Monday, January 10, 2011

In A Town Where Football is King, High School Athletes Take Center Stage

Growing up in California’s central valley, football was the talk of the town. However, instead of being a year-round phenomenon, it was front and center for only a few months during the year

Fresno State gets its share of fans from all over California, mainly because it’s the only Division One football team between Los Angeles and San Jose. So it stands to reason that fans from Bakersfield, Visalia, Tulare, Madera, and other small towns around Fresno would flock to Bulldog Stadium, clad in red to root on their favorite college football team.

But when I was in high school, our Friday night football games weren’t exactly the first thing on my list of things to do when the school day was over. In fact, it was probably towards the bottom of my list just above hitting my finger with a hammer. High school football just wasn’t something I was interested in watching.

That thought process stayed with me even after moving to Dallas, Texas two years ago. However, I quickly figured out that high school football here wasn’t just something to go watch on Friday night. It was THE thing to do.

If you travel to a certain small town a few hundred miles southwest of Dallas/Fort Worth you might find a town called Odessa. There you’ll find a high school that was famous for its football even before the movie “Friday Night Lights” was ever a thought in the minds of the director.

That school is Permian High School. Football for them, as well as the town, is king in every sense of the word.

Going to a high school game is still something I haven’t experienced and I will admit I’ve given friends a hard time for even asking me to go. But make no mistake about it, this is not just kids playing the game in front of friends and family, this is so much bigger.

Those that have been around high school football in any capacity will tell you that on Friday night, the game shuts down many small towns. Not just a couple of businesses, but every single one of them. They’ll even put signs in their doors that say “gone to the game.” That’s how big high school football is to them.

In north Texas, the Dallas Cowboys get most of the attention around sports talk radio. The hosts will talk at length about Jerry Jones, Jason Garrett, Tony Romo and whatever else comes up that they feel their listeners want to hear or what will make them respond.

But two days before the Cowboys take the field on Sunday afternoon, high school football takes center stage. The players walk around campus in their jerseys, the cheerleaders in their uniforms, and banners are painted in anticipation of the night to come.

A few hours prior to the game, the lights are turned on, the visiting teams’ buses pull up in the parking lot, and fans slowly start to trickle into the stadium. You can already feel the atmosphere beginning to build to a frenzy. It’s not there yet but it will be by kickoff.

For the only two NFL teams in the entire state of Texas, a win comes at a dime a dozen. For these high school football players, a win is everything. A win gets them to the next step. A win after that gets them to the state playoffs and win after that? Well, a win after that would allow them to bring the biggest prize in their sport back to their high school and the title of “folk hero.”
We can talk all day about how these are just kids playing the game of football. I’ve said that too many times to count since I moved here to Texas. But the game of football means so much more to towns across the Lone Star state.

To these athletes it’s not only a chance to play the game they love and the game they grew up watching and love, but it’s a chance to make a better life for themselves as well as their family. It’s a chance to play at the next level of the game and get their education at no cost to them.

This isn’t one of those articles that make you open your eyes and have a new found respect for high school football. But the next time you have a chance, go see what these kids can do and see how much their play means to their home towns. Maybe then, you’ll have an idea of how important football is in Texas.

I know I’ll be in line next fall to get my first taste of those Friday Night Lights.

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