Don’t look now, but football season is creeping closer. The pads are on. The players are sweating. The coaches are making them sweat more. And there will be stories to tell.
I’ve covered high school and college football on and off for 20 years, in between writing about dirty sheriffs and incompetent city managers for newspaper news and opinion pages.
You might think that one season’s players and their feats on the field is much the same as the next. But you’d be wrong.
And the numbers never tell the whole story either. Players and coaches are flesh-and-blood human beings. And football is a pressure cooker.
I always try to look for the story behind the story, often something ironic that happens over the course of a game or a season. Sports writers will likely miss many such opportunities under our own pressure of broad coverage and tight deadlines.
But I like to think we get a few right.
Here are some of my favorite memories from my coverage of football seasons past:
— The Bainbridge Bearcats were proud members of the infamous U.S. 84 conference that runs along Georgia’s southern boundary. In those parts, no other sport takes precedence over football (except maybe championship bass-fishing on Lake Seminole). In 1994, the team hit a hurdle before they even hit the field.
Turns out their stadium was coming apart. A structural flaw had caused a crack that ran along the home stands two rows below the press box. From the reaction of local leaders, you might have thought the world was about to end. But a few weeks before the season began, heavy equipment had to be brought in to rip out those top rows. A makeshift press box was installed just in time for the home opener. By the following season, renovations resulted in a sturdier, bigger stadium. And life went on.
— Demtrius “Meatball” Heath was an outstanding running back for North Pitt High School in Bethel. I covered one game in which he dominated nearly every offensive play. I’d resisted for a couple seasons, but when I wrote up that story, I went for the pun, borrowing heavily from the lyrics to “On Top of Spaghetti.” The defense definitely lost Meatball as he kept rolling. I learned later that Meatball played baseball for Louisburg College and was drafted by the Detroit Tigers organization and played minor league baseball for several seasons through 2008. Not all football stories end with football.
— Due to some newspaper personnel changes, I found myself covering the Lincolnton Wolves in the 2010 state 2A quarterfinals against a Winston-Salem school, after not covering them all season. On a brutally cold December night, made more brutal for me by a guy in the press box who insisted on opening the window, both teams had trouble holding on to the ball. The game was back and forth and the squads seemed evenly matched. On the crucial play of the game, Lincolnton was driving near midfield when a trick play went bad in the backfield, leading to a fumble, which the defense recovered and converted into a touchdown. And there, sadly for home-town readers was the story: A wild pitch cost a football team the game.
— Weather can have a big impact on football. After covering the passage of Hurricane Fran through Tarboro in 1996, I was ready to get away from town on Saturday to enjoy a college gridiron match in Raleigh. Of course, the state capitol looked like a war zone. The Wolfpack squad was humiliated by Georgia Tech’s team. It looked like they were in a daze. Interviewing some of the players afterward, the story emerged: They were in a daze. Their dorm had flooded the night before. That game probably should never have been played.
— I had a little fun with another weather event involving the 1997 North Edgecombe team in Leggett, when the Warriors captured the 1A state championship. During one October game, they posted north of 50 points by half time. That changed in the second half. Here’s more-or-less what I wrote: “Each half of the game was dominated by different unstoppable forces. In the first half it was the North Edgecombe rushing offense. In the second half it was a wicked cold front with an attitude that dropped temperatures by 30 degrees, brought swirling winds and lightning and pounded the field with such heavy rain that visibility was reduced to nil.” The game was called off with the W awarded to the Warriors.
There are probably better stories that I’ve forgotten. And some that I missed.
And this season? There are stories to be told. It’s up to the coaches and players (and the weather) to make them happen.
Reach Robesonian sports editor Frank Taylor at [email protected]