Pacific Northwest. I have mixed feelings about being back in town after so many years but it was time for me to come back. The wheat harvest is done and that means Fall and that means Football.
So many memories here in Osbourne, some great and some tragic but here I am.
After driving around a bit and running the gut, which seemed oddly dead, I decided to head down to the High school where my boy played a few years back.
What has it been 10 years since they finished that 10-2 season loosing in the Quarter Finals?
Man, that was a great run for a bunch of kids no one expected much from.
I coached a little youth ball and put in the long hours to make the difference for my kid Jack and his pals and those years leading up to his Senior year are the best years I can remember.
Back when the family was still together.
Jack is off now on a 2nd tour of duty in the Middle East for the Army. Something his own life had mapped out for him no matter how I tried to convince him otherwise. I understood why he left. Hell he had to.
As I drove slowly down Anderson Street to the edge of town I see those lights out there, blasting rays through the early evening dust and mist churned up by the tractors. A more than intense feeling of melancholy begins to wash over me because it has been a long time since I have seen Jack or heard his voice.
I realize more than ever now I'm really missing that big kid that raided our fridge or just yelled “Feed Me” and dumped dirty football gear on the floor near the laundry room when he had the strength. On most days Jenny, who was the best football Mom a kid could ever have, went and picked it up off the floor. She'd whip those pads out and toss the mess in the washer while trying to quickly heat some food and ask him how his day was. Jack had to eat and hit the books and then try and sleep so the pattern could be repeated over and over. Day after day...Night after night.
My life began here in Osbourne and I came back after College and married Jenny who was with me during our days on the gridiron, for sure the best days we ever had.
"The Griddle" we used to call it because in Osbourne the heat index was off the charts and with no shade that 100-yard hell was just brutal in August and September. No rain in sight unless we got hit by a thunder-head which only made it hotter and muggy. It was truly paradise.Like so many football parents we wanted our son to walk in our footsteps and have those same awesome memories. For the most part that had worked and Jack had a hell of a run with his boys. He didn't get the girl like I did, but loosing her to Cancer shortly after his Senior year ended sort of changed his view and fueled his need to leave after he graduated I think. That was more than we both could handle so
Like so many football parents we wanted our son to walk in our footsteps and have those same awesome memories. For the most part that had worked and Jack had a hell of a run with his boys. He didn't get the girl like I did, but loosing her to Cancer shortly after his Senior year ended sort of changed his view and fueled his need to leave after he graduated I think.
That was more than we both could handle. He left. I left. We both said we would never return. And yet here I was a decade later bringing flowers to my girl who I promised I would visit.
Going back there to see Coach Smith, and anyone else I might remember was going to seem odd because I have not been back to Panther Stadium since that final down. Somehow without Jack, it just did not seem right to go alone.
But tonight I wanted to go back... no, I had to go back.
My work has had me over seas for almost 10 years and too many things have changed since I left. Everything seemed different somehow now. Going back to Osburne where so much had happened might be a way to reconnect to something lost; something I needed now more than ever.
Yes, Friday Night’s would never change. She was gone and he was away but the Kids, the Crowd, the boosters making those burnt burgers with just a touch of melted cheese would be there. So would the good memories.
It was just what I need to feel normal again. To feel back at home. and to recharge my soul.
I figured I'd go in a little late. Lay low and sort of mingle in the crowd and maybe sit in the end zone; a spot where a lot of the parents of the alumni used to sit when Jack was playing.
Maybe that would be best anyway because when the Panthers are playing it’s a crowded house. And tonight is the same night every year they have homecoming and the big Rivalry game against Sexton; a game no true Panther would miss.
I can still remember the day…Friday, September 28th like it was yesterday. That was the game Jack had finally realized he was big enough to take on a double team and win.
He had sacked the QB in the waning moments of that one to secure the win. A moment we got to share with him and the crowd of hundreds of mobbing fans that had rushed the field. I never forget the day or the fact that they play that game every year in a tradition as old as the town and the game itself.
"THAT WAS FOR THE SENIORS BABY!!!!," he screamed with his massive lungs, chest heaving against the night skies, as the earth enveloped them all on a field of chaos.
Tonight was a 7:30 kick off and at 7:48 I rolled up. The first thing I noticed was that there is plenty of parking. Did I mess up the Schedule? No, the lights are on and there are players on the field. So I pull up and take a prime spot just off the end of the field in the North parking lot.
Getting out of the car I noticed the gate is open and there is no one charging for tickets.
What the hell?
I moved onto the track and head to the end zone. Looking around I began to wonder if this was a JV game?
No. Those guys are too big.
As I approached the bleachers there are 5 or 6 people in the 6 rows that span the end zone. Only a couple hundred people in the whole place. And what are these colors? Red and Blue? Green and Black? Well, the Panthers always wore White and Gold. And Sexton was known for a Crimson and Silver. Something is wrong.
Something is very wrong.
“Did the Panthers change their Jerseys? I don’t recognize them out there,” I ask the old-timer sitting to my right who is staring blankly onto the field.
“Panthers? Oh no, this is the Marauders and the Venom. Wait... Panthers? Panther football? No sir they got rid of the team about 3 or 4 years ago,” he replied with a stern glare. ”Did you not hear?”
“Hear what? Wait.... got rid of the team? What the hell do you mean? Who are these teams? What towns are they from,” I respond in disbelief-belief and sudden anger feeling like I have stepped through a vortex to another Osbourne in another dimension or time.
“Well, you see things got too expensive and risky for schools I guess. It started about 7 or 8 years ago when a young man was killed on the field from a vicious hit to the head. That led to a real mess and a legal case. Too bad too because he was a great kid and the jury found the school district liable as his gear was old and not maintained and he was playing hurt they said. They canceled football after that and several schools soon followed them. Especially in the other small towns,” he offered with a softness to his voice. “It was a real tragedy.”
“I have been away. I did not keep up or hear about this,” I replied hollowly my voice barely audible.
He continued, “And then there were AAU Club Teams taking all the talent off to a Private league. That is when it all went down hill for the local schools,” he replied. "Once the top talent was gone it was hard to compete and kids started getting beat up. Insurance and Liability and these new leagues….well the Board of Education shut it all down.”
Now I just felt like a chump who was the last to know. Was this real? Could this really be happening?
Pause. Think. Gotta reconnect these missing dots.
“What happened to Coach Smith and all the Coaches that were here,” I ask. "And who runs this League now?”
“Coach Smith retired and then his health went down hill. I think he might be hanging on but I have not seen him here since the shut the team down. He fought it like hell and they tried to get him to get on board with this new AAU League but he did not want to. Said he hated the idea,” said the old-timer. "The rest of the guys left. So any of our kids from here that want to play have to go over to Derry and try out. The team is based out of there for our Region. And some of the boys drive 45 miles to get there every day. It costs so much money I heard most of the poor kids can't afford it. Not unless they are really good. Then the team has “sponsors” for those kids. But most of our kids were cut. You might find two or three of them out there tonight but that is about all.”
Shocked I get up to leave ....my blood is boiling. I can not believe that this has happened. This is terrible and the world is crumbling around my feet now on a night I need to have Friday Night be my lifeline.
“So why are we letting them use our fields?"
“It is in the geographic center between the home city these two teams are based out of and we need the revenue. Once the football program shut down the stadium started to fall apart. So they pay a decent amount to use the place. In fact, they play year round and have three Elite teams in each program which is run as a Corporation. They really sell the kids and parents on the fact they can get them a scholarship or some damn thing,” he concluded. "It's all a load of crap. I have not seen that to be the case from what I have read. There are some good kids out there. But it will never be the way it was.”
“Year around? Good lord my boy Jack was 6 months a year and took a beating. This is just bad. Really really sad,” I offer my heart now in my heels.
Silence for a bit. The wind whips up bringing a breeze across the field and I realize there are not even any smells left that remind me of the way it was. No girls like Jenny. No warriors like Jack.
A touchdown on the field brings a subtle clap- no band or cheer squad.
Just empty souls and overzealous parents screaming for their self-anointed little stars.
I look to the lights for answers. Even they have lost their color and warm glow and are a stark blue pale color like some artificial world created by salesmen and liars preying on the souls those who came before.
Pause. Then a question comes to me.
Turning back to the old man I say, "So tell me old-timer. Why are you here?”
“Me? Well, anymore it’s the only game in town. And I have a lot of memories here. I played here you see in ’50 and ’51 before I went off to Korea. So I watch. That’s about all. It’s hard to cheer much for a bunch of strangers from 15 different schools. When I see them I can still see my team mates and me out there. I can see our coach and remember the way it was. I'd like to shake these people and tell them what I know but don't see the point.”
“Yes, I bet. I don’t know how you can even sit here,” I add getting up. ”I know I can’t anymore”
I rise and without a word turn to walk away forever. Then his voice shot out strong and clear.
"Hey, Son! You wanna know how I can stay?”
Wheeling around I ask him, “How?”
“Panther Pride,” he said pulling open his Coat revealing his original White and Gold Panther Jersey.
And there on the chest right above the number 7 was a Patch.
“1951 State Champions”
Leaving we lock eyes for a final moment.
Silence. A Pause.
“Panther Pride,” I replied holding out my fist exposing my Panther Pride Ring.
With that, I return to the car and leave at high-speed. This town I now know will never ever be the same.
Nothing about this game will ever be the same.
Driving off I think of Jenny and of Jack as a tears begin to stream down my face.
Editors Note: This is a fictional story told from my viewpoint that I wrote in 2012 having studied the game, the pressures facing the game, and what is already beginning to happen in America. I read a story today out of Idaho and remembered I wrote this 2 seasons ago.
High School Football is in trouble. And while so many of us are immersed in our own kids lives these changes are already happening.
Join us this year for our continued discussion on the End of High School football, Friday Nights, and let's see if we can do anything to stop it.