Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Judithheartsong's October Essay Contest, Part One





The Autumn of 1998


This is the story of a football season that left an indelible impression on my life.


Hints of the season to come began during the summer. I was sitting on the beach with friends at the Jersey Shore, talking with the teenaged nephew of my college roommate. It was my favorite time of day, late afternoon when the sun turns a deep gold and everything in its path is bathed in bronze light.


Brandon, a senior, was finally going to be the starting quarterback and a tri-captain of his high school football team come September. It had been a long wait and he was itching for an opportunity to showcase his talent for a chance to play college ball. 


His wonderful, supportive dad, a former captain and coach of two NCAA championship teams at Texas, knew his son had two chances to play Division I football – slim and none – because, among other things, Brandon hadn’t started as a junior. But what parent wants to squash a son’s dream?


Meanwhile, I was dropping hints about how nicely the distinctive burnt umber of a Texas sweatshirt would set off my fall wardrobe – to no avail. 


Brandon, whose enviable tan was the color of toasted pecans, and I, whose skin had long since passed its expiration date, were probably talking or arguing about sports, something we did a lot. The fact that I watched SportsCenter instead of Oprah had set me apart from his other aunts early on. 


We played tennis. We went to the batting cages. On the beach, we were partners in some nasty beach paddle battles against his “who cares if she’s old enough to be our mother” cousins. Once I beat him in ping-pong. And I was pretty smug about it until he pointed out he had played me wrong-handed.


That day, as we sat in our beach chairs talking, Brandon said he had something he wanted to give me. Prankster that he was, it could have been anything – a dead crab, a bug, a melted ice cream sandwich.


But it turned out to be his football schedule for the coming year. I had photographed their big Thanksgiving game the year before, when I was visiting for the holiday.  But this would mean coming out every weekend for a whole season. September, October, November, and possibly December.


Not only that, he lived in New Jersey; I lived in Chicago. Going to his games was definitely not going to be a walk to the park.  It was a 1600 mile round trip. 


Before I could come up with an excuse not to come, Brandon dropped the bomb, “I want you to come to my games because I’m taking my team to the state championships.”


Clearly he was hallucinating. His high school’s football team hadn’t been to the state championships in twenty years. And he hadn’t played one single down as the starting quarterback yet. What was he thinking?


On the other hand, Brandon wasn’t given to braggadocio. A multi-sport athlete, he has always been laconic and thoughtful, a leader by example. His father had won a state championship in Texas as a high school quarterback. And Brandon thought he could do the same thing in New Jersey. Being stubborn didn’t hurt either.


In fact, he was so sure he could pull it off, I decided I wasn’t going to miss it.


That fall I began flying into Newark regularly, loaded up with twenty rolls of film, two or three cameras, and a bunch of lenses, along with my work, so I could earn money to pay for all the plane rides.


If you have the chance, there is nothing like watching the changing seasons from an airplane, especially when the leaves begin to turn. Traveling from Illinois to New Jersey for a different game each week, I watched as a palette of fall colors gradually re-painted the Midwestern canvas, from the hills of Pennsylvania to the forest groves of New Jersey, changing the leaves from summer green to autumn yellow, crimson red and flaming orange. Coming in for a landing, the vivid colors were intensely magnified as we got closer and closer to the ground.  [Eat your heart out Arizona.]


Preparation for the game on Saturday began early. On Friday nights the team parents would throw a pasta dinner at the high school.  The players would gather in the cafeteria at the end of the day around five. The coach would give them a pep talk and they’d eat and eat and eat.


They won their first, second and third games easily. But their next opponent was an old nemisis. A big school that used to eat them for lunch on a regular basis.  That's when I realized I could do something more than just take pictures.


Back in Chicago I began to blow up each week’s photos from 4 x 6 prints to 11 x 17 Kinko’s enlargements. Then I would load up one of my travel bags with poster size paper and spray mount so I could create a huge wall of colorful football pictures at one end of the cafeteria.


Never one to leave well enough alone, I also read motivational books and stole quotes from the likes of Lou Holtz, Rick Pitino, and Ara Parshegian – name a successful coach and I bought his book to scour it for nuggets of inspiration I could use to galvanize the team. I even put together music tapes for each game with tunes from the best of Top Gun to the old standbyslike We Are the Champions.  Who Let the Dogs Out wasn’t on the charts yet.


Brandon’s sister liked to help me choose music. One night she told me she found a great song that I might not be familiar with. Then she actually asked if I’d ever heard of the Rolling Stones. 


Thursday night was spent assembling the posters. Friday afternoon I hung them up in the cafeteria, so the boys could see photos of themselves doing great things on the field during the previous game. It was fascinating to watch them find their pictures and study them as closely as the centerfold in a men’s magazine.


When dinner started, I turned on the tunes and helped serve the homemade pasta. When it was over, I took down the posters and saved them to hang at their banquet in December. 


Saturday I spent the games shooting roll after roll of pictures from the sidelines and endzones. What had started out as a sacrifice I was willing to make for Brandon, became one of the most rewarding and satisfying four months I have ever spent.  And I was also able to make a difference to a great bunch of kids.


Standing on the field every week, I got to know a lotof the other photographers and reporters covering the game. Often they would let me borrow a lens or ask me questions.  That’s right, I flew in from Chicago. Brandon? No, he’s not my son.  I’m his adopted aunt.  [Really. You can do that?]


The weather held for most of the season, raining only once. As the weeks passed, the sun began to dip down behind the trees earlier and earlier during the games. When the days got colder, the sky seemed to get bluer and the autumn sun burnished the fans in the stands with gold.


Brandon’s team started winning the tough games. He was proving to be the high school equivalent of Joe Montana, making perfect, accurate passes to his speedy receivers -- always with his eyes firmly set on the prize – a place on the field in the Meadowlands at the end of the season.  He was also helping his chances for a college offer.


But I noticed when the team was way ahead, his coach started taking him out, sometimes as early as halftime. I didn’t think that was fair to a kid who had waited so long to start.  Especially when he needed huge stats to get the attention of the big schools.


At the end of the season he was the second all-time leading passer in his high school’s history.  Second by one touchdown.  He could have easily put the record out of reach forever had he been allowed to play more complete games.


But I’m getting ahead of myself.  I missed two games because of work.  But Brandon’s family videotaped them both.  One they won.  The other was a heartbreaker -- an away game played at night, the only time it rained. Down by three in the fourth quarter, Brandon engineered an 80-yard drive that marched his team to the six-yard line.  A touchdown would win the game. There was enough time for two passing plays. But with seconds left, the coach decided to kick for the tie, figuring the team could win in overtime.


Not only could you hear everyone in the stands booing on the videotape, but they had good reason. The ball was on the outside hash marks. The angle for kicking that close to the end zone becomes very narrow if you’re not in the center of the field. Add to that darkness. And rain. Disaster was inevitable. Brandon, who was also the field goal kicker, missed.  And they lost.


Despite their first loss, Brandon was becoming a local hero. His picture was often featured on the front of the Sunday sports page.  He was quoted. His stats were highlighted. His team made its first appearance in the top 25 in two decades.


A good student, he was getting letters from a number of Ivy League schools.  However, even with an edited tape of his early games, it was becoming clear that the big Division I schools were not interested.  His main problem -- at 6’1” with only a half year of stats, he was considered too short and unaccomplished.   


Regardless, Brandon was undeterred in his march to the state championships. Key injuries, however, were beginning to add up. Mike, one of their best running backs, was lost for the season. Luckily they had another outstanding halfback. Gabe, their sure-handed tight end was playing with a sore shoulder. But again the team had another quality player to go to. Brandon, who would become an all-state quarterback, remained healthy.  


And then in November, Gabe went down. During the playoffs on a chilly November afternoon, I watched in astonishment from the sidelines as a member of the opposing team took his arm and yanked it out of its socket when the play was over, ending his season with a separated shoulder.  


Continued in the next entry . . .




judithheartsong said...

Oh Dear!!! I hope you saved it........ I just read it and then it was gone. You know I am not a sports fan, but this is a fabulous entry and I am so glad that you shared it with us. judi

cneinhorn said...

I started reading it but had to leave to bring Little One to school........knew it had to do with the Jersey Shore.....etc.....Oh! I hope you can get it back!  

judithheartsong said...

So glad you got the entry back in!!!! judi