When Pat Brothwell moved out of northeastern Pennsylvania, he realized that Friday Night Lights is real.
Whenever I tell people I went to a small high school I don’t think they quite understand the scope of what I’m getting at. The Forest City Regional class of 2004 had 46 members. It was a public school and I was in the same building from K-12. I’ve known the majority of my friends since we were in early elementary school.
And we had no football team.
This last revelation is often met with slack jawed amazement at my current place of employment where football not only rules the school, but the town as well.
Did you ever notice how high school students in television or movies literally dress to fit into their various cliques? Outsiders only wear black, smart kids look like nerds and the jocks are constantly parading around in their football jerseys while nubile cheerleaders cozy up to them in the cafeteria. I could tell you this is fiction, based both on my high school experience and my experience teaching at a high school. Most of it is anyway. The football players and cheerleaders dressing up for class though, that happens. I always thought it was just something that occurred in 90’s teen movies and Dawson’s Creek until I began working somewhere it happens.
It was a shock to my system when I first took the job. Growing up I didn’t really know anything about football culture. I was well aware that in many places it unseats baseball as “America’s pastime,” and that in areas that have football, the social schedule revolves around games; I went to a small school, but I didn’t grow up under a rock.
After college I went to the University of Scranton where there hasn’t been a football team since 1960 so was once again not going to experience the tailgates and post parties and general ruckus associated with fall in a football town and it is my current experience that there are towns, such as the one I currently work in, that can be labeled football towns.
It’s worth noting that I believe a lot of this has to tradition. My school’s football team has a long and storied history of wins and breakout seasons and even some students going pro that have undoubtedly helped it to become the beast that it is today. It’s also worth noting that I’m not trying to write this as a slam-piece to eviscerate and crucify the football culture that I’m sure prevails in many such small towns across the country. I’m simply writing an outsider’s look into this world that I’m sure has permanently shaped the lives of many fellow men.
Now I could understand the students’ hearts and souls being out on the field. We had some decent rivalries in my tiny town (with basketball and soccer, the sports we had) and I remember thinking those games were of upmost importance. But, I always thought looking back, that’s just how adolscent midns work. At that age I also thought Sun-In made me look good (I think it might have actually killed brain cells).
What floored me was how the entire town seems to revolve around the football team and the Friday night games. I thought only students, players and their families would buy into the hype. Boy, was I wrong. Driving to work on a Friday means banners and signs decorating the streets and businesses wishing “our boys” the best. The stadium, which seems to take up almost as much space as the school itself, is immaculately kept and open in the mornings for community members to walk or jog around, even more integrating itself into the heartbeat of the town.
I remember meeting a woman the first fall I worked there. She wasn’t a teacher or parents and the only association she really had with the school was living in the district. She informed me that she hadn’t missed a home game since 1992 and she said it with such pride, almost gloatingly. I wasn’t sure how to respond, so she asked me if I’d been to one yet. It was three weeks into the school year and I hadn’t. She was properly horrified. “You can’t teach here and not go to the games,” she said with such sincerity.
I haven’t made it to a game yet. I’m not a huge football guy myself and given how late I stay on some week nights grading papers and lesson planning there’s nothing I want more to do on a Friday then get as far away from work as possible. Also it’s a Friday night and the football stadium doesn’t have a liquor license. I wish I was kidding, but I’m only sort of. I’ve also never taught that many football players. I am planning on going to my first game later this month, and it’s because a student I like, and who plays has asked me several times to go. When I mention this to some people, that I’ve been here four years and not seen a game, they look at me with almost betrayal, and maybe even contempt. I realized that high school football was important, but not how important.
What’s also worth noting is how stringently the players identify themselves with football, that it defines in a sense, who they are. I give each class I teach a first day survey, to get to know them a little bit, but to also see their writing style and how creative they could be. The last question is always, “tell me three unique things that set you apart from everyone else,” and without fail most of the football players put as number one “I play football” and even some of the students who don’t play, but played in the past will write things like “I played football last year.” I’m in no way trying to devalue their football playing experiences but after getting to know some of these kids, there’s much more to them, many things that would set them apart from just being the “football player”, yet that’s what they value most.
And it’s not just the players. It’s the cheerleaders and the loyal followers who incorporate football in half of what they write and talk about. The number of essays I’ve read on performance enhancing drugs in the NFL, football injuries and the importance of tradition is astounding. There’s even a sect of students who seem to loathe the football team and are constantly touting that there’s “more to us than football”, yet instead of highlighting the “more”, they are, by being football’s nemesis, giving football it’s due. Now be clear that I’m generalizing and there are plenty of students who do have other interests and facets to them, but it’s safe to say that a large majority of the kids are very football-centric.
I guess my biggest critique, or worry would be a better word, is that this is the sort of behavior that for example, has made something like the Sandusky scandal (which happened a short 2 hour drive away) possible. That the immense adoration and in turn pressure put on these kids to perform and win and the importance placed on football and how closely the word tradition is always linked to football can skew what they place values on as they grow older. Maybe I’m being too harsh or cynical but again, even after four years of teaching here, the whole phenomena still fascinates me. I always thought that the saddest thing, the biggest sign you were going nowhere fast, was the guy at the bar, well out of high school, who wanted to relive “the big game.” But how can I judge him when there are entire towns who remember all the big games.
What about anyone out there? Were you, like me, also exempt from football culture or did you grow up where boys were bred solely to be quarterbacks? Do you think there’s too much pressure on the kids or did it help shape who you were in a positive way? I’m curious to hear what others think on this subject.
photo by portorikan / flickr