By Paul Schmidt
I have a friend who, every year for the last 8 or 9 years, watches Varsity Blues today. More precisely, yesterday, I guess.
No, not the Ali Larter whip cream bikini. At least, not entirely because of that.
Because he is a sports reporter, and he covers high school football, and it’s his ritual before the first high school football game he covers every year.
Having been a part of in depth high school coverage while working at a smaller paper, I can safely say that the anticipation of this day is, well, hard really to describe. There’s “Van Tour,” where we went to every high school in our coverage area, and spent an hour with each team, chatting up players and coaches and getting photos of everyone.
There’s putting together the mammoth football preview, which an epic merging of both journalism and design, all wrapped up into one pullout section.
There’s the game-by-game preview before week one, and then…the big day. The great day. The first games.
Covering football at the high school level isn’t like doing it in college or the pros. From a coverage standpoint, at the higher levels, you take some notes, but mainly, you’re watching the game and trying to come up with interesting questions for post-game press conferences and interviews. And also, don’t forget, eating the delicious (hopefully) food spread out for you.
Not in high school though.
First of all, one should never, EVER cover a high school football game from the stands or the press box. The only way to experience the game is from the sidelines — a much less sanitized and much more real experience than you get at the higher levels. You’re there with the players, the officials, and you can literally see and hear everything. You can interact with the teams and the trainers, and if you’re smart about it the coaches too.
Anyone who has ever covered sporting events HAS to cover at least one high school football game, if for no other reason to be on the sidelines to do it — it’s just a different experience.
So tonight (last night, whatever) was opening night. I don’t spend my whole life at the newspaper anymore, but I still string games for them when they need me, and not for the spectacular amount of money it gives me. It’s certainly for the experience of being there.
I spent three hours on the road attempting to get out to West Chicago High School to see Wheaton Academy (which, it should be mentioned, isn’t in Wheaton and doesn’t have a football field at their school) take on the Momence Redskins. This wasn’t a battle of two classical state powers, just two fairly evenly matched teams going at it.
Week one games are always strange, and you never know what to expect, mainly because these are just kids out there, and they’ve only been practicing for three weeks. I definitely got my money’s worth tonight, with a three hour game, 62 passes for almost 600 yards, 6 turnovers, 21 penalties for 210 yards, a low, strange fog that made the field
look like it was in Haddonfield straight out of the movie Halloween and two hits that were so huge my bones are still rattling just from being in the vicinity of them.
Wheaton came away as winners, 28-18, with one play standing out above them all. Momence’s quarterback dropped back to throw, and was absolutely crushed by a blindside blitz. He was in his throwing motion as he got hit, and lost the ball. It looked as though his arm was going forward, and 21 players on the field reacted as though the play was whistled dead.
Wheaton’s Louis Bianco, a senior defensive lineman, did not, and wisely scooped up the ball and ran it in for the game’s final score, securing the victory for his team.
It’s those kind of plays that make high school football great, where there’s no instant replay, even though maybe there should be, and you have one player alert enough to change the momentum of the game for good.
The Momence loss meant that they wasted two spectacular offensive performances from their aforementioned QB, junior Seth Stevenson (19-29 for 322 yards and 2 touchdowns, and great leadership on the sidelines, lecturing two different players after unnecessary unsportsmanlike conduct penalties), and wide receiver David Clayton (5 catches for 151 yards and those two touchdowns).
Hopefully over the course of the season I can bring you a couple more moments like this, snippets of either greatness or humility, sportsmanship or competitiveness, that comes with these great young competitors on the gridiron, if for no other reason than to bring you just a little of the excitement I get from watching these kids play — so much so that it’s almost 2:30 a.m. and I’m still awake.
It truly is the greatest day of the year.
Now if I could find my copy of Varsity Blues….