I peaked in junior high, the 2003 Russellville Whirlwind football season to be exact.
Let me explain: When I entered 7th grade, all the boys I’d been playing peewee football with since we could barely buckle our helmets were suddenly split into two teams for our first season of school-organized ball.
The lines were drawn, literally, and the borders worked similarly to how they split up school zones. In some ways, it was like we were back in elementary school, back on the playground. My Dwight Elementary boys against your Sequoyah Elementary boys. It was competition at its most raw.
When we squared off for the first time in 7th grade, my East Side squad prevailed. In 8th grade, the West Side Whirlwinds came away with the win. Thus the stage was set for the 9th-grade game, our final year of junior high, a game that remains forever etched in my memory.
Let me pause here and explain how big this game really was. We went to the same school. Only the basketball gym separated our locker rooms. We were in the same classes. We went to the same birthday parties. We were friends, at least until that final game of the 2003 season.
I can remember, years later, postgame interviews in college, even once overseas in Sweden, after we’d won the equivalent of the “Euro-League Super Bowl.” After those contests, reporters would always ask if I’d just played the biggest game of my career. I’d just smile and shake my head. Nothing could top the memories of that 9th grade East-West game.
It’s funny, though, how time works. I’ve forgotten most of the details. I can’t remember the score. I can’t remember what our coaches said at halftime, or if I passed for any touchdowns. All I remember are the guys.
Ferriss and Drew and Brandon and Ryan and Hunt and Lamonte and Kory and Dustin and Marcus and Junior and Dane and Matt and Colt, and other guys whose names I’ve forgotten, but I know if I saw them they’d remember this game.
The East Side won, thank goodness, and I remember going back to school the next day, walking tall in the halls, chest out, proud as ever. I remember some of the West Side guys not showing up. I can’t blame them. Bragging rights had been claimed.
But what I remember most was what came next. How we all moved on after ninth grade and out of those separated locker rooms. How, in a year’s time, we were all just wide-eyed sophomores, the bottom of the food chain, sticking together in the back row of our new, high school locker room.
There’s a lesson in this memory, a lesson for all of us: The wins and losses come and go, but the memories remain.
And that’s powerful in today’s culture where a win-at-all-costs mentality prevails. A few weeks ago Arkansas’s beloved Razorbacks were booed in their own stadium. Imagine that, college kids — student-athletes — being booed by grown men and women. That just doesn’t seem right.
As big as that 9th grade East-West game was — and it will forever go down in my memory as “The Greatest Game Ever” — it was just a game. Now, over fifteen years later, I can’t even remember the score.
Remember that lesson the next time the Hogs fumble on the goal line, or you’re in the stands at your son’s peewee game, or cheering on the local high school team. Long after the scoreboard goes dark, time will keep ticking. Those boys will grow up into men, with wives and kids of their own, and they’ll forget the scores, the wins and losses, but they’ll always remember the way the game made them feel, the goofy antics in the locker room, the silly jokes and the hard times only teammates share.
In the end, football is just a game, an awesome game, maybe even the greatest game ever, but may we never forget: games are meant to be fun.
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