Finding inspiration under the Friday night lights

Kinda familiar, but not quite.
Kinda familiar, but not quite.

You guys probably aren’t going to believe this, but it’s snowing again. The reprieve is over, and winter is back in central Maine. Hooray.

Anyway, it’s Sunday, and around these parts that means one thing: football. Since I don’t have a real NFL allegiance (or cable TV to watch games), I’ve taken on a little side gig bartending on Sunday afternoons to get myself out of the house in the colder months,

So while I’m standing on the other side of the bar (for once), here’s the results of my other job – my latest column.

It’s about high school football, and rivalries, and school spirit, and comparisons to home (duh). Enjoy!

The game might be different, but school spirit’s the same

Attending Cony High School football’s rivalry game against Gardiner Area High School was a look into a world Adrian Crawford had never known, but wasn’t so different from home.

IMG_8952Back in June it dawned upon me that, despite having lived in Augusta for almost seven months at that point, there were a whole lot of places (well, eating and drinking establishments) I hadn’t tried, and landmarks I was still yet to visit, so I made a list. I’m always more productive when I’ve got items to cross off a list.

Truth be told, it’s been slow going. But two Friday nights ago, I sneaked out of the office for a couple of hours and made the short trip south to Gardiner to lighten my to-do list by one point: catch a Cony High School football game.

I mentioned in this space a few months ago that I’m a fan of H.G. Bissinger’s book “Friday Night Lights,” as well as the subsequent movie and TV show, and one of the first things that struck me upon arriving in this part of the world were the signs at businesses on Western Avenue in Augusta rooting for the newly crowned state champion Rams.

So when the sports desk began reporting on football practice again, I knew it was only a matter of time before I’d be wheeling and dealing my way out of part of my Friday night shift so I could see it for myself in person. The schedule raced by and, before I knew it, the final week of the regular season was upon us. And what better way to experience it for the first time here than on Rivalry Week?

When I arrived at Hoch Field shortly before kick-off, I was less than prepared. Thankfully I’d brought a jacket and worn waterproof boots, but I’d neglected to bring a notebook. I figured I’d just let myself take it all in and see what I could come up with when deadline approached. Unfortunately, as I sat down to start writing this, I had one of those “stare at the blank screen and blinking cursor” hours.

But what kept going through my mind was the Gardiner brass band, and the musical relief it provided between plays and during time-outs, keeping the home crowd lively even in the face of what was a very one-sided affair, and not in the Tigers’ favor.

It was almost a sensory overload as I tried to take in everything going on around me. I’ve watched enough football to be familiar with the general flow of the game and how it works, but the nuances still escape me somewhat.

Watching from field level – without TV analysis, instant replay and super slo-mo, mind you – left me feeling a little out to sea. In the background the band played on, and Cony’s cheerleaders braved the chilly conditions to keep the visitors’ bleachers engaged. Although with Mitchell Caron and Reid Shostak carving up the Tigers’ defensive line through the air and on the ground, time and again, the Rams faithful hardly needed any cheering up.

Meanwhile, dozens of kids, probably as young as 5 or 6, raced along the sideline fence, many wearing sweaters designed like Cony jerseys and sporting numbers and names on the back. It wasn’t just the kids either: parents were decked out just as much.

And that was the big contrast for me. I attended a pretty big public high school, and played cricket and basketball for my school. We don’t play the American form of football, and I don’t think my school had rugby league or rugby union programs, but if we did, it certainly didn’t generate this much buzz, or atmosphere, or fanfare. Suffice it to say, there weren’t any younger brothers or sisters running around in Ferny Grove State High School replica jerseys.

Of course, that’s just my particular experience. My younger sister is a math teacher at an all-boys private school with a huge rugby program, and she described the build-up to big clashes, as well as game days themselves, to be very similar.

“During a home game, the tunnel [of student supporters] to get the first XV [varsity team] onto the rugby field is about 70m long. It’s pretty chilling to watch them chant while they run on,” she told me via email this week.

“I never really jumped on board that kind of fraternity thing, but you do get a sense of pride about you when you are standing there watching the boys support each other like that. It’s all student-lead, the tunnel, war cries … no teacher leads any of it. Student leaders take great pride in doing it.”

And to my surprise, events like pep rallies and homecoming all exist in one form or another back home as well.

“[The seniors] gather them all … and practice war cries. Even if 40 percent of the kids don’t make an effort, the noise is pretty frightening. I’ve never experienced true war cries until I came here,” my sister continued. “Even at [intramural] carnivals, they scream themselves hoarse. They often link arms over shoulders and bend forward and back, [and] when the whole school is doing it on bleachers at the rugby, it’s pretty effective.”

As I watched Cony quarterback Caron speak to his teammates in the huddle, I couldn’t even begin to fathom what he was telling them. Football play-calling is an entirely foreign language to me, and I silently marveled at the idea that while I grew up speaking “cricket,” these young men had probably lived and breathed football since they were in diapers.

But even though I felt like I was peering through a window into an adolescent ritual I’d never known for myself, maybe high school sports and spirit here and in Australia aren’t so different after all.

(And good luck to Cony High in its state title defense. Go Rams!)

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