Friday Night Lights

Two powerhouse football teams own the gridiron in my school district. Their clashes are legendary, twenty years of rivalry, sometimes civil, that help define the culture at both schools. Last Friday was the “Beach Bowl” between the two, the winner leaving with a painted surfboard, bragging rights for the year, and a score for the crowd to chant from the stands at the first rivalry basketball game.

I worked at one of these schools for five years, and I understand the fantastic energy behind the game, so as I was in my office preparing for our own homecoming football contest, the voice in my head kept wanting to drop in register to sound like a sports announcer and say: “meanwhile, across town…

photo-3San Dieguito gave up football in 1996, a bold decision at a school with a rich history of the sport that includes greats like Tom Dempsey and just last year received two “Golden Footballs” from the NFL to celebrate Mustang grads who have played in Superbowls.

But times and traditions change, and at the same time the NFL was determining that hits with the helmet would result in fines, San Dieguito was choosing a new course, honoring the past, but looking toward a different, funkier, future.

That future, which has become our present, takes the long established idea of “the big game” and riffs on it like a Miles Davis take of “Bye Bye Blackbird.”

Our homecoming football game at San Dieguito doesn’t just celebrate eleven boys. Instead, nearly 500 students, male and female, freshmen through seniors, form teams and play in a flag football tournament that lasts all afternoon. Everyone is welcome to make goofy uniforms, connect with friends, and have fun.

At 7:00 PM the top four student teams play the staff.

photo-2I was having a conversation with a respected former principal from the county office of education last week and we talked about the things we do to put into practice the stated values of our schools. She mentioned that some schools review their mission and vision statements at every staff meeting, and that sometimes assemblies can focus on honoring academic achievements as well as athletics. I kept thinking: at San Dieguito we have the Dorkathalon, and the Student Forum, and the least conventional homecoming football game on the planet.

For those who haven’t yet attended “the big game” at San Dieguito in the last twenty years or so, imagine this…

Students sit along the sideline, many still wearing homemade flag football uniforms from the afternoon’s tournament. Some hold signs, many with puns, celebrating their friends, and all cheer from their spots so close to the action.

In the stands parents, students, and a few alumni watch the game, while threading through the crowd a teacher and a student pass wireless microphones to give fans a chance to shout out hellos and support (and occasional play calling advice) to their friends, players, and teachers on the field.

danceParents ref. A physics teacher in a kilt takes sideline photos. The staff team, wearing twenty year old Mustang football jerseys (last laundered, it seems, in 1996) prays to avoid injury; the last time  most of us played competitively none of these students had yet been born.

At halftime the students have a dance party in the middle of the field.

The game itself is competitive, filled with smiles, and fun. Rumor has it that in years past things got chippy, and local historians talk about bones broken in contests long past, but in my experience the game has always been “very SDA,” the only injuries pride, and the profound soreness of a forty-something on the day after an evening of playing a young person’s game.

We don’t have to beat the stuffing out of each other to have school pride. We don’t need to review our school’s vision statement at a meeting; we need to live it. Last Friday, at the best football game in our district, we did.

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