The dirt remains and I can still smell the dampness rising from the wet grass so long ago, such a lush aroma born only in the coolness of a pre-autumn Friday night. Not just any night, but the night of nights, the night of The Game.
Kneeling in the huddle I look into the faces of my youth, faces I’ve known a lifetime and will remember a lifetime longer. Without thinking I reach down and rip a few blades from the sacred grounds and roll them between my fingers. White stripes painted on turf surrounded by rising concrete and wrapped in a mountainous bowl of history. This was our cathedral, our temple, and we were the eleven that represented on that glorious moment in time, a moment that should last forever, but passed in the flash of a whistle blast. We represented all those that came before, and those that did follow.
Ten or maybe twelve thousand fans stand and raise their collective voice in a rowdy roar that echoes amidst the boisterous bands rhythmic strands, lifting colorful balloons towards the sky, floating into the darkness of time.
There is no greater pride than the pride of school and community, and when a community united is for one night divided, by colors no less, and the rights to brag for 364 nights more. When these rivals met in 1985 it was on the heels of two previous playoff seasons for both, and a WV AAA State Championship run for our foes. The stakes are always high in The Game, but when the last game was so close, so exciting and so narrowly divided, the stakes become even more. The final score in 1984 was decided by one, and so very close. A battle beyond measure and even in defeat a memory to treasure, but redemption awaited us.
Our coaches would become, and on that night were becoming legends, and with each game they became more, but years before they stood side by side and strategized together. Great friends made foes even greater.
I looked them each in the eye and they returned the glare and we knew, and like we’d done so many times before, one loud clap in unison broke the huddle and we marched forward seven yards to the battle line with a glorious plan in hand. And I was one among the eleven peering across the line of pride and glared this time into the same set of eyes. Those faces should seem strange, and distantly unfamiliar. But the feeling felt on this night was the same as the year before and the year before that, I looked across and saw faces I knew. I could name them all. On any other night they were the faces of my friends. But for three hours or so we did battle and bled in different shades of red, and a rival so close made for an even greater foe.
That night we won by 3 and I carried this ball with me. Dirt from that treasured patch of land remains, stained in leather and stitched in the glory of time. Because when the days get shorter and the nights are cooler and those sweet crisp aromas float in the Autumn air… I come alive.