Friday, September 17, 2010

It Happens on Friday

"Hey, sweetie, wanna go behind the stands so you can hug and kiss us?"

I admit that landing a new girlfriend during my first official St. Thomas Aquinas High School Friday night football game would be a tale of epic proportions in and of itself.  But three?  In one night?  But there I was, walking on the track that separated the sidelines from the Aquinas stands, and there they were, radiant in their senior-year voluptuousness.  The girl who posed this singular question walked briskly towards me, with her two equally-stunning companions behind her.  She was striking.  Long, flowing auburn hair, clear lip-gloss, cowl-neck sweater, boots, and black and gold Aquinas jacket.  She deftly grabbed my arm in hers and walked softly with me.  I looked up in the stands and there was Mr. Thomas, the father of one of my classmates from grade school and also a freshman at Aquinas.  He blurted out, "Hey, Matt.  You're doing alright, freshman!"  Yeah, I thought.  Not bad for an overweight guy with horn-rimmed glasses who barely knew the correct route to home-room.

Yet, here I was, on a brisk football-Friday night ( we wore proper Autumn gear back then, since, unlike nowadays, high school football games didn't start when the summer temps were still in the 90's!) parading not one but three ravenous beauties before the admiring home-field spectators.  Before I could hash out the evening's festivities with this obviously nubile trinity, though, the two ladies behind me suddenly, without warning, burst into loud laughter, as did the auburn-haired vixen who was now no longer glued to my arm.  "Yeah, right, Freshman.  Like we're gonna go do it behind the stands.  Fuck off!"  

Normal people would be permanently scarred by something of this magnitude.  But not me.  I would survive several similar events during my high school years.  I thought about that night, though, last Saturday as my brother Pat was induced into the St. Thomas Aquinas Athletic Hall of Fame.  As Mark, Mike, and I stood around slurping beers and waiting for the program to start, I looked around at the gymnasium and the hallways leading to the classrooms and I thought about high school.  Particularly, I thought about Friday night football.

I didn't much care for my high school years.  In the aggregate, I liked St. Thomas.  But I wasn't a part of it.  I tried, especially when it came to sports, but I learned early on that I was not even on the cusp of having enough athletic ability to compete at the high school level.  I skipped football because I basically disdained all-out physical contact in sports, unless it was "controlled chaos", like going for a tough rebound or trying to bowl-over the catcher on a close play at the plate.  St. Thomas didn't have a baseball team when I went there, so I was left with trying to land a spot on the basketball team.  But I wasn't quick, and I barely possessed the ability to jump over a painted-line in the parking lot, much less for a rebound.  I could put the ball in the rim, but I lacked a solid jump-shot because, as I mentioned, when it comes to elevation, I'm basically an immobile object.  In my four years at Aquinas, I heard the same speech from every coach at the same time every year, when they would pull me aside during pre-season tryouts to tell me that I would not be a part of the team:  "If I had 15 guys with your persistence and dedication," they would say, "we'd win every ballgame this year."

Some remember their high school years by their academic prowess, but I didn't possess much of that, either.  I was a C+ student, at best.  Loathing math, I tended to lean towards Literature, Journalism, and Speech, even though I was petrified most of the time to stand up in front of the class.  I tried joining a few clubs, but many of them met when I wasn't able to attend, and the ones I did like seemed populated with the same popular people.  Since I wasn't an athlete and I wasn't a particularly gifted student, I found myself hanging out with a few of the "burnouts", guys who favored smoking marijuana, cars, and, most of all, music.  We'd talk about bands, albums, guitarists, and car-stereo-systems.  We'd talk about which women we'd like to "do", although nobody in this group of burnouts ever had a date.  But, they were my group, my clique.  So during lunch-periods, I'd sit in the back right-hand corner of the lunch-room, away from the players, cheerleaders, and National Honor Society members, hum the intro to "Won't Get Fooled Again" or "Dazed and Confused", and count the days until high school would be over.  But I still missed Friday night football games.  And I couldn't go to them.  Not because of my failure with the Raquel Welch-triplets but because of my seven-year Friday-night standing-date with the a semi-truck at Lemmons Market.

Early in my sophomore year, I got a job at the grocery-market down the street from my house.  I was a "bag-boy", a guy who packed groceries in paper-sacks and carried them out to customers' cars.  Sometimes they'd even tip me.  I'd put in several hours during the week doing this after school, but the night that was a required work-shift for every Lemmons employee was Friday night.  That's when the truck would come in for the week's delivery.  Everything was off-limits on Friday night if you worked for Dick Lemmon.  Dates.  Parties.  And yes, Friday night football games.  The truck would arrive at around 6:30 p.m. and we'd routinely stay until midnight, unloading the truck, unpacking cartons of Stokely green beans or Tide laundry detergent, and stacking them neatly on the shelves.

Most of my co-workers were older than me, some out of high school, so they didn't care about Friday night football games.  But I did.  During the day on Friday, I'd hear the conversations about who the opponent was, who was driving whom to the game, and where they were going afterwards.  I'd be able to experience none of it.  I had a an engagement with a 2-wheeled dolly and an ink-price stamper.

But during my senior year, before the last game of the season, the huge rivalry-game between St. Thomas Aquinas and Central Catholic, I decided to call off sick.  The burnouts were hounding me in the lunch-room, challenging me with vicious taunts of  "if you don't go to the game, you must like Abba, or Andy Gibb, or, worse still, disco!"  Hey, I had some semblance of pride left, even amongst subterranean burnout-standards.  So I did it.  I marched over to the pay-phone, called the assistant-manager on duty, and told him that I had become ill during the school-day and would not be in to help unload the truck.

It was glorious.  Football on Friday nights in northeast Ohio is as sacred as any feast-day on the Church calendar.  And it was a Norman Rockwell-setting of a high-school football game that evening.  The sky was clear and the air was crisp.  Our side of the field was loaded in black-and-gold.  Their side of the field was filled with the reviled green-and-white that could only represent the sinister, unholy Central Catholic Crusaders.  The smell of popcorn and hot chocolate filled the air and kids threw tiny footballs back and forth over by the fence, near the blocking-sleds.  It seemed both strange and wonderful seeing some of my teachers there, too, nodding to me as I walked past them en route to my seat, dressed in black and gold gear, huddling with their mates.  The girls in my class who were cheerleaders looked even more radiant and un-touchable in their make-up, lip-gloss, and short skirts.  Heck, Sandy Shoup even waved to me once when I walked past.  Yes, this was truly a magical evening. 

Although not many burnouts went to the games, there were a few there.  Some of them had forged a party-alliance of sorts, the "Little Kings Gang", named after the small, seven-ounce bottles of beer that they would purchase by the metric ton each Friday and Saturday.  They were planning their itinerary for the evening, where they would ride around after games well into the night, draining the contents of those small bottles, crashing parties, and basically putting other Stark County drivers at risk.  I wasn't sure whether I would join them.  But I knew one thing.  I wasn't unloading 50-pound bags of water-softener salt or stacking infinite numbers of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup-cans on top of each other.  I was here.  I was also fairly sure that whomever I hung out with after the game, it would almost assuredly include a double-cheese-and sausage masterpiece from The Pizza Oven, the greatest pizza that has ever or will ever exist in this solar system.

I don't remember who won that game, but I do remember a controversial call, one where an apparent fumble dictated the outcome.  When I returned to work at Lemmons Market on Saturday, my supervisor, Tim Kazakis, was convinced that I wasn't sick, and that I had skipped truck-night in order to go to the game.  As we were bagging groceries, he would occasionally walk up to me and ask, "Hey, I heard that guy fumbled that ball on the 2-yard-line last night."  I continued to fill up the sack in front of me, mumbling, "I don't know.  My brother was there and he said it wasn't a fumble."  He would smile, walk away, and then return to the check-out area several minutes later.  "I heard there was a packed house last night at Central's stadium".  I continued to work.  "Well," I replied, "that's usually the case when Aquinas plays Central."  He wouldn't leave it alone, though.  Finally, after we had carried out several orders, he leaned against me, put his arm around my shoulder, and whispered, "You saw that fumble last night, didn't you? I thought Catholic kids weren't supposed to lie."  I smiled, untied my apron, re-tied it, and said, "I'm gonna go give them a hand in the dairy aisle.  I'm out of here at 4 o'clock."  I heard him burst into laughter as I walked away.

I thought about that the other day on the scooter as I made my way through Mogadore.  Like many small towns and villages across the Buckeye state, Mogadore lives for Friday nights.  Although the town only has about 4 thousand people, it has a rich football tradition and a long history of success.  The school has won 4 state championships and has won multiple league and regional titles.  During the start of football season, they post small signs on the front of telephone poles and trees which dot the main streets in and out of town.  I've never been to a Mogadore home-game but I hear it's a tough ticket.  I like riding through it when I'm done with work on Friday.  You can sense the seismic activity of excitement with people of all shapes and sizes decked out in green and white.  Parents litter their front porches with signs depicting their son's jersey number or "M.H.S. Cheerleader Lives Here".   It's a scene played out all over the counties that make up northeast Ohio, but it's particularly strong in and around my hometown.  In the cafe here on the corner next to the Speedway gas station, they've been talking about that night's game all day.  And over coffee and eggs the next morning, they'll continue to rewind play after play until somebody brings up next week's game.

Over the years, I've attended Aquinas football games.  Whenever we'd come home for a visit during the Fall, I'd usually go to a game or two.  Unless one of our nephews played throughout the years, though, I didn't really know anyone on the team or much about the team.  But I like standing near the fence on the other side of the track that surrounds the field.  Mark and I will usually be there, watching and talking.  Usually, acquaintances of his will come by, and they'll talk about St. Thomas or one of a number of other schools in the area, the same thing they've been doing for the last 30 years or so.  It gives me a second to peer up into the stands to see if I know anyone.  I usually don't, and if there was someone from my class, perhaps a burnout, I probably wouldn't be able to recognize them anyway.  But as the sun goes down along with the temperature, it doesn't matter if I'm familiar with the players or people from the past.  It also doesn't matter if I don't get an invitation again from a cute girl to go behind the stands. The smell of popcorn and hot chocolate is in the air.  And I'm here.


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