A crown of brilliant white lights, almost like a halo, illuminates the inky blue autumn night. You can’t miss them. They are the lights of Friday night high school football.
Glowing in towns and villages across the country, the lights call out like a siren in the night. One feels they’re missing out on something if they don’t stop.
“There’s nothing better than Friday night football,” Sycamore High School fan Randy Stover said.
According to The National Federation of State High School Associations, 1,095,993 students played high school football in 2011, by far the most of any prep sport.
Perhaps more than any other sport, a high school football game is a true community event.
“It’s the only sport the school cares about,” Sycamore junior Brad Butcher said.
Roger Anderson and Brian Bankston, who both have sons on the Genoa-Kingston varsity, spent the first half of last Friday night’s fresh-soph game flipping burgers and hot dogs on an open grill by the concession stand.
“All the parents take turns,” Bankston said. “At the beginning of the school year, there’s a signup sheet and we’re all asked to help out.”
According to Maggie Stringer, students also take turns, wading through the crowd as the Cogs’ mascot. Stringer made a stir of sorts when she visited the girls’ bathroom, drawing amazed giggles from three little girls who apparently assumed the mascot was a male.
Besides painting their faces and wearing clothes in school colors, the games can inspire other kinds of student loyalty. Two years ago, Butcher and two former classmates formed what they believe is the only high school tailgating party in the area. Before every Spartans’ home game, a group of about 15 students set up in the parking lot outside the fence by the tennis courts, playing loud music and cooking out. Their favorite, one member said, is the “Steenburger,” named after SHS player Derek Steen.
When the SHS varsity enters the field, the group blares “Black and Yellow” by Wiz Khalifa. After the game, the group serenades fans on their way to their cars.
“We’re the last ones to leave,” Butcher said.
For the Randy and Lori Stover family of Sycamore, which includes Brooke, 12, Brianna, 9, and Brandi, 7, the games are a family affair.
“We just come to every football game,” Lori said. “We get here at about half-time for the JV game.”
“We bring blankets and we come prepared,” Randy said.
Jim Dumont of Sycamore said he attends about half of SHS’s home games every year, sometimes with his wife and daughter, but usually just with his son, Trent, 8.
“I am very passionate about football,” Dumont, a former Genoa-Kingston High School player, said.
Chuck Bray, who moved to Genoa from Elgin last December, says he and his youngest son, Jacob, go to as many games as they can to watch his oldest son, Jason, on the fresh-soph team.
“They didn’t have middle school sports in Elgin,” Chuck Bray said. “We go to most of the home games and some of the away games. But some are too far away.”
Last Friday night in Genoa, when the sun went down the atmosphere began to change. Fans who had sat politely through the fresh-soph game could feel the anticipation building in the chilly night air. With “Welcome to the Jungle” blaring over the loudspeakers, conversations became louder and more animated, children ran instead of walked, and a large crowd formed out of the darkness, lining the fence that circles the field.
Spurring everything was the arrival of the Cogs’ varsity, which burst through an inflatable house lined by band members, cheerleaders and dance members to begin pre-game warmups.
A few miles away, in an even more dramatic display, the Hiawatha Hawks, clad in navy and gold, marched onto the field in solemn, almost military columns reminiscent of Roman legions marching into battle.
The varsity game in Genoa was only a few minutes old when one of the most anticipated moments of the night arrived: the announcement of who won the right to sit on the “Cogs’ Couch” for the rest of the game. The winning raffle ticket belonged to Paulette Kaleta.
The Genoa woman, who said she attends all the games to watch her grandson, junior lineman Nick Barthel, rounded up her posse, which included Nick’s mother, Wendy Barthel, and his two great-aunts, Gloria Frinco of Palatine and Pat Jasinowski of Park Ridge, to take their seats on the couch, located near the goal post in the south end zone.
“It’s very comfortable,” Kaleta said.
“This is a great view,” Barthel said.
Along with the couch, which came supplied with heavy woolen blankets, the women received a free drink and sandwich. Although one jokingly asked for a margarita, they settled for hot chocolate instead.
As the action drew just yards from the couch, one of the women quipped: “You may have to flip us back over.”
The women left the game with the high school band’s half-time rendition of Paul Simon’s classic “Call Me Al” ringing in their ears.
If it’s true that it takes a village to raise a child, then the village should also share in the child’s triumphs.
“The players, the fans, the students, the teachers and the community are all part of victories,” Pete Johnson, SHS hall of fame coach, said in Bill Boden’s 2006 “A Spartan’s Journey.”
Unfortunately, that’s also true for losses. Although Sycamore upset Rochelle in a home game, both G-K and Hiawatha lost theirs last week.