A bent man in a haggard windbreaker rattles a shout through the driving rain. “LETS GO! GET ‘EM OUT HERE!” Cleats stick in the mud and up springs a spray of churned turf. As they begin to stretch, muck clings to pants, socks, even arms. Nervous chatter rises like a flock of geese; there’s a game tonight. Lips snap shut as another man in jeans and a polo stalks onto the field, impervious to the cold. His face is set against the gale as it drenches him. His only defense is a tiny white towel draped across his neck, catching the runoff from his head.
This is youth football in small town America. The scene is one that repeats itself, more or less, week after week and year after year. For the parents, it means weeks of dirty laundry and long nights spent on frigid bleachers. But for the young boys who call the game their own, it means everything. It’s what they wait for all summer, what they dream about during class and talk about in school hallways during fall. It’s what they’ll remember 10 years from now. The game gives structure to their weekdays and weekends and shapes them into young men. Each year from August into Thanksgiving, days are marked by drips of sweat, sore muscles, and bruised egos. They’ll look back on these years and cherish the time spent making friendships and finding something outside of themselves.
Game Time. As the rain picks up again they huddle behind the goalpost, looking one another in the eye. Together they chant to shake off their nerves and prepare themselves for battle like little Spartan soldiers. They are kneeling on the sidelines now listening to their coach speak of toughness, of doing their job, of looking left and right and knowing that success takes more than one player. He leads them as they bow their helmets and then rise up onto that field, onto that stage for another chance to carve out their legacy, in their heads where it counts. Familiar rituals of the coin toss and national anthem bring them comfort just before kickoff. The whistle blows, and for a few hours, nothing else matters.
They might not know it yet, but that soggy field beneath them will come to stand for something. What was once unfamiliar and frightening to them has turned into a second home. A place where they can work through their frustrations and failures while learning the meaning of sportsmanship, commitment, and compassion for one another. A place to grow up while staying a kid. Together on that field they learn discipline, trust in one another, and what it means to fight through adversity. As the game continues, they grow a little more confident in themselves, a little more ready to face the challenges of tomorrow and the rest of their lives.
The game is over now and the last muddied players and proud fathers exit to the parking lot. The lights shut off on that field and the rain turns silent. If you lingered on it long enough you could watch the seasons change and witness boys grow into men. That field embodies more than drenching rain under the lights, more than sun baking clay, and more than buffeting wind that powers young men’s dreams of greatness. It has seen each successive crop of growing children rise and fall on its ground. It has raised them and seen them fade away, to glory down that familiar neighborhood road, or manhood in another place. But as long they have made their mark on that field, they will never truly be gone.
Just waiting for another Sunday.