It was a Friday evening a couple weeks ago, but not an ordinary evening for me. I’ve tried to write about it previously, but some unplanned life occurrences have kept me away from the keyboard.
Still, it’s worth describing the scene – a high school football game where more people stand around the field’s perimeter than are actually registered in the town’s census-certified population listing.
Life in a small Iowa town.
The weekend is my 30th class reunion, a wonderful, shared event among three classes who joined forces in the planning, hoping for a better turnout than prior events.
It’s also the high school’s homecoming, the host team being the three-time defending state champions, albeit in a classification smaller than the one their slowly increasing enrollment is forcing them to compete in this year. An early season loss to the top-ranked team in that former classification broke a 42-game winning streak, the only blemish as the team sports a 5-1 record entering this game, clearly demonstrating they belong at the new level.
The opponent, top-ranked team in that new classification, enters the field with an undefeated record, escorted by the enthusiasm generated by a large following of their own supporters.
The cool crisp air of Fall, this is the scene on Friday night in a small Iowa town.
The sidelines are filled with yearbook photographers, newspaper photographers, television videographers. Simply put, it’s the biggest game for miles on this beautiful October evening, and the town is quiet everywhere but here.
During warm-ups it is twilight, and the old baseball backstop that holds such endearing memories for me is visible in the distance.
By game time, the darkness and the opposing team’s fans hide it from view, not to be thought of again until I sit down to write this.
Like almost every small town high school football game I’ve ever attended, there are regulars hanging on the fence surrounding the field. They generally file in during the pregame, but many are on hand much earlier this evening. By game time, those standing go five or six rows deep.
The stands are at capacity on both sides of the field.
Even the areas directly behind the end zones contain rows of seated students and fans from both teams, everyone working to improve their visibility.
My fondness for this town and high school perhaps makes this scene more special to me than most, but even my wife, a high school coach who has attended what must seem like a million athletic events recognizes and acknowledges how special the environment is this night.
From the opening kickoff, there is electricity in the air. The cheers and jeers of the home fans fill the air on my side of the field, some directed at the opponents or officials, or sometimes, even toward a player on the home team.
Life in a small Iowa town.
The home team scores on their initial possession, and the lead is never relinquished.
They swarm the top-ranked visitors, only allowing a score after giving the visitors the ball deep in their own territory. On the night, they relinquish less than 100 total yards.
But the program’s success of late breeds ongoing expectations, and even that stingy total doesn’t satisfy everyone.
An extended halftime shows the crowning of the new Homecoming Queen, and she is accompanied by the new King, a young man born with Downs Syndrome who is loved by the entire student body. As the story goes, the other candidates had entered into a secret pact, each agreeing to award their crown to this young man if the vote went their way. It wasn’t necessary – there was no doubt this evening who the students favored.
This was something out of the ordinary, and something else to feel good about in this small Iowa town.
The game progresses, and the second half sees the visitors pull within a score, but standing on the sidelines, I never felt the game was in doubt. There was just too much positive karma in the air this evening; a coach that not only led them to the past three state championships, but also quarterbacked the initial school championship back in 1988.
The visitor’s never stood a chance.
A returned interception late in the game accounts for the final score in a 22-7 victory.
After initially being detained by school administrators, the students are freed and rush to meet their victorious classmates.
The fans of both sides file out, but parents linger on the playing surface, congratulating their children, congratulating each other. It’s clear they are extracting every bit of joy they can out of this evening.
For me, I just feel lucky to be a part of it, a graduate many years earlier, returning to witness the positive evolution of a program, a school, a community.
This is life in a small Iowa town.
This is Solon.
This is home.