Knoxville — The sounds of the crowd, feel of the cool October air, smells of popcorn, there’s just something unique about high school football Friday nights. Hundreds or thousands of spectators attend the games but very few have ever experienced the stunning and unique experience of what happens in the weight room in June, on the practice field in July, then in the locker rooms and on the sidelines on game night, then in the hallways of the school after a thrilling victory, or heartwrenching defeat.
Friday is pretty normal on the outside to most people, but as soon as that bell rings at 3:07 you just get into a different mindset. You wake up on that Friday morning and you know the day is different. You've been thinking about and practicing for this game since the buzzer sounded after the last one, either 6 days or 9 months ago. You learned and corrected things from that night, but as soon as you can your mind shifts to the next week's opponent.
You immediately start to watch film, analyzing their offense for tendencies, their defense for weakness and places to exploit. Then practices are geared toward the plays they'll run and their defenses. You've been going since June, lifting, running, camps, two-a-days, regular practice, team pictures, film sessions and everything else...and then game day is here.
The school day is relatively normal, but again, that’s all on the outside; inside you know it's not. School is merely something you have to endure before every last distraction is out of the way and it's time to mentally focus 100% on the game. Once the bell rings at 3:07 you absolutely snap into a different mindset. Not much is funny. You develop a sense of mental and physical tunnel vision; your face even changes. You don't necessarily frown but have a deep, stoic look where you and everyone around knows there is one thing on your mind.
When you get home from school everyone has their own traditions. Some players watch motivational movies like "Friday Night Lights" or "Varsity Blues." Others have certain meals they eat while some just take a nap or play video games. Eventually though, you reach the time where you need to drive to the school. I always had a routine where I'd watch a certain segment from a WWII movie. Then to be honest, I'd pray before leaving. I'd pray for the safety of both teams, but that was about it. I know He doesn't make one team win or lose, but I do pray for all athletes and coaches to stay safe. Then I have another routine I got from my high school baseball coach.
We'd all be sitting on the bus waiting to leave when he'd slip into the press box which also happened to be the concession stand and get a Mountain Dew and Snickers. When I first started coaching, for some reason I remembered that. So before each game I always have a Cherry Pepsi and Snickers.
One by one players would show up and they too had their own routines. Some show up with their huge "Beats" headphones blaring all types of music. Some years one of the upperclassmen would bring in a big radio and they'd play a CD someone had burned. Every once in a while someone would come out and ask if we had an extra ear pad or if one of us could tighten a strap on their shoulder pads, but most of the time it was calm, stoic and surprisingly quiet. Some coaches sit in the training room, others in the hallway; maybe a few watch a few last-minute clips of game film. One of those visions you can literally see as if you were right there is sitting in the hallway of our high school before my first varsity game here.
One of the varsity assistant coaches, Chris Hudson and I were talking in the hallway right outside the coach’s room. I can see clearly me sitting on one side of the hallway and him on the other. We both had our feet in the hall and players had to step over them. He said, "You'll never find something as unique as the few hours before a varsity high school football game," and he was absolutely, 100% right. I've had many good and bad things happen to me, but the hours just before a high school football game have never been duplicated, whether as a player or coach.
As more and more players show up and get ready, they start to put their shoulder pads with their jerseys out in the hallway. Some are putting athletic tape around their wrists, a few are flipping a football around, but they all have the same look. It's a look I'd imagine Pickett’s brigade had as they waited in the trees of Seminary Ridge at Gettysburg, or Easy Company as they prepared to parachute behind the German lines on June 6 of 1944.
It's something they've been training for, rehearsing, studying, and now the moment is finally here. Eventually the buses pulls up to take the team to the football field. Cheerleaders and managers pile in a van and we all head to the stadium. As we pull up there's still not really much talking. No one really knows where that balance is. You want to keep them loose but not where they lose focus. You want them to stay focused but not where they drive themselves insane with worry.
So, we would all get out and form a line two-by-two. I still get chills hearing the sounds of metal cleats on the sidewalk. Some sights and sounds have been imprinted on your memory, and that will always snap me back to these moments. As we’d go up the sidewalk and cross the street you start to hear more clearly the sound of the freshmen game. You hear the individual middle schoolers running around, parents cheering for their athletes and the announcer saying who just carried the ball for a 6 yard gain. Occasionally one of the players launches a "Let's go!" or "Get after it boys!" As the line builds, someone unlocks the gate and we’d pile through, walking down the steps right down the middle of the home crowd.
The sight of freshly cut crass, flawless yard stripes and the dense, green of the field contrasts so much with the track and stands. As we all spread out to our respective spots to warm up you get your first glance at the other team. You immediately spot their stud quarterback or receiver. You recognize their numbers because they're all you've been watching in film all week.
The refs call for captains and you know it's close. The scoreboard has the countdown until kick off and once it gets under 5:00 it starts to get real. No more film, chalk-talk, or position meetings. Done with practice, "Team O" or "Indy." You feel the chill of October evenings, glance over to the stands to find your family, and realize there are very few places you'd rather be.
The four captains run back and tell you they won the toss and will be defending “that way.” The head coach calls the team together as we all head into the locker room. It seriously looks like a castle. For some readers unaware of the history, Knoxville's stadium was built through the WPA to get out of the Great Depression, with stone facades and ticket booths also made out of stone that seriously look like castles. The bleachers are also stone and it has the look of a Roman Colosseum with the field sunk down below the level of the street.
The locker rooms are up some stairs, through the crowd and just have a few benches and a chalkboard. This is where the coach goes over who is on which team, draws a few last-minute plays or things to watch out for. Then is the speech. He’ll refer to the team, school, family or town history. Others talk about how their older brothers played here, dad's sat on these benches, and how their sons will someday play here too. He'll draw on personal experiences from former teams; some coaches may discuss a battle they were in during the Gulf War or Vietnam. The whole goal is to instill an intense but focused mindset that will last for the next 3 hours, a way of thinking to sacrifice themselves for a greater good of team, family, school and town. He ends with a flurry of shouting as the team leaps to their feet and hurries out the door. As you escape the humid chasm of the locker room the cool air and noise snaps you back from the philosophical to reality. You notice the clock at 3:00 as both teams emerge from the locker rooms.
After the team captains get everyone together for a few words they'd rather not share with the coaches, everyone heads to the sideline for kickoff. Now is when you shift from preparation to execution. You may have scripted the whole first series, but now it's time to perform. No more “Number 1 O” vs. “Scouty D”. This is your best vs. their best; your strongest vs. their strongest, your thoroughbreds vs. their Clydesdales. The kicker leans back as he waits for the ref to blow his whistle. You see the whole team hoisting their helmets as they wait for the loud "thud", and then it starts. The chaos and frenzy of a sideline during a game is difficult to describe. Coaches signaling in plays, fixing equipment, hearing about injuries, grabbing players by the collar as they shove them onto the field while the "get back guy" fights a losing battle to keep the players behind the white line.
The sights, sounds, smells, looks and emotions of a high school football game are difficult to comprehend unless you've experienced it, and once you do it can be like a drug. You crave the excitement, challenge, risk and thrill of being a part of something the whole town cares about. It's seriously something every coach waits 9 months for.