Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Turn on the lights

    No one knows better than LSU and New Orleans Saints fans how hurricanes can mess with football season.
     With that in mind as I write this piece -- and Hurricane Isaac bears down on the state we love (and other Gulf regions -- it is time to turn on the lights for football. At least it is in Louisiana and in Texas (Tennessee, for instance, is already in its third week of high school play).
     Now it's for real, not scrimmages or jamborees. It is the highly anticipated, always exciting time for season openers ... in high school and in colleges.
       It's a neat feeling to arrive at the stadium where people are excited to be there. Good as it is in the bigger cities, it's even better in one-high school towns.
       In my sportswriting career, covering football games -- especially high school football -- has been about as much fun as anything. So my season, my final season, begins Friday night at Wilemon Field in Arlington, Texas. 
Mansfield (Texas) High will be one of the teams in
 the game at Wilemon Field in Arlington on
 Friday night (Fort Worth Star-Telegram photo).
       The Mansfield High-Arlington Bowie game should be one of the top games in this area, and -- as Coach Jerry Adams used to say so often -- if the Lord is willing and the creeks don't rise -- I'll be there to cover it for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
        I have been working parttime for the Star-Telegram this year, covering some high school events last winter and spring, with this football season in mind. After my layoff as a fulltime employee last year, I did want to cover football last fall -- first chance I'd had to do that in a dozen years -- and did so for The Dallas Morning News, where I also worked parttime in the office.
         So that put me at games in Weatherford, The Colony, Dallas' John E. Kincaide Stadium, Wilemon Field, Azle, Keller, Justin Northwest and Fort Worth Christian.
         It was my first time to cover high school games in Texas. Having covered games for much of my career in Louisiana, plus games in Florida and Tennessee, and having seen games in Hawaii and Georgia, I can tell you this: The enthusiasm for high school football is great in every state I've been.
         But Texas indeed does it bigger and better than anyone. Many of the stadiums I've seen -- up close or from passing by -- are larger and more comfortable than anywhere else. The press boxes (and that's a priority for me) are roomier and more comfortable. I haven't covered football at Southlake Carroll, but I did cover a soccer game there, and that's a facility on par with many small colleges, or better.  But the new stadiums at Weatherford and Northwest, just to use two examples, are very nice.
        And I haven't seen the new standard -- Eagle Stadium in Allen (close to Plano and Frisco),  which will seat 18,000 and cost some $60 million to build.  But I have seen Allen play, with its dressout squad that numbered more than 100 and its 700-member band.  Yes, you read that correctly -- 700.
        Bigger and better. 
        That's the point here. In Texas, everyone gets deeply involved. There is great emphasis not only on the football team, but the cheerleaders, dance lines, bands, booster clubs, concession workers, whatever.
           The closest I've seen to matching Texas was in South Georgia, especially at Valdosta High, which had one of the great high school traditions in the country. Talent-wise on the football field, Florida could match Texas, but from my experience in northeast Florida, the facilities and involvement weren't anywhere close.  
          And, of course, I spent a little more than 25 years (through the 1960s, '70 and '80s) watching high school football in Louisiana, where the talent was also superb most years and, as I remember it, the interest was incredible. I'm sure it's still the same in many places; I just haven't been there since 1988.
         Loved covering games at LSU and Louisiana Tech, and a dozen other college stops, and the Cowboys at Texas Stadium and the Saints at the Superdome. Didn't like battling the big crowds or being part of a large media contingent trying to conduct interviews.
         Yet, covering high school football is a bigger challenge.
         At the NFL and college games, you have TVs in the press box to watch the game or watch replays, you are provided play-by-play sheets, statistics, quotes, a regulated interview process afterward. You usually have easy access to what you need to send in your story.
          At high school games, you keep your own play-by-play and your own statistics. It's not as easy as it sounds. Play moves pretty rapidly; you better keep up. And there's usually no replay to watch what you missed (although some stadiums do have video boards now).
          What I found last season -- after my long absence from the high school scene -- was that with the emphasis on the spread, no-huddle offenses and the passing game, my stats sheet -- which I first drew up in about 1970 and passed on to a couple of generations of young sportswriters -- was outdated. Not enough room for passes (30 was the limit) or first downs (20).
            So, with the help of Jason Hoskins in Star-Telegram sports, I have a new form -- up to 60 passes, 28 first downs, room for one back to carry 40 times and another to carry 20, etc. Hey, I'm ready.
              Another thing about high school coverage: Deadlines can be tight. Game ends at 10:15, and you need to have your story in in 30 minutes. If you want quotes, you have to hurry down to the field or locker room and do an interview or two. It's a scramble.
             But unlike the pros and/or colleges, where access can be limited and coaches and even players can get surly or short (sure, the media asks dumb questions), high school coaches and players are usually glad to see you and are cooperative. You might have to dig for information or a usable quote, but whatever you write is usually appreciated.
             Covered my first game in 1967 as a parttimer for The Shreveport Times -- a Sterlington-at-Benton playoff game. My first game as a fulltime Times sportswriter was two years later -- Minden-at-Bossier on a rainy night at Bossier's Memorial Stadium.
             Minden, which had been down a few years, pulled a 6-0 upset. Milford Andrews was the Bossier coach, a terrific coach but not a talkative one even when he won. That night, he was a tough guy to quote.
            I've covered a hundred games in Shreveport-Bossier. But I enjoyed covering games all over Louisiana, especially visits to Haughton, Natchitoches, Springhill, Minden, Ruston, Jonesboro-Hodge, Monroe, Haynesville, Homer, Winnfield; playoff games in Bastrop, Sulphur, Zachary, Lutcher, New Orleans' City Park Stadium.
            Fortunate to cover great players (more than a few who went on to the NFL), great games, so many decided on the final play, state championship games (Haynesville's first two under legendary coach Alton "Red" Franklin, the second one in a 7-7 tie with arch-rival Homer decided on first downs when Haynesville got two first downs in the final minute).
           There was the night in Springhill in '70 when the Lumberjacks lost to Hammond in the state semifinals and, because I was writing my story in the press box and it was late, my girlfriend and I were locked in the stadium (all the gates were chained). I had to call Coach Travis Farrar at home, and ask him to let us out.
            A cold, cold night in the late '90s in tiny Dunlap, Tenn. -- near Chattanooga -- when the home team, Sequatchie County, lost to the team from the Knoxville area, Alcoa. Couldn't write my story for the Knoxville News Sentinel until my hands thawed out. I was in the coaches' office, and everyone left except the janitor. Finally, he said, "I'm leaving. Just close the office when you're done." I could have taken anything I wanted as a souvenir.
             I've got more tales, but that's for the future.
              Last fall, I covered eight games in which only three teams -- I believe -- had winning records (two in the private-school state title game). But I was fortunate; every game I covered was interesting, fairly close and competitive. No blowouts.
             I should be so lucky this year. Heck, I am lucky to be doing this one more season.
             So I finish with this note: Mother Nature, it is not nice to mess with football. Please.         

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