Friday night lights

High school was not exactly my favorite time on earth. 

Oh, by the time I got to my junior and senior years, I'd found my niche, a (very small) core group of people who accepted and loved me as I was. But it took a long time to get there, and the road, at times, was extraordinarily painful. 

Even now, when I go to high schools to cover events, it sometimes gives me pause. The not-quite-clear bathroom mirrors, the rows of lockers, cowed into uniform submission, the clear clique lines and the laughter from unseen mouths echoing through the hallways that I suppose will always make a portion of my heart race a little faster in fear.  

I have lots of memories of high school. A select few make me smile. 

I think I'll be smiling about tonight for a while.

The high school where my stepdaughter is a freshman was off to a 7-0 start, the best in its 50-year history. Riding the blue chip wave of a D-I quarterback and wide receiver, the Chiefs were steamrolling foes, piling up yards and setting school records and generating an immense amount of excitement for tonight's homecoming game.

Its opponent had had a tougher season. At 2-5, the Tigers had been both blown out and come tantalizingly close to the Upset that would provide midseason motivation, a push toward the playoff appearance their coach still believed could happen.

I asked to cover the game for the paper I freelance for, and I took my child with me.

Driving to the game, I was more nervous than I could remember being for a high school game in recent memory. Half-hearted attempts to parse the reasons while navigating 5 p.m. traffic on I-95 left me convinced that it was probably complicated.

I wanted her to have fun, of course, to see friends and laugh and enjoy the game. I wanted the experience to be free of the terror that often lurked around the edges of my teenage social events - terror of what outside forces might come to bear, equal trepidation about what inner demons could surface without warning. 

And strangely but undeniably, I wanted her to be proud of me, to see me do a good job and be happy we belong to each other's space.

That acknowledged, I couldn't suppress an inner smile or a text message to her father when I had scarcely put the car in park before her door was opening, her sweet voice saying she'd see me later, her excited feet doing me the courtesy of pausing long enough to heed my instructions to meet me by the fence after I'd finished my post-game interviews. 

Then she was off, setting some sort of teenage land speed record for seconds needed to put distance between two persons.

It was awesome. 

I remember my own mother's frustration with me, how she gunned the car while pulling away after dropping me off at an Amnesty International meeting my sophomore year because she'd seen a girl smile at me and hadn't seen me smile back. It's true that I hadn't broken stride, hadn't stopped to say hello or chat, hadn't accepted the invitation in that smile. 

I suppose I rarely did, and I suppose that would make someone who found you funny and intelligent and worth talking to a little crazy. 

When I reached the stands after collecting rosters from the coaches, my 14-year-old was already chatting away with two girls I didn't know, one in a band uniform. They had friendly, open faces, and I made an exaggerated point of looking away from the one that was mine as I passed so as not to embarrass her with my existence. 

As the game - which showed early signs of being a tightly contested nailbiter that few had expected - went on, I'd text her from time to time. "Pop your head into the pressbox so I can see you." "Do you have enough money?" And she'd flit by, hazel eyes dancing behind her stylishly individual glasses, granting me my few minutes.

She was talking to this girl, or that one. More in-depth questioning in the car revealed cattiness sprinkled about like sneezing powder, but also a conversation where the idea to ask teachers about forming a show choir was ignited.

She'd spent the evening hanging out here with someone, going over there to talk to someone else, asking to stay to watch the post-game band performance while I hurried to the car for the hot spot connector I'd forgotten. 

Even as I raced deadline, typing in the dark, I marveled at the unselfconscious courage that I didn't possess until years later, and only then in spurts. 

The game itself was fantastic, one of the best high school football games I've ever seen. The teams traded body blows and big plays. A defensive end from the other school split two defenders and was in the quarterback's face in warp speed, and I felt my jaded, 40-year-old sportswriter mouth drop open. 

Later, I felt it smiling, just so glad to be right there, right then, able to appreciate the moment while feverishly calculating running stats. 

The underdog won on the last play. The game was tied at 10, and an offense that hadn't picked up a first down in a long time staged a less-than-two-minute drill to do John Elway proud. The quarterback, running for his life (and doing so with what had to be at least 4.4 speed) most of the night, completed passes of 11, then 16, then 12 yards.

Then, on third down, with 11 seconds left, another completion, for 34 yards, to the 1-yard line, where a timeout was taken with four seconds left on the clock.

You have to kick it, I said to the clock operator sitting next to me, with whom I'd exchanged several incredulous looks as the game went on.  

This team's kicker had already made a 43-yarder, off a snap that bounced, in the first quarter. It was a no-brainer. There was only time for one more play, and if a touchdown try came up short, no one liked the underdog's chances in overtime. 

The offense came back out on the field, lined up and went off left tackle for 1 yard and the win. 

The coach, a former Clemson safety still proudly sporting those Tiger stripes pregame, said he never considered kicking.  Gargantuan balls (maybe mixed with a dash of foolhardiness).

I know a lot can go wrong on a field goal attempt, especially in high school. I understand his senior running back said to give him the ball.  I would've kicked the field goal. 

The senior defensive end, who'd missed the past two seasons with injuries, said he tries to play like his favorite player, then asked if I'd heard of Jadeveon Clowney. I showed him my iPhone cover, which has a black-and-garnet Gamecock on a white background. Yeah, I've heard of him. 

It was a night that began with a stunning sunset mere blocks from the Atlantic Ocean and ended with my heart racing in a way it hadn't in years. Not from fear. From amazement.

Amazement that stemmed, I realized as I drove my slightly bummed but still-chattering child home, from more than one source. 

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Photo retouching by Maddie Kerns

Photo retouching by Maddie Kerns