'First Night' Football Under the Lights

On Friday night, there is probably no better place to be than a high school football game. It is Americana - cheerleaders, bands, parents, and athletes who play for fun and glory. There are no scholarships, no salaries, and no hulking TV-production trucks.

Several years ago, however, selected high school games were put on national cable television. I watched one of these games and found it entertaining, but the experiment didn't work, probably because football at this level is really built on local loyalties - personal, institutional, and communal.

You attend games because you know the quarterback, he's related to you, or he wears the colors of your school or community. There's a sense of belonging, of connectedness, that fuels high school football enthusiasm in towns large and small.

This environment certainly was evident to journalist H.G. Bissinger, who wrote "Friday Night Lights" several years ago about a season with the Permian High School Panthers, a Texas powerhouse. In the book he concludes that football "stood at the very core of what the town was about.... It had nothing to do with entertainment and everything to do with how people felt about themselves."

Playing under the lights seems to be part of the magic of high school football. In many areas, it elevates games simultaneously to the status of community event and school party. Students, attired in new sweaters and jackets, often divide their attention between watching each other and the action on the field.

Earlier this season, the high school team in the town where I live (Needham, Mass.) hosted its first-ever night game. The occasion was billed as "First Night," a name no doubt inspired by the festive successes of Boston's First Night New Year's Eve celebrations.

The Needham High School Rockets claim their annual Thanksgiving Day game with neighboring Wellesley is the oldest high school football rivalry in the country. Nonetheless, Needham has never had a lit field. For First Night, a local lighting contractor positioned crane-like portable light banks in each corner of the field.

These were only temporary and aroused none of the controversy surrounding a proposal to permanently light a Little League baseball field, which the town rejected.

This seemed an ideal opportunity for a father-son sports outing, but the youngster in this case is currently more keen on Legos and Star Trek than on sports and didn't elect to join me until I was halfway out the door. He wasn't sorry.

Despite football's inherent confusion, the game held his attention. We mutually agreed to leave at half time, but not until the game's special atmosphere had washed over my seven-year-old sidekick.

We shared the back row of the bleachers with a drummer who covered up the pep band's errors. A formation of cheerleaders provided vocal accompaniment, as did a public-address announcer. A steady stream of humanity flowed back and forth behind the Needham bench, following the progress of the ball. The athletic action, meanwhile, slipped in and out of the bright spots on an inviting expanse of green grass.

Across the field, behind the visitors' bench, the classical facade of Needham High, bathed in spotlights, formed a stately backdrop.

Behind the bleachers, young boys who perhaps envisioned themselves playing for their town's high school team were now engrossed in their own pickup games.

With Needham's new school superintendent participating in a halftime place-kicking contest, my son and I slipped into the cool blackness of the night, convinced that high school football was alive and well in our corner of America, and that spectating still has its rewards.

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