Monday, September 14, 2009

Some things don't show up on the stat sheet...

The charms of high school football are many. Sometimes, the quaintness can be taken too far. This is a story about that.

Twenty-five years ago this very fall, I got out of college and started writing up ballgames for the sports section of The News-Star in Monroe. Weekends, if LSU or the Saints or both were at home, I’d cover a high school game south or east of Monroe on a Friday night, then keep heading south, make the loop through Tiger Stadium and the Superdome, and come back late Sunday night.

The Friday night stop might be Vidalia or Ferriday or Winnsboro or Mangham or Sicily Island. I got to see a lot of fun football in a lot of fun little stadiums. Homecoming games. Little wooden concession stands manned by band parents and booster clubbers. Tiny cinder block field houses.

Small town high school football is a beautiful thing, we know. But it is not immune to tacky.
What I wanted to tell you about happened on a Friday night just like any other football Friday night. Small stadium sort of cut out of the woods. Coca-Cola signs everywhere. The smell of sweat and testosterone and popcorn in the air.

Covering high school games is very hard. People would think that covering a “big” game in college or the pros is harder. Neg. Child’s play. In those places they hand you typed statistics in an air-conditioned press box. They have bathrooms. They have food and places to plug things in. At a high school football game it’s just you and your pencil and your stenciled program that sometimes might even be correct.

So you try to keep stats – punts, yardage gained, turnovers, tackles – all by yourself. Tracking little men you’ve never seen before. Throw in there that on this night the mosquitoes were out. Big ones. Maneaters. When you’re holding a Coke, popcorn, binoculars, a note pad and a pencil, it’s hard to swat mosquitoes.

Mid-first quarter, I moved from the stands to the press box.

The press box was a tiny plywood perch. There was room for the P.A. (public address) announcer, his P.A. announcing box about the size of an old VCR, and me. Imagine a good-sized closet, only not quite that big.

Some high school P.A. guys just make announcements but some like to give a play-by-play to the crowd. You can seldom understand them because of the quality of the sound system and the fact that the Pep Squad is yelling and somebody’s always banging a cymbal or blowing a tuba. But some P.A. guys persevere.

This one did. And his resolve to capture in language the events of this special night grew as his consumption of alcohol did. Because now and then, over the mouth of his paper Coke cup, he’d tilt a brown paper sack. He was drinking Jack Daniels; I remember it like it was yesterday.

I didn’t mind at all. It was sort of like being in shoebox with a living, breathing cartoon. I was just happy to be away from the mosquitoes.

But then came halftime.

It lasted a calendar day. It was homecoming. And my P.A. guy was saddled with the chore of calling out names of girls and their escorts as they circled the field in 1980s convertibles. He struggled with names, which irritated him not at all, certainly not nearly as much as his friends who, like faucet drips that become a stream, kept coming up to the top of the stadium, holding their paper Coke cups up to the press box opening, and begging for “a hit.”

He didn’t mind sharing whiskey with the first couple of guys. But the four or five after that, he minded a lot. A guy hates to share if he’s running low, and trapped until the final whistle.

Then my new friend did something I will never forget. He might have been irritated. He might have been cocky, being the P.A. guy and all. Or he might have just been drunk.

But for a few moments I didn’t see him there by me. I was compiling my halftime stats. And that’s when I heard a noise that sounded as if a water spigot had been turned on.

But it wasn’t a water spigot.

In the back corner of the hot muggy press box, he was running Play No. 1. Onto the floor. In the corner. With his back to me, using the bathroom.

The ol’ Bladder Sweep.

It was in record time that I left the press box. Ammonia and heat is a bad combination. I welcomed the mosquitoes.

I don’t remember who won. I do remember I lost. And I remember thinking, as I sat there figuring how many yards a kid I’d never meet had just punted a football, that I would never forget this night.

Normally, I wouldn’t write the names of the schools, but I almost have to here for you to get the full effect. Plus, it was 25 years ago. The guys who played that night, the homecoming queens and her court, they’ve all celebrated 40th birthdays. And the P.A. guy, he’s probably in politics now.

So after a quarter-century, it’s safe to share this, since I’ve always felt the names of the schools were somewhat telling in a strangely coincidental way.

One of the schools was Waterproof.

The other, was Wisner.


-- The Times, Sept. 13, 2009