Saturday, September 07, 2013

Return to High School Football

I remember the first high school football game I attended. It was 1967. I was 5. My grandfather insisted to my parents, "you gotta see my boy play." My grandfather -- the kids called him Doc Keller but we called him "Boppy" -- was the team doctor at Rippowam High School in Stamford, Connecticut. He was a general practitioner and ENT man who made old-fashioned home visits and had an office in his house. His office wall was adorned with dozens of game balls and trophies, signed by players of many victorious contests. I never quite understood how the team doctor ended up with all those game balls, but there they were.
High School Football, Michigan-style.
Boppy was my mother's father, but he had a sports bond with my father. They were both originally from Boston, just 17 years apart. Boppy was old enough to remember the Red Sox winning World Series, and he'd tell stories of how the kids who couldn't afford to go to the games would gather in Kenmore Square and watch the ticker to see how the games were going; there being no radio at the time. In September of 1967, with the Red Sox shockingly in the pennant race, my parents took us on a trip to Stamford, from which Leo and Lou made a pilgrimage to Fenway Park... oops, Pahk, to see the Impossible Dream Sox play. I expect that, at some point during that trip Lou told Leo, "you gotta come back and see my boy play."

So, one Friday evening we made the trek from New Jersey up to Stamford, and saw Boppy's boy play. My mother pointed out my grandfather on the sideline, and she also pointed out the ambulance that he insisted be at the ready at every game in case a player was badly injured. And we watched Boppy's boy play. And boy, Boppy's boy could play -- he was fast and the other team couldn't catch him. As far as Boppy was concerned, Bobby Valentine was the son he'd never had, and I have no doubt Boppy would have stuck by him even after Valentine managed their beloved Red Sox to more than 90 losses in 2012.

I also remember the last high school football game I attended -- at least, before yesterday. It was 1979. I was in the high school band in Millburn, New Jersey. We'd won a grand total of 6 games during my 3 years there, and we were playing the annual Thanksgiving morning showdown game with our archrivals, Madison. Madison was on its way to yet another state championship, its 3rd in a row. According to the local papers, 10,000 people managed to cram their way in to our high school stadium, and if that might have been a small multiple of the actual attendance, it was still crammed. We scored first. The band played our fight song... whatever it was, no doubt lifted from some venerable college. Our quarterback even taunted the Madison team. Then Madison scored the next 20 points, and we consoled ourselves for having been respectable in defeat.

In Millburn, our games were on Saturday afternoons. The major band rehearsals were Saturday morning, and I could use my "go to services, get out of band rehearsal" card with total impunity. We had two shows a year, and we wore very silly hats. I have no pictures. The only show I can remember, we played "The Love Boat" and had a formation of a boat. Yes, really. (Ironically, we also played "The Love Boat" in college, though there it was more as a sing-along send-up to the more serious fight songs) One year, we had a band camp, but we were never much more sophisticated than marching 8 steps to 5 yards, and making sure our rhythm-challenged cymbal player actually played on the beat. We never played any competitions, just the games and local parades.

Aaron, during the halftime show.
Cut forward to last night. Aaron is named for his great grandfather, my Boppy, who passed away 4 years before Aaron was born. Having entered West Bloomfield High School for his junior year, Aaron has also joined its marching band. Before his first week in school, he spent a week in band camp, and they were serious. Their half-time show is an adaptation of Stravinsky's The Firebird. It would have been well beyond the capabilities of my high school band, for sure. Aaron played electric bass, in the "pit," so he's plugged in and doesn't march. The band has its own generator for the show. It took me some time to adjust to the idea of a marching band with a pit section and electric instruments.

We showed up for the game a few minutes before kick-off. Lori also attended West Bloomfield High, but wasn't sure if she'd actually seen a game there during her time in school. She finally decided she had, because she remembered that their helmets -- the team name is "Lakers" -- used to have a boat on them.

The band wore snappy green and black uniforms, and the marchers had stylish hats that I thought would look better without the feather. I noticed that they did not use lyres. The pit players did not play during the first half, and the band had a couple very basic bits -- one for a first down, and a fight song for a score. I didn't get any indication that the band was actually interested in the game; when West Bloomfield scored first, the only reaction I sensed from them was that it was time to play music. Sometimes, the band would play one thing while the cheerleaders were doing another thing. It didn't quite make sense to me.

Students showed up en masse at the start of the 2nd quarter. They stood the entire quarter, and through the halftime show, and did their best to make it noisy for a while. They nearly all wore black. As for the game, it was see-saw for a while. In the first 7 minutes we were treated to a fake punt, and on-side kick (both failed), and plenty of offense. It seemed the last team with the ball might win, until visiting Clarkston scored a pair of touchdowns late in the 2nd quarter. A well-executed 72-yard "hook and ladder" play with just half a minute to go in the half gave Clarkston a 10-point lead and broke the spirit of the West Bloomfield side; the final ended up at 41-18.
The West Bloomfield High School Band.
The band played at halftime, but not until after the dance squad and the cheerleaders had had their turns. It seemed to me that show went over well, and it sounded good to my ears. At Aaron's request, I videotaped it all. When the halftime show was over, the band proceeded to... leave the stadium. Today they had a band competition 50 miles away. But the cheerleaders kept going. At the end of the 3rd quarter, the students proceeded to leave the stadium en masse; with the students and the band gone, the north end of the home stands were pretty much empty. But the cheerleaders kept going.
The players knelt and a cart was brought out, but there was no ambulance for the injured.
On the field, as the score got out of hand, the West Bloomfield coach elected to sit the starting quarterback for a series, apparently for some discipline reason. The backup quarterback was also the team's best receiver, and on the 3rd play of his series he was badly injured. Players immediately signaled frantically to the sidelines for the medics. On both sidelines, the teams got down on a knee as the player as tended to on the field. Eventually he was lifted on to a motor cart and removed from the field, where there was no ambulance waiting.