Kenny Byrd broke one tackle, then another, and soon he had nothing in front of him but end zone. The crowd roared with delight; the marching band lifted its horns and belted out a celebratory rendition of “Shut Up and Dance.” Cowbells clanged. Behind me, the superintendent of schools celebrated next to a local Republican candidate for the State Legislature. In front of me, a Latino family embraced before turning around to offer me high-fives. I obliged them. Though I hadn’t lived in Hot Springs, Ark., for more than 20 years, this was my alma mater.
When I did live there, I was an angsty punk, a skateboarding misfit who hated football. My father was a captain for the team — the Trojans — when he was in high school. As a kid, he literally lived on his own, in a house with his brother and no adult supervision, ducking social services and fending for himself by hustling (and occasionally robbing) drunken gamblers downtown. Football gave him a reason to come to school and an outlet for him to hit people as hard as he could.
In his rush to introduce me to the game he loved, he suited me up for tackle football in second grade. I can still remember the feeling of my little head rattling around inside the helmet after getting knocked to the ground. And I haven’t yet forgotten the torment and taunting the football players put me through in high-school phys ed. The game represented everything I hated about growing up in Hot Springs. It was a celebration of masculine violence and vapid tradition, a pointless superficial contest.
There are, of course, fates worse than being bullied. High-school-football players are nearly twice as likely as college players to have concussions. And it now seems all but certain that there is a direct link between high-school players’ multiple head traumas and neurodegenerative brain diseases like chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.). I opted for musical theater instead.
But in my 20s, I began to understand just how central the game is to so many communities. It started when I was working as a union organizer in a little town in upstate New York, living out of a dingy motel room. Kingston, N.Y., was even smaller than Hot Springs, and the Kingston Tigers weren’t a particularly good football team. But every Friday night the sound of the stadium’s public-address system would carry across Kingston like a siren, alerting everyone to report for duty. The modest stadium would fill with folks from all over town — after all, there was nothing else to do.
As thrilling as it was to cheer for a Kingston wide receiver snatching a 25-yard pass out of the air with one hand, what really hooked me was halftime, when the marching band took the field. If there were 50 kids on the Tigers football team, there were 200 in that band. They played soaring compositions and moved around the field with big props and set pieces. It was enough theatrics to make you forget you were even at a sporting event.
A friend of mine who teaches high school told me that it always amazed her to see kids who never showed any initiative in her class pour so much effort into these Friday-night performances. This was apparent at the recent Trojans game, from the kid kicking a 44-yard field goal to the lone boy on the drill team, with his shock of pink hair, throwing his flag in the air and catching it with all of the intensity of a Cirque du Soleil performer. I could finally see what my teenage self was blind to: The stands were filled with doting parents and proud siblings, supportive neighbors and sentimental alumni. High-school football was more than just sports — it was a tent revival, a carnival, a jamboree.
The game is especially important to Hot Springs. In fact, it very likely saved the town once. In the spring of 1968, the season before Hot Springs High School was integrated, the football team was riding a 2-34 record that stretched over the previous three seasons. While many high schools in Arkansas chose not to integrate their athletic teams after desegregation, Hot Springs was one of the first that did. Many people in Hot Springs say that the experience of cheering on a football team arm in arm with families they had never met did a lot to ease race relations during a tumultuous time. It couldn’t have hurt that the integrated Trojans went undefeated and won the state championship in 1970.
Today Hot Springs High School is one of the most diverse schools in the state, and fewer than half the students are white. Decades of white flight have taken a toll on the city’s tax base. The school serves a population where 30 percent of the people live in poverty. It is, as they say, a community not without its challenges. But on this Friday night, those challenges seemed surmountable. On this Friday night, as we celebrated Kenny Byrd’s touchdown together, we were winners.
Perhaps this game won’t survive another 50 years, and maybe it shouldn’t. I know I’ll do everything I can to persuade my sons to join the drill team and twirl flags. But even if football disappears, something else will take its place. Kids will always need an outlet where their many talents can be celebrated. Adults still need plenty of help learning to live together. And on Friday nights, in small towns across America, none of us are trying to stay home.