I didn’t grow up playing sports. When I was younger, we moved around way too much for me to be anywhere long enough to learn a sport.
Besides, I gravitated toward the kids who weren’t so likely to be athletes. As I became more of the stereotypical nerdy brainiac by junior high school, it was easy to simply say that I disliked sports, because I could lump the jocks into a group and paint them with a very broad (and unfair) brush as idiots. I didn’t know much about sports and I was pretty disdainful of those who played.
My first real interest in high school sports came when I was editor of my high school newspaper and my own school’s team had a storybook year. The Walker Vikings lost the first game of the year, but they didn’t lose again until the Alabama state championship final in the largest size classification at the time. Even then, though, I was seeing it from the perspective of a student inside his own school. I didn’t see the bigger picture.
It wasn’t until I started working at a newspaper during college that I developed a love for football and basketball. High school sports mattered in the communities we served, so I wrote hundreds of stories about football and basketball — and shot pictures in many dimly lit gyms and many tiny stadiums. Many of those games were in tiny communities where those schools — and pride in their teams — was a big part of holding the community together.
On Friday nights, I might drive to a couple of games, staying long enough at each to get pictures and a feel for the game. Afterward, I’d talk to coaches on the phone, getting quotes from men who were excited about wins and from others who were heartbroken and frustrated about losses. Although I might attend a game or two in person, I would also write another few game stories for games I’d never seen, just based on quotes and stats from coaches.
I slowly learned the stories of the people in those communities — and how much the teams, traditions, players and victories mattered to them. I couldn’t stereotype the “dumb jocks” anymore. I saw real people who cared deeply about their schools, kids and communities. I saw drama, excitement and heartbreak.
I saw people who experienced a sense of community from high school sports that they got nowhere else in their lives. They might watch Alabama football on television, but most of these people would never attend a game in Tuscaloosa. They might watch NFL games on television as well, but the NFL was a distant thing that existed only on a TV screen. Their own high school teams were real to them in a way that college and pro sports could never be.
After all these years, I still check the high school football scoreboard late on Friday nights. I check for my own Walker Vikings, but I also check for the results from teams such as the Curry Yellow Jackets, the Carbon Hill Bulldogs, the Oakman Wildcats, the Cordova Blue Devils and the Dora Bulldogs.
I’ve stood on the fields of all those schools (and more) among their players, coaches and fans. I can still smell the mixture of grass and hot sweaty bodies. Every high school field seemed to smell the same. Every locker room had the same terrible smells. But there was something about being a reporter and photographer on the sidelines with those kids that made you feel what they were feeling.
Seeing how much they cared — the players, the coaches, the fans — made me care about them and about their communities.
I don’t know any of the people in those places today. But I know what each Friday night means in those communities during football season. I know what other nights of the week mean during basketball season. I know the degree to which those teams give those communities a sense of togetherness and pride.
I didn’t grow up playing sports or loving them, but if you ever understand what these teams mean to the people of their communities, it’s hard not to care. It’s hard not to want to stand on the fields and in the gyms with them — just for a moment at least — and be part of something much bigger than any one individual.
And before I forget, I should point out that my Walker Vikings beat John Carroll Catholic 48-17 in Class 6A regional action tonight. I don’t know why I still care so much, but I do.