Friday Night Lives

High school sports are, at least in a few parts of the country, a big deal. But what makes them great has more to do with how small and human-scale they remain.
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The odds were wildly against it, but there it was: in the very first high school basketball game I covered as a journalist, I’d discovered a superstar. This was a January night, in a sparkling, packed New Hampshire gym, and the superstar was a muscular, 6-foot-2 white kid, who scored 30 points. He could shoot, slash, he even threw down an alley-oop and a nice baseline dunk. At the time, he reminded me of a mini-Bob Sura; this was early 2003, when people were reminded of Bob Sura and when it was kind of a compliment. After buckling down and filing my story on time—it came in at a whopping 410 words—I felt confident enough to approach the newspaper’s local hoops writer and ask about the future Division 1 scholarship winner I’d just watched. This was someone who deserved a lengthy feature, and 19-year-old me was the person to write it. The reporter, who usually wielded—and still wields—sarcasm like a ball-peen hammer, temporarily took pity on the new intern. He laughed.

I can laugh now, too. I am not a recruiting guru, and wasn’t one then. It’s not that Bob Sura 2.0 wasn’t talented—I’d at least gotten that part right. It’s that... well, he was a jackass. A year earlier, he’d been suspended for a hazing incident that eventually got his longtime coach fired. He later got his girlfriend pregnant, graduated, and ended up playing some college ball at a nondescript Division III school. Then, like many high school heroes before him, he grew up, and disappeared.

All this isn’t shocking or unique, my story or his. In real life, teenage athletes don’t behave like characters in Hoosiers. But despite what some of our most successful, crustiest sports columnists say—and may actually believe—that’s not a bad thing.

***

In the seven or so years I spent covering high school sports, first in New England and then briefly in Washington, D.C., I attended hundreds of games. By far, it was the job’s best perk. While plenty of recent grads my age were stuck taking notes on a local crank’s list of complaints at town meetings or listening to the police scanner, I was eating boiled concession stand hot dogs and keeping box scores. The pay was shitty and I worked a lot of Friday nights, but at least I got to spend those evenings outside the newsroom. In my first paper’s case, this was a windowless block of cubicles with the charm of a Soviet munitions warehouse. Going to a game was a respite. I eventually changed newsrooms, but the games never stopped being the games.

To clarify: high school sports are not, were not, and will never be, “pure” in the way the dinosaurs claim them to be. They are actually, in most ways, quite the opposite. For fans and reporters, the allure of high school sports lies in the fact that they’re less polished and infinitely more accessible—that is, more open and more affordable and more obviously and goofily human—than their collegiate and professional counterparts. Writers love bemoaning the lack of access in big-time sports These Days. For the most part, that’s not a problem in the prep world.

And there’s a reason for all that: high school sports are messy. By nature, high schoolers are immature, defiant, and on balance, not otherworldly athletes. In the years I spent covering high school sports, I wrote about only a handful of kids who went on to earn Division I scholarships. Now, I’m not advocating giving up your Packers or Yankees or—for the real amateurism fetishists out there—Alabama season tickets. Roll Tide and all that.

But this fall, maybe try to sit in the stands during at least one Friday night football game. Or go to a high school baseball game in April; chances are nobody will stop you from listening in on a paunchy, red-assed coach cursing out an umpire. If you’re set in your ways, stay home and watch the pros and near-pros on television. But if you want to change it up a bit, maybe give the teenagers a shot. The vast majority of them will never make money playing their favorite sport, but they’re great in other ways.

So much of what sports media sells us about these games has to do with how capital-m Meaningful they are. One healthy corrective to that—a cleanse, if you like—is watching a game without any significant meaning, played as if it means more than anything else in the world. Most likely, it won’t be played well. You will not believe how quickly that ceases to matter.

***

Take football. Few things on earth are less picturesque than a November football game in Massachusetts. The leaves have fallen off the trees, the remaining natural grass fields are mostly mud, and the metal bleachers usually feel like thick bars of ice under your ass. And yet those bleachers are tormenting the town’s most hopeful asses: those of parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, and ex-high school heroes who’ve attained emeritus status, all there to watch a bunch of boys crash into each other for two hours. Or—as any frustrated newspaper writer burdened by an early deadline will tell you—with the advent of the spread offense, it’s become more like four hours.

From the sideline—to make sure I was correctly marking down yardage, I used to hang out with the guys who moved the chains—it was even worse. Up close, at really any level beyond two-hand touch, football is terrifyingly brutal. To watch some of the hits kids took—and delivered—was jarring. I often wondered how they got up afterward. I tried not to consider the non-existent stakes provoking those would-be killshots. It was too hideous to think about for very long. And yet, amid all the violence, there was usually some joy.

I once covered a Thanksgiving Day game that, at least at the time, didn’t appear to mean much. One of the teams had already clinched a playoff spot; the other, its biggest rival, was well out of contention. But the underdog, the home team, ended up winning on a late defensive stand. As the players mobbed each other and their families, who climbed down from the bleachers into the mud pit, I found myself watching one mountainous lineman. He must’ve been at least 300 pounds, and he was alone, bawling.

Every single person in the stadium could see him, but watching him heave and weep for even a short time was alternatingly awe-inspiring and painful. There was something undeniably voyeuristic about eavesdropping on a 17-year-old’s moment of extreme emotional vulnerability. It was uncomfortable, and made me feel uncomfortable. But 30 seconds later, the hugs started coming, and he stopped crying. If I recall correctly, his face, smeared eye-black, ended up on the front page of my paper’s sports section. It was a good picture, if one destined to have the most meaning to a small, sentimental audience. That holiday weekend, I’m sure it ended up on dozens of refrigerators.

***

Emotion is emotion, and in high school sports, it’s rarely far below the surface. Books like Friday Night Lights, The Last Shot, and The Blind Side have relied on a level of openness from their subjects that simply isn’t provided by athletes who’ve been hardened by years of media prying. Today, it seems as if the media’s obsession with high school phenoms starts earlier than it ever has. (Both Bryce Harper and LeBron James were 17 when they first appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated; although it should be noted that hockey player Bobby Carpenter was also a 17-year-old cover boy—back in 1981.) As a result, top young athletes are borrowing from their older, more seasoned counterparts. Not by imitating their on-field actions, but by using cliché after cliché to placate intrusive reporters.

Not all accounts are sunny, either. They occasionally expose ugliness, of which there’s plenty in high school sports; in some miracle of reverse mis-parenting, the teenagers seemingly rub off on their parents, and it’s not just the kids who lack impulse control. Emotions bubble over. So it stands to reason that this is not always behind-closed-doors ugliness, either.

On a Sunday afternoon in early 2007, I covered a boys basketball game between good Boston-area schools. Late in the fourth quarter, two players shoved each other after a hard foul. In no time, fans, many of whom were supposedly adults, spilled onto the court. I didn’t see anybody throwing haymakers, but there was a good deal of shoving and swearing. Admirably, the coaches frantically tried to shoo their teams away from danger. Eventually an athletic trainer called 911, and within a few minutes, a handful of baton-wielding police officers arrived.

The cops ordered everybody out, the game’s last two minutes were played in an empty gym. I had to peek through a small window in the gym’s door to catch the final moments. The episode, which left me shaken up at the time, seems in retrospect like proof of what most of us already know: that there’s no correlation between age and maturity. A stupid little scuffle between two kids turned into a near brawl mainly because grown-ups escalated the situation instead of trying to diffuse it. “I’ve seen more parents screw up kids in a lifetime than I’ve seen kids screw up their own lives,” Bobby Knight said recently. Because Bobby Knight is Bobby Knight, we can assume he failed to see or understand the irony in his words.

But Knight had a point. When it comes to high school sports, adults—even the well-intentioned ones—often find themselves acting like children. But, in the end, not even they can ruin things for everyone else—the stakes are simultaneously too high and too low for that. The parents are welcome to watch, but the games are not about them. This is a good thing.

Covering high school sports wasn’t a perfect job. The local papers dedicated to the cause are understaffed and there’s less space in general, which often results in parents complaining about a lack of stories on field hockey or soccer or gymnastics or whichever other sport their kids play. As the sarcastic reporter who laughed at me when I was an intern recently said of the dying business we were in: “We don’t make enough money to hate our jobs.”

But at the very least, I found some satisfaction in being able to help preserve and record memories that—no matter how inconsequential they seemed at the moment, or will seem decades hence—will stick with kids for the rest of their lives. There will be some ugliness, from the kids and their parents and the culture of the sports they play. There will be some ugly play. There will be a lot of it, actually, although as long as the games are played, there will also be moments that make it all worthwhile. But all that goofiness is leveraged on genuine emotion. It’s volatile, because teenagers are teenagers. But it’s stronger than we think, always.

 


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As the players mobbed each other and their families, who climbed down from the bleachers into the mud pit, I found myself watching one mountainous lineman. He must’ve been at least 300 pounds, and he was alone, bawling.
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