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A Thanksgiving Football Canticle | Football Outsiders

Friday night blows into town on a bracing autumn breeze, and the neighborhood around the high school stirs like a patch of fresh-fallen leaves.

Floodlights flare to life, bathing the dying amber grass of the football field in their ethereal glow. Police officers erect traffic barricades. Coaches unlock storage sheds. Cars file into the school parking lot.

The familiar tribes assemble. The color guard with their anime hair. Cheerleaders, adolescent aristocracy in any era, wearing team-colored warm-up gear and ribbons in their ponytails. The student Spirit Club, dressed in theme costumes (beach bums last week, 1930s mobsters this week), eager to boisterously strain the limits of both good taste and the principal’s patience. Pop Warner lads, coltish and ornery in their flashy team jerseys, playing rough-and-tumble two-hand touch behind the bleachers. Booster parents, dressed for the Arctic, carrying crates of bottled water and rolls of raffle tickets. The team itself, huddled in full armor near the gymnasium entrance, hopping with anticipation, waiting to burst through the banner and into an evening of endless potential.

And also the marching band, the rat-a-tat-tat of the practicing drumline’s snares echoing through backyards and playgrounds to the mansions along the park boulevard and the high-rise apartments beside the state highway, beckoning across space and time to the bygone days when lettermen in varsity sweaters drove sweethearts wearing their promise rings down Main Street in deuce coupes with big fins and whitewall tires. Come to the football game. Everyone will be there.

Younger Son plays in the marching band. Mom is a teacher at the school. Dedicated students rush to greet her as she navigates the bleachers. Troublemakers scatter. Colleagues converge to gossip. Dad leaves her behind and finds a seat as close to the 50-yard line as possible. He munches the first of several hot dogs and slurps a Gatorade. He doesn’t want to miss a moment of football’s return.

Football games each Friday night in 2020 arrived suffocated beneath a quilt of melancholy. Kickoff brought all the manufactured cheerfulness of a birthday party for a sickly relative. Perky fight songs sounded baleful. Cheerleaders spaced 6 feet apart issued hollow commands for enthusiasm to silent stands. There were no student-section rowdies, no Pop Warner rascals, no concessions, few neighbors or town elders milling about. The marching band was banished to folding chairs whose feet dug deep into the socially distanced mud of a drainage ditch on the fringe of earshot for the few that came to listen.

And yet, Friday football games were just about the only relief to be found during that autumn of surging pandemic, social unrest, teachers in empty classrooms, strapping teenagers wilting in front of laptop screens in their bedrooms, uncertainty, underemployment, instability, illness, fear, fear, fear.

Now the parking lot swells again. Grandparents shiver beneath blankets. Junior-high vixens plot their intrigues in tight huddles before the gym teacher/security guard shoos them from the walkways. The field hockey team arrives to herald what will likely be the only victory of the evening. And a few blocks away, on a Main Street that was ghost-town silent last autumn, young couples throng to the restaurants and the brewpub pours chestnut-brown lagers.

The mighty Panthers are overmatched on most Fridays. They represent a tiny school in a boho berg where youth football isn’t a high priority. Their schedule is packed with jumbo regional districts from the sprawling suburbs. Touchdowns are so rare that the marching band forgets that it has a job to do between the National Anthem and the rousing end-of-first-quarter rendition of “Rock and Roll Part 2.” When a wide receiver streaks up the sideline for a touchdown after a screen pass, a trumpeter trips while racing up the bleachers to find his instrument, unaware of the yellow flag lying in the receiver’s wake. “Anchors Aweigh” would have to wait. Instead, Gary Glitter, then off to the gymnasium to retrieve the heavy artillery and await the halftime show.

The marching band was hit harder by 2020 than the football team. There were no competitions or band camps last year, just grueling August practices in the sweltering heat, brass and winds blowing through slits in masks, all in preparation for a cobbled-together halftime performance for empty bleachers during lifeless games. Elder Son’s final band season was a joyless coda to six years that traced his steps toward adulthood, his Senior Night ceremony rushed and perfunctory like a battlefield promotion. Elder Son and his friends graduated, but no one took their place. Football is football: the strapping and swift will always seek its thrills and cache. Marching band wasn’t the sort of activity someone would recommend to their friends last year, assuming anyone was lucky enough to see their friends.

Now, Younger Son plays marimba, bells, synthesizer, and even bass drum for a few bars: a percussion pit Rick Wakeman. Others perform double duty as well. The band and color guard march and twirl with purpose once again, cheered on by the handful of classmates who came just to see them, the ones who look more comfortable handling a 20-sided die than a football. Yes, the “geeks” are here, too. Haven’t you heard? Friday nights are not just for the strongest or most graceful. They are not merely some indoctrination ritual for a ruling caste. Friday nights are for everyone who chooses to participate. The field glows for everyone.

Mom and Dad didn’t get to attend games as often as they would like this year. Mom volunteered at a school-sponsored vaccine clinic, where those too busy, timid, or marginalized to get their shots elsewhere kept the nurses busy well past halftime. Vaccination came with two free tickets to the game: less an enticement than an invitation, or perhaps a reminder of all the things we risk losing when we forget our duty to our neighbors.

Dad spent homecoming night barreling up the turnpike after Elder Son called with a persistent cough and a low-grade panic. A home COVID test administered in the back of a Honda Accord parked off College Avenue revealed that he was suffering from little more than the so-called Frat Flu, exacerbated by the pandemic anxiety which still haunts so many of us in so many little ways. (A more accurate test soon confirmed this.)

Eldest Son returned on a separate weekend. He helped lug equipment onto the field at halftime in his jean jacket and roadie beard, then watched his brother perform before disappearing into the evening with some other graduates. Dad thought about the warm cheer of the brewpub after that performance but stayed for the third quarter instead. The Panthers finally scored a touchdown, and Younger Son crashed his cymbals so hard during “Anchors Aweigh” that one ripped from its straps and clattered down the metal bleachers. The Panthers did not win on that evening, but they would win a few games before the trees grew barren and the stands grew too frigid for all but the heartiest supporters.

The marching band and cheerleaders serenade the team after the final gun, regardless of the final score. The bleachers empty, then the parking lot. The visitors’ buses depart. The players meet briefly in the locker room, then limp to their parents’ cars or trudge home, sometimes in full pads with helmets under their arms. Concession tables and portable grills are folded into the backs of SUVs. The guard collects their flags. The barricades are taken down. The floodlights darken so the little neighborhood can sleep. The band, with sound equipment and generators to pack away just so, is often the last to leave. The rattling snares and thudding bass as they march from the field to the storage room is the evening’s processional hymn.

Our autumn rituals, from Halloween to Thanksgiving to the solstice celebrations which became Christmas, all spring from ancient, paradoxical roots. Harvest feasts and bonfires required resources that were about to become scarce in a world where starvation and freezing were persistent winter threats for entire villages. Festivals allowed the community to bond at a time when interdependence was crucial to survival. The neighbors who ate, drank, and danced together on crisp autumn nights reaffirmed their bonds: they could count upon one another for food and firewood in the dead of winter.

Football in America grew up around those harvest festivals, and high school football became one of the few remaining gathering spots for sprawling, fracturing communities. Friday nights under the lights and Thanksgiving rivalry games are events that still welcome young and old, rich and poor, left and right, cool kids and band dweebs, allowing us to play and dance and shout and sing and come together as fellow human beings who still count on one another on a fundamental level for survival.

Forget “returning to normal.” Today’s normal is tomorrow’s nostalgia. The toddlers we dandle on our knees in the bleachers become quarterbacks or cheerleaders or trumpeters, then parents or teachers or simply fellow citizens. The older we get, the more “normals” we look back on: times of birth and loss, sickness and strength, comfort and pain, love and loneliness. We cherish the touchstones which put us in touch with something larger and more timeless than ourselves and allow us to feel connected to one another across miles and generations.

May your Thanksgiving be peaceful and joyous. And may we never forget that the chance to gather as a community and cheer for the successes of our children and neighbors, like the chance to gather with family around the table, is a blessing too precious to ever take for granted.

Happy Thanksgiving from Football Outsiders, the Tanier family, and the State Champion Panthers Marching Band.

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