It was in the 1950s--probably midway--when I attended my last football game. Fairhope's biggest rival was Foley. It was the biggest game in the season.
In those days I went to Fairhope's "other" school, the little School of Organic Education with an enrollment of about 50 in the high school. My friends and I faithfully went to all the home games of Fairhope High. I sat with five or six lifelong friends (they are til this day) and thrilled to the sound of the bands, the atmosphere charged by the energy of cheerleaders--the smell of autumn in the air and all the trappings of the game. Going to a football game was exciting, and Fairhope always had a good, competitive team. The Foley game was the highlight of the year.
This particular year Fairhope was winning by a big lead. It was several years before Kenny Stabler was on the Foley team. We wouldn't have known his name in those days anyway.
All I know for sure is that Foley was not going to win this one. It was a slaughter, and we knew it was a slaughter before the end of the first half. That was when one of my favorite people on the planet made an astounding suggestion.
"Let's go sit on the Foley side for the second half," he said. "We can boo until they give up!"
I was shocked to hear this. Stunned and heartbroken. "No!"
But I was much more heartbroken at the response. This bright and beautiful young man got the support of all my friends and a few others from the Fairhope side. Double whammy heartbreak for the starry-eyed girl from Montrose (me).
I said, "If you do this, I'm leaving. And I'll never come to another football game." They were incredulous, but nobody supported my action.
At the break, while the bands were playing and the half-time show was going on, a group of about ten youngsters from Fairhope actually traipsed over the Foley side and found front row seats (Foley didn't have many in the stands). When the game started again there they sat, cheering wildly every time Fairhope had a successful play on the field, no matter how small, and jeering at the top of their lungs when someone on the Foley team attempted a counter action. It was a spectacle I have never forgotten.
By then I was ready to walk away from the game. I lived far enough away that I had to await a ride from my mother, who would pick me up by the time the game ended. There was no telephone nearby so I could let her know I was ready to go home early. I stood near the field but out of sight of the game, and heard the roars from the stands when Fairhope made touchdowns and the slight sounds when Foley did something that might make a point.
I knew at that moment I had changed my life with that action. Never again would I see football or any other sport as an innocent, positive aspect of American life. I would see the whole spectrum of competitive athletics as fostering the opposite of "good sportsmanship." I didn't want to learn the finer points of the game. I would never again thrill to joining the cheerleaders in their chants, yelling myself hoarse with the best of them. I would go to the basketball games for my school; I once even attended a local bush league baseball game and was bored to tears after a few innings. I tolerated sports on television when I had to. But for the next fifty years I would like football least of all.
It was a small incident, really. Over the years I've wondered why I allowed it to be so meaningful in my life. With the orgy of emotion in this country over every game--high school, college, and professional--and the obscene amount of money that controls all organized sports, I suspect this may be one of the times I was wrong. Sometimes it seems to me that football is the engine that drives my country, prepares its young men for actual battle and definitely for the hard core workplace. It makes people happy to win and win big. Cheering for the winners is a national pastime. All of this, with my teenaged decision, was lost to me for a lifetime.
Maybe it was destined to happen anyway. There are plenty of people who have things they'd rather do than watch football. Probably I would have become one of them without the scene I witnessed. Clearly I overreacted. Now when I think of the joy of high school football I remember that night and it is like a black hole in my soul. At 71 it's probably time I cleared that hole out and put something in its place. Even now I don't know what, how or even why I would have to do that, and it is a little late.
I'll never be a football fan, but over time I've learned that it's not the game that creates the dark side in otherwise good people. The episode signaled the beginning of my loss of innocence, but it was highly personal and might have ended another way if I had not been so judgmental of those near and dear friends. I shall find other things to do than attend a Super Bowl party this evening. Maybe I'll use the time to work on ways to replace that memory and not hold all of the culture of football responsible for the bad behavior of a few teenagers in a remote utopian enclave of the distant past.