By Vanessa Curry | Courtesy Photo
Finding an unfamiliar East Texas football stadium is simple on a Friday night—just drive toward the glowing dome of lights stretching across the skyline.
A line of pickups and cars snake their way into the parking lot as fans dressed in team colors slowly stake their claim in the bleachers.
It’s the end of the workweek: a time to enjoy a pastime that has united a town’s populace — both young and old — for generations; a time to cheer for touchdown passes and quarterback sacks, and to boo the bad calls.
The popcorn popper in the concession stand is overflowing with fluffed kernels, and the smell of hot dogs and jalapeño juice mingles in the air still sticky from a sunny fall day.
Marching band members tuning their instruments create a cacophony of toots and squeaks that will soon come together in a practiced rendition of the school song.
The music and the roar of the crowd ushers the team onto the field through an inflatable tunnel and bouncing cheerleaders.
And with a toss of a coin, a shrill blast from the referee’s whistle, the game is on. In the next three hours or so, opposing teams will attempt to out run, out maneuver, out tackle and out pass each other in order to light up the scoreboard.
Winning is more than a statistic. It’s a matter of pride, bragging rights and moments to relive over and over in the decades of reunions to come.
Meanwhile, on the edge of lighted field where the gradients of light slowly turn from gray to black, is another field of glory — a small grassy knoll or patch just off the concrete paths that channel the human traffic to and from the parking lot and the concession stand.
It is here the future of football plays.
There are no coaches. No official score. And the designated quarterback is the one who remembered to bring the ball.
Just a loose-knit group of boys eager to expend a week’s worth of energy playing a game they hope to experience someday in front of the crowd they hear on the other side of the bleachers.
There are boys such as 10-year-old Tylerite John Carlton Vandiver, who ducks and dodges through a mass of outstretched hands desperate to strip the ball from his arms. Strands of dark hair stick to his forehead as he reaches the imaginary end zone nearly out of breath, but obviously pleased with his accomplishment.
He tosses the ball high above the other players and watches the scramble to be the next receiver. Then, he’s off to join the chase.
He says playing sideline football, as well as with his older brother at home, makes it easier for him when he plays Pee Wee Football after school.
Vandiver loves to watch college and professional football on television but never misses to a chance to play with his friends in the shadows of the Friday night lights.
The only thing that tears them away from their game is the sudden roar of the fans. It is then they run and peer through the chain-link fence to see what caused the commotion.
Ah, another great play from the player they hope to be one day. By the end of the game, the bunch of boys are nearly exhausted, but they’re not too tired to rally around the high school players as they come off the field, their helmets swinging in their hands. Their hair and shirts are soaked with sweat, but win or lose, they still hold their heads high and smile as the younger boys call their names and parents and fans slap them on the back.
Billy Tomlin, a Bullard High School senior and defensive tackle for the Panther football team, recalls the days when he and his friends were on the sidelines.
He rattles off their names as he points them out on the high school squad.
They played with a little plastic freebie football the cheerleaders threw into the crowd, Tomlin says, and had to keep watch for the school security guard who would shoo them back into the stands to be with their parents.
Playing sideline football gave youngsters an idea of just how fun football can be, he says.
Now the 5-foot-11 Tomlin is one of the football players the elementary students look up to, just like he used to look up to the players before him. Still he looks to his future and wonders if it will include playing football for a college team.
Javanty Mack of Lufkin and Eddie Fluellen of Gilmer made it to the next step. They’re members of the Tyler Junior College Apache football team. They, too, remember playing sideline football and trying to be like the players they saw on the field, in the spotlight of the stadium lights.
They learned the game by watching and imitating the plays — lessons that carried over into organized games after school and then into middle school and high school. For them, playing the game and not just watching it on television “made it real.”
The players look back to see how much their love for the game has grown. They see their younger brothers or cousins filling their shoes, and eventually they may see their own children playing on the sidelines.
There still will be games on television and tailgating in college parking lots, but nothing can replace the memories of their days of sideline football.
And so it goes. The great football tradition.