On an early evening in late summer, as the sun began to set, I pulled into the driveway. The engine of a suped up 1977 Chevy Nova, jet black with bucket seats, its backend raised by air-shocks, and somewhat dull silver Cragar Mag wheels, roared as it came to a slow stop just in front of the garage door.
Practice ended about 30 minutes earlier, and I walked through the front door to a waft of my mother’s homemade pasta sauce stewing on the stove. Dinner served as family time in those days. I sat down. It’s 1987 and after a shower, I more resembled Roman Reigns with my long soaking wet hair and teenage stubble, than a running back for my high school team. As my brother, who started in the secondary, my sister, father and I sat down, mom asked, “Are we ready?” I just chuckled, “Of course.” Although the butterflies flapping in my belly indicated much less confidence.
As day turned to night, I took my white spikes and ripped out the shoelaces. Back then, tradition dictated that sophomores polished the shoes of the upperclassmen. As evidenced by my full blown mullet, I often bucked against the perceived normal for a football player as I looked more ready to lead a hair band. No, I accepted my own responsibilities. Those laces, browned from the weeks of collecting dust from the practice field, were launched into the clothes washer. Then, out came the polish. These shoes had to look perfect. Our running backs’ coach Mr. Bob James drilled in us that to play good, you first had to look good. I took each stroke as a painter would to his canvas. Then, onto the baseboard heater in my room to dry before buffing. I took a roll of tape, knotting up my sleeves. In the “old” days jerseys did not form fit. A player did that himself. I convinced myself, even with my tiny arms, having the sleeves tight enough to almost cut off my circulation had a benefit beyond aesthetics. I belileved it would be harder for defenders to yank me down by the shirt. When the alterations were complete, the blue jersey with the white numbers, outlined in red got carefully folded and placed on top of my white game pants and white socks. Oh, how I loved white shoes and white socks. Made me look faster, I thought. Laces were strung back through on my spikes and the alarm clock set.
Lights out came at 9:30 p.m. for me. But on this night, I relaxed and fought sleep for some time, staring at the dark ceiling with only a stream of moonlight cracking through the curtains. I visualized sprinting onto the field at Lakeland High School Stadium, a place where I supported and cheered loudly for my high school football heroes, players who I admired from a small section of bleachers and ones I reached out to just touch as they made that same trip to the side gate. It’s my senior year, and I had paid my dues. I put in a lot of time getting into shape. We had a great team, but we still weren’t sure where this journey would eventually take us all. I saw myself carrying the ball, dashing toward the goal line, bringing fans to their feet just as I had while watching the previous generation. I rolled onto my side, stopped fighting my heavy eyelids and fell into a slumber.
I heard a knock at the door, unusual because once I had gone into hiding downstairs, rarely did anyone come to disturb me. My father peeked in, a shadowed silhouette, and whispered, “Good luck, son.”
The next day, as the sun returned, its beaming shine forcing me awake before the buzzing of my alarm, I packed my neatly folded uniform into my tattered blue gym bag. I went upstairs for breakfast, ready to play the sport I loved and start a season I had long anticipated after our group won the Big 11 freshman football title three years earlier. Lakeland played on Saturday afternoons in that era, so right next to my scrambled eggs and bacon, I read the results of the previous night’s
games. My focus remained on the job that stood in front of me. Later, after hugs from mom and dad, my brother and I returned to that Chevy Nova, ignited the engine blast, and headed to the stadium. I barely uttered a sound. We went on to win that first game against a very physical Dunmore team. I played so, so, had a touchdown called back and found out after I had broken my tailbone. I wasn’t much of a football player any way and it didn’t resemble anything I had envisioned, except for the victory. But, I still had a special night and day, and a memory that obviously lasts a lifetime.
This is a scene many may race through their minds tonight. Well, probably not the stringy hair and polished shoes, but you get the idea. It is the night before Week 1, or as the PIAA calls this one, Week 0 (Bizarre, I know, but bear with us). For seniors across this region, it’s a day they have anticipated since the first time they put on those over-sized pads when they were on junior football. For all, it’s about getting the season started, The bands blaring, the bright lights, the uniforms, the tradition. On Friday, everything becomes real.
High school football on opening night or in my case, opening day, is remarkable. You get only one game where everyone is 0-0. It’s exciting, it’s fun, it’s invigorating. I hope everyone has the goosebumps on top of goosebumps, just like I did. Not everyone will walk away a winner on the scoreboard, but you will have to try to convince me there will be players from any team who won’t cherish this experience.
As I always say. … ENJOY!
OK, that is my first and somewhat lengthy Thursday High School football blog. I will tighten them up as we go along.
Just some quick notes that somehow I haven’t covered yet through gameface or here on the blog:
Old Forge has won seven straight season openers and will be at Hanover Area, from the Wyoming Valley Conference, on Friday. Six of the seven wins by the Blue Devils have come against WVC opponents.
- Abington Heights rides a streak of seven straight wins on opening weekend. The Comets will be visiting Scranton Prep on Saturday at Valor Field at Scranton Memorial Stadium.
- Scranton Prep will enter that clash having won five straight season openers. The Cavaliers have posted two straight shutouts to start the 2014 and 2015 seasons.
- West Scranton also has a five-game opening night winning streak. All of those wins came against rival Riverside. On Friday, the Invaders will face Dunmore, which is the LFC Division III favorite.
- Lakeland has won four straight and has a record of 15-2 on opening night since 1999. The Chiefs will be at rival Valley View, which has beaten them on the field (suffered forfeit in 2013) five straight times.
- Wallenpaupack will be seeking its fourth straight opening week win when it travels to Wyoming Area. The Buckhorns have won each of the first two meetings in the series with the Warriors.
There are four teams from District 2 ranked among the top 10 in their respective classification according to Pennlive.com and its high school football guru Eric Epler with input from characters like me. All have stiff tests in their openers:
Wyoming Valley West, which is No. 4 in Class 5A, will host Scranton on Friday night in a battle of big-school powerhouses.
- Dunmore, which is No. 2 in Class 2A, will be at West Scranton on Friday night in a rivalry that dates back to 1944.
- Old Forge, which is No. 5 in Class 1A, as stated above, visits Hanover Area on Friday night.
- Scranton Prep begins at No. 6 in Class 3A and will open at home against Abington Heights on Saturday afternoon at 1:30 p.m.
IN THE ZONE
As is the case for the last 14 years, I am still hosting In the Zone on NEPAs ESPN RADIO. Please join me and “Touchdown” Tom Ferguson as we will broadcast live for the Friday Football Blitz edition for opening night from the Olde Brook Inn, 1035 State Route 307, Springbrook Township.
Show runs from 5 to 6 p.m.
Then, TD Tom and I will head to North Pocono for the unveiling of the renovated stadium and this week’s Game of the Week as No. 10 Riverside plays at No. 2 North Pocono. TD Tom will do the broadcast and I will be doing the real work covering the game for The Times-Tribune.
That’s all for today.
I shall be back next Thursday with a recap of Week 1, which is actually Week 0 (but who is really keeping track?) and a look ahead to Week 2.