High school football holds a special place in the hearts of many. It's a way many in a community connect; a school is the center of many communities - especially in northern Michigan - and football on a Friday night is the symbol of that school.
I played three years of high school football at Mancelona (I ran cross country my junior year and hit a growth spurt right in the middle of the season). As a freshman and sophomore I played junior varsity football, so my Friday night home games were occupied with marching in the band at home games. Road games I rode the pep bus for students or went to the game with my family, and sometimes helped keep stats for the coaches with my friend Denny Derrer - whose brothers Dan, Doug and Dave now coach Mancelona.
When I was in elementary school we lived in Caseville, and football was played on Saturday afternoons. My dad coached the team the first few years we lived there. As kids we were a little less aware of the action and played our own games behind the end zone, stopping to watch when the action got closer to us.
I remember one game in Port Hope where my dad bought Playtex gloves during a rainy game hoping they would help with the grip. They didn't, but now gloves are made for gripping the ball better. I guess my dad was an innovator.
The one thing I remember was what we still see now - everybody coming to the game to root on their kids, their friends' and neighbors' kids, and kids they don't know except "that nice young boy who bagged my groceries."
We know these kids, or recognize their faces and names. They might be Cousin Bob's co-worker's son and that is our connection, but they are one of us, they are from our hometown and they represent us in some way.
Friday nights are special. There are the guys from "that dominant team from, what year was that" who gather in one spot to watch the game and socialize at the same time. There are the parents who are friends and all sit together and congratulate the others when their son makes a big play. There are the students, who may or may not pay attention to the game but certainly have a good time socializing.
Then there is the band, and the fight song. You might not know the words to the fight song because you didn't go to this school, but it's your school now because you live here. Heck, you might have gone to school here and still don't know the words, but you can and do clap and keep beat with the band.
And there is nothing better than the setting for high school football. Early in the season the sun sets well into the first half, but as the season progresses it gets darker earlier. With the colors in the trees and setting sun, there is something warm about the start of a game even if it's cold.
There's the wind and sometimes rain, but this is northern Michigan so most of us come prepared with winter coats, gloves, hats, rain gear, blankets, umbrellas - whatever it takes to stay warm and dry so we can make it through the game.
We are there cheering on the boys - our boys - hoping they are able to win but cheering them win or lose. We give them "Atta boys" if they win and words of encouragement about the next time if they lose because they are our boys.
On the way to the parking lot we say our goodbyes, give well wishes, and make plans for the next game. For the smaller schools in the area, plans might be made for a road game; for people who aren't parents of players in Alpena and Posen where the travel is longer it's usually for the next home game. Then it's into the car, making our way out of the parking lot, and heading home. Just a typical night watching our boys play football, represent our school and town - and us.
There is nothing like a football Friday in northern Michigan.