Back to the Gridiron
Knights to Remember

by Jay Hardwig


As I surrender my ticket and step inside, a wave of nostalgia hits me. It is the sounds that do it: the roar of the crowd, the crashing of helmets, the trombone tones of the high school band. For the first mesmerizing minute I am enchanted, lost in the sounds, transported by memory to high school days of crisp autumn nights watching football games from the cold cement bleachers of my hometown home field in Knoxville, Tennessee. I have returned.

My quiet reverie is broken by a bloodcurdling scream from the parents' section: "Git 'im! Git 'im! Giiiiiiiiit 'im!" A back in white has turned the corner on the hometown blue and gallops for a good10 yards.

It is November 14th; I have come to Austin's House Park to watch McCallum vs. Waco Midway in the first round of the state 4A football playoffs. It is my first high school football game in 10 years. Already my ears are ringing.

"Giiiiiit 'im!" comes the screech -- a little hoarser this time. Now that, I think, is too much. It's only the first quarter! "Calm down," I mumble. "You're liable to get an aneurysm."

Five plays later I myself am screaming like a jackass, hollerin' like an old-schooler at the tremendous lick Devon Davis has just laid on a Waco back, stopping him for no gain on third & goal from the three. And in that mad moment, I am reborn, and I know instinctively that there is something right and good and true about Friday night football deep in the heart of Texas.

photograph by Mary Sledd

At 45 degrees and plenty damp, it is the perfect night for football, but I have had trouble convincing any of my friends to join me. They offer a panoply of half-hearted excuses, not the least of which is the chilly weather, but in my heart I suspect something more basic. I suspect that, being intelligent, creative people, they were mercilessly picked on during their school days and have no desire to return to the scene of their torment.

Not me. I went to every football game there was. I joined the pep club, wore a plastic cowboy hat in team colors, and, oh god, did I want to date a cheerleader. (I did, finally, for Homecoming senior year, but I must confess that in the end I couldn't see what all the fuss was about. It was about a dull a date as I've ever been on; for good measure I took her out twice more just to make sure. I'll say this: It cured me for life of my desire to date cheerleaders.) And while I have lost some of the booster spirit in the years since, coming to House Park is a wistful reminder of years more innocent and pimply. I will, however, admit to considerable relief in the knowledge that I am no longer held accountable to the exacting eye of high school tastemakers. I can wear my toboggan rolled over my ears like a dork without fearing vindictive homeroom reprisals. I do just that.

photograph by Mary Sledd

My only companion, then, is my good-natured wife, who comes, I think, for the spectacle. She was raised a Yankee, where they know how to keep things in perspective and they play their high school football on Saturday afternoons. This will be a new experience.

The McCallum High Knights have come in as decided underdogs. At 5-5, they have made it to the playoffs for the first time in 32 years -- no small feat -- but their odds are long against the
9-1 Panthers of Waco Midway, a team with one of the best passing attacks in the state and an eye on the state title. For most of the first half, the Knights hang tough, playing sharp defense and trailing by only a touchdown despite a series of costly turnovers. Late in the second quarter, however, the dreaded Panthers hit paydirt twice, including a devastating 20-yard touchdown pass with only two seconds left in the half. The Knights head to the locker room down 20-0.

This fact, too, makes me a little nostalgic. Knoxville West High fielded a truly wretched team when I was a student there, with a combined record of 9-32 over four years. (This looks better than it was. Three 1-9 seasons were offset by a 6-5 showing my sophomore year, a winning season that I can only attribute to an inexplicable belch in the space-time continuum -- that and Justin Pace's emergence as a serious tailback.) For most of my high school days, I was happy to be down only 20 going into the half, but I have a feeling the McCallum players don't feel the same way (and suspect that the Knoxville West players didn't either).

In the meantime, of course, there is a halftime show to watch, and in short order we are regaled by the not-quite-military precision of the Waco Midway marching band, which offers up a delightful polka and the obligatory James-Brown-meets-Funky-Winkerbean version of "I Feel Good." They are followed by a sharp McCallum band, but for all of their brassy charm my wife and I don't watch them; we are fascinated instead by the Blue Brigade. The Blue Brigade is a gaudy dance corps like my high school never had, common in Texas apparently, who line up in tasselled skirts and sequined cowboy hats to kick their legs, off-Broadway style, to such classic showtunes as "Watermelon Man" and "Don't Cry for Me Argentina." I am transfixed. It is quite a show -- patently ridiculous, of course, but a wonderful show -- and I shan't be surprised if the Orange Bowl, or Madonna one, comes calling.

As halftime ends and the highkickers yield the field to the placekickers, I can't help but sense a little disappointment from my wife that the game must resume. Heck, I'm a little put out myself. But the game does resume, and it does so quickly; less than two minutes into the second half, Waco scores again. 27-0. The old ache returns as I am again reminded of the constant wallopings my dear high school team took. The comparison is hardly fair -- McCallum is losing to one of the best 4A teams in the state, while Knoxville West was regularly trounced by teams whose only victories came at our expense. I groan, but must admit that the gridiron masochist in me is slyly thrilled by this unfortunate, if familiar, turn of events. It takes me back.

What happens next never happened at any of our games: McCallum's Tarron Brooks takes the following kickoff 85 yards for a score, busting through a series of would-be tacklers in the process. It is a nice, strong run, and the crowd goes nuts; "When the Saints Go Marchin' In" pours forth from the band. The McCallum cheerleaders are running the sidelines, tossing little plastic blue footballs into the stands. Excitement builds to a fever pitch. A man clutching his five-year-old boy runs down the bleacher steps, his eyes hard on a stray football. He stumbles as he draws close, and a muscular high schooler in a letterman's jacket turns to grab the ball. In the ensuing scramble the kid is dropped face first on the pavement. But he gets the football.

McCallum stops Waco on three downs in the next series, forcing a punt, and the crowd wonders if the tide could be turning. The punt is weak and short, which should be good, except that it manages to wobble right onto the back of an unsuspecting McCallum blocker. Free ball. Waco recovers. On the next play from scrimmage, the Panthers' Charlie Collier runs the ball in from 31 yards out. 34-7. The dull pain returns. (Collier will wind up with 174 yards rushing and two touchdowns on the night; quarterback Brandon Johnson will pass for 209 more (yards, not touchdowns, although at times we wondered); together they will lead Waco to 526 yards of total offense, solidifying their reputation as one of 4A's offensive powerhouses.)

At 34-7, no one much watches the football game anymore. Instead, student attention is focused on the tireless cheerleaders and the aforementioned Blue Brigade. I take advantage of a lull in the action to talk to Julie from the Brigade, and ask some questions that have been haunting me. I learn that the Brigade is a highly trained dance team chosen by tryout, that they perform at a number of sporting events and an annual competition in Galveston, and that the sequined hats run $60 and are theirs to keep. Do they have any in my size?

In the fourth quarter, with the McCallum crowd filing out, my wife and I indulge an anthropological interest and head over to the Waco side of the field. I am prepared to find a lot of snide things to say about these bumpkins from up north, and am distressed to find them a genuinely likable lot. It occurs to me that, except for their obvious talent for football, the Waco Midway student mix more closely resembles my own high school than the rather more cosmopolitan McCallum. This is not to say that I've quit rooting for McCallum -- Go Knights! -- but that I've quickly acquired a more balanced perspective, and can even understand how fun it must be for the boys from Waco to come down here and kick the tar out of the home team, and show those arrogant bastard journalists from the big city a thing or two besides. The only thing over here that gives me pause is the slightly ominous Panther Patrol, a rabid pack of Waco students dressed in camouflage pants that floods the field after every score like some sort of paramilitary pep squad. I don't ask questions.

With three minutes left in a game that's out of reach, I decide it would be good to go back to the home side of the field and show my solidarity with the beleaguered McCallum boosters. I ask my wife, but she hesitates....

She's rooting for Waco now.

I appeal to her empathies and eventually she relents. We cross to the other side. The student crowd has left, but the Blue Brigade stays valiantly on. Neither wind nor rain nor 31-point deficit....

photograph by Mary Sledd

We arrive to find that the cheerleaders are throwing out the blue plastic footballs again, and I want one. I want one badly. I edge in on the remaining crowd. After an anxious minute, I spy one of the coveted balls arcing into the night and spiraling towards me. Does it have enough distance? I purse my lips in suspense. I can see the next scene as if it is in slow-motion: The ball caroms off the outstretched fingers of a desperate Blue Brigadier and rolls to its destined stop at the toes of my feet. Elated, I bend to pick it up, but as I do the unlucky Brigadier wheels around in anguish. "No! It's mine! It's mine!" she cries. I pause, but I am a gracious man, and I give her the ball. She has worked harder than I tonight.

Moments later, I can tell she is feeling bad. She turns as if to toss the disputed ball to me. I say no, don't do it. She throws it anyway. What happens next is very close to tragic. An unidentified man reaches up and swats the ball away; it falls into the aisle where a third party picks it up. Now neither one of has the football, and we are both crushed. (There is a moral in here somewhere, but what it is I can't discern.) The band breaks into the classic "Na Na Na Na (Hey Hey Hey)" taunting song, which seems somewhat out of place when you're down by (now) 38 points, and I can only assume that it's aimed at me and the Brigadier. We'll show them yet.

As the long overdue last seconds tick off the clock, the players meet at midfield to shake hands. The final score is 51-13. As the McCallum players leave the field, there is a little bit of spring in their step, and their heads aren't down, and that is as it should be. They know they played hard against a better team. There have been no fights tonight, no penalties for unsportsmanlike conduct, no loutish sideline antics. Losing graciously: a valuable lesson, and one learned well at my own high school.

photograph by Mary Sledd

I am about to leave when the Brigadier calls my name. She has found another ball. She throws it to me. I try to give it back but she insists I take it. Her name is Lindsay, and she has done a beautiful thing.

I file into the parking lot a bit invigorated by the cold air, feeling renewed, robust. Perhaps I am a little sentimental, too, as I cradle the tiny prize in my pocket, and walk arm-in-arm with my wife to our waiting car. I can't help but wax poetic, and this is what I think: God bless the American high school football game, where the loyalties aren't bought, the pageantry isn't cheap, and little plastic footballs rain down upon your head.

High school football fan Jay Hardwig reports that Waco Midway has advanced to the semifinals of the state playoffs. Go Panthers!

Mary Sledd is the photo editor for The Shield, the McCallum High School newspaper.