I went home for Thanksgiving this year, as I have been fortunate enough to be able to do since I started attending college. This would be my first Thanksgiving since I graduated college and moved to New York. I have been fortunate enough to be able to travel in my lifetime and I’ve had the opportunity to live in and experience a wide variety of locations and cultures. Doing so has changed my perspective on my hometown, and probably warped the reality of what it was like to grow up there. Being raised by two liberal, well-traveled parents with diverse backgrounds in a small conservative town always gave me the sense that there was more to the world, but all the traveling I did while growing up couldn’t quite compare to my realization of the world after having actually lived in it.
When attending college, I wanted to get the opposite experience of my hometown which landed me in a state school outside of a major city. The change was a big one, a welcome one, but a surprising one. I began to see the flaws of this new way of living as it compared to what I was used to in my small hometown; a place that I found was starting to redeem itself in my head.
In the years leading up to and following my graduation, my hometown has had to endure a string of tragedies that has left a gaping hole in the community. But with every tragedy came a sense of camaraderie and togetherness that is difficult to find elsewhere. This small town banded together again and again to support those who needed it most. This sense of community and camaraderie was highlighted by the high school’s principal in his final graduation address as his last year in a successful role. Like many small towns, the community often finds its focus around the town’s high school. Although I often thought that my town tended to not abide by this generalization, in the last few years I have been able to see it a little more clearly. What’s more, I have realized that that isn’t such a bad thing.
Now, several years later and even further removed, the transition from the pace and diversity of a metropolis to the quiet and homogeneity of my hometown was even greater, but even more appreciated. A few days before I returned home, my mom asked if I wanted to go to a high school football game; she would have to buy tickets ahead of time so she wanted to ask.
Weird, I thought. Although I had only been to one football game during my time attending the high school in question, I found it surprising that tickets would need to be bought ahead of time to watch a team which, in my experience, had found difficulty in scoring an extra point. My mom stressed to me that this would be a big game, a game that the whole town would be paying attention to. I didn’t think twice. What could be better to return home from a big city than to watch a Friday Night Lights style football game where the home team was the star.
Over the next few days and after I came home, the stage was set for me — it was like something out of a movie. My sister, who still goes to the school and stands proudly as a member of the football team’s fanbase, was more excited than I had seen her for any sporting event.
My hometown team, which had been steadily improving since my graduation, would be facing off against one of the state’s best football schools in the semi-finals for the state championship. In the year prior, the antagonizing team hosted us in the quarter-finals of the same competition. They packed their college-sized (according to my sister) stadium that rested at a small school in a small, football-crazed town in the middle of the countryside. By comparison, my rural hometown looked like a suburb. But this small school attracted some of the best football talent in the state, taking them to win the last 5 out of six successive championship games. It was David vs Goliath. Last year the hosts beat us handily, leaving my improving hometown team running back to the drawing board.
This year my sister insisted it would be different. She held out the same hope that I did when I played for my woefully unsuccessful high school soccer team on the same field. Each time we hosted better teams from wealthier schools with artificial turf at their home stadiums, we held on to hope that our torn up grass field would give us an edge. For me, each time we were proven wrong.
My sister and the rest of the town seemed optimistic given that our record and the visitors’ were similar. We had both lost just a single game and we were consistently winning by similar margins. Our opponents averaged more points in the game, but also tended to concede more. On paper, it would be close.
The home team had hung a banner in the weight room with the simple numbers ‘55–6’ printed on it. It served as a consistent reminder of the embarrassment they faced as they exited the playoffs in the quarter finals to the same opposition that they faced tonight.
Even still, the legacy of our opposition was difficult to ignore. Despite a supposedly weaker side than last years’, I was finding it hard to believe that the game would be anything more than a narrow defeat.
The visiting team supposedly had a fanatical fanbase. The town that they played in lived and breathed the high school’s football. There were concerns floating around the town that the visiting fanbase would outnumber home supporters.
Just before we left the house, we got a hurried message from my sister. “Don’t drive the red car. It’s their colors.” We laughed and took a different car. On our way we saw several signs on the main road through town, each seeming to work to celebrate the home team while intimidating the visitors. We arrived at the stadium an hour and a half before kickoff as a compromise between my sister’s two hour suggestion and my family’s 15 minute assumption. Even still, when we arrived we found that the parking lot at the school was totally full and we would need to find parking elsewhere. It was starting to feel like Friday Night Lights.
The blistery cold greeted us as we walked down the hill to the stadium. In the daytime, the school overlooked a beautiful landscape of rolling hills. At night, you could see nothing but the stars and the moon. Even still, the campus was bustling. We arrived just as the home team was exiting the school and walking down to the field to warm up, the light from the temporary floodlights shone brightly off of their helmets. There wasn’t much conversation happening between the team, there was only focus. They were greeted with huge cheers from an already impressive home support showing. Even 90 minutes before the game began the designated bleacher seating had been taken as well as a large portion of the adjacent hill. The crowd talked as the student supporters near the field became more and more excited.
The visiting team was greeted with boos as they began their warm up, mainly coming from the student supporters and home cheerleaders. As we looked on while the teams warmed up, it was becoming clearer and clearer to me just how big of a blowout this game could be. The visitors looked more organized, better drilled, more prepared, and more intense than the home team. Where the home team seemed to be doing their best, they simply didn’t look to be on the same level. The visitors warmed up with ease as their own marching band exited from the three traveling coach buses and took to the field. My parents and I shared concerned glances from our first impressions of the disparity between the two teams.
We discussed our expectations for the game as well as our happiness with our preparation for the cold weather amongst ourselves and with other townspeople that approached us casually. Everyone seemed cautiously optimistic, but I certainly had my concerns.
Just before the game began, the national anthem played over the subpar, tinny speakers and the crowd silenced. The Friday Night Lights stage had been fully set as everyone cheered for the completion of the anthem, their breath visible in the cold, late November air. After some formalities were had on the field and strange sponsorships were read over the speakers, the game began.
Less than five minutes in, the first score of the game. And who could it be? The cheers around the stadium would give it away. The home team was up 7–0. The student section was jumping and the crowd was excited. It was the best possible start. In the blink of an eye that lead was doubled by the end of the first quarter and quadrupled by the end of the half. The crowd was raucous and who could blame them. The visitors looked dejected and the home team couldn’t keep the smiles off their faces. Yet they remained composed, focused.
Halftime brought jubilance among the supporters in the crowd, but the members of the student section remained cautious. After telling my sister that I thought our team looked good, she quickly told me not to say just that, to avoid giving the ‘powers-that-be’ that neither of us believe in an opportunity to change the makeup of the game at the start of the second half.
But still, as the second half began it was clear that it would be more of the same. The home team continued to dominate as the visitors continued to be shocked. It was a combination of an off-performance from a strong team and a great performance from an even stronger team. The scores piled up and the home team was leading 41–0 with only three minutes left in the game.
Leading up to the game, a matchup between two stellar running backs had been a main talking point. The half of the matchup that was playing for the home team had an excellent evening while his opposition had been kept quiet. The crowd was getting excited and the students were anxiously waiting to celebrate when the visitors’ star runner finally got his break.
After breaking a couple of tackles, there was nothing but 40 empty yards between himself and the endzone. It was clear to all of the supporters that the shutout was no longer feasible until the crowd saw someone gaining on him.
The home player ran as hard as he could. He was gaining ground but it would be close. Finally, as a last ditch effort, he dove and at full stretch managed to put the attacker off balance just enough to force him out of bounds at the four yard line.
This play defined the game.
Hard work until the final whistle. An eagerness to avoid any scoring. The home team held their opposition through three downs and forced a fumble on the fourth. From there, all they needed to do was run out the clock.
The crowd went wild. The players were celebrating before the clock reached zero and the throngs of student supporters had already begun rushing the field when the clock finally ran out. Mayhem broke out as “Sweet Caroline” played over the speakers and the dejected away team walked back up the hill to their locker room. As my family made our way back to our car, my dad told a member of the opposing team that they’d had a good game. He responded, sounding disappointed, but gracious in defeat, saying that we had been the better team on the night.
It’s this combination of heart, hard work, and class shown by both the home and away teams. It’s the display of community and togetherness shown by the supporters that really shows how special this moment is. It’s what makes my hometown so special and it’s what makes me proud to have grown up there. Although I never fully felt that I belonged while I lived there, I can certainly see the echoes of my morals and my values shining through when I return. It’s something I will always be grateful for, and it’s definitely not a place I will forget.
In the time since I began writing this article, my hometown attended the state finals and emerged state champions. Their fairytale story had a fitting fairytale ending.