Friday Night Lights: The Playoffs

Minerva Lions — 2011 NBC Champs / Photo courtesy of Liz Smith, 2011

Situated halfway between Cleveland and Pittsburgh lies a sleepy little village called Minerva, OH. And it’s pretty safe to say that inside this tiny speck on the map there isn’t much going on. Most of the year it is fairly quiet. Until football season that is.

Between the months of August and November Minerva and all of the surrounding specks on the map turn into quite different places. We may not have the ocean, the mountains, 365 days of sunshine or celebrities on parade — though we do have several zoos… But that’s another post for another day.

One thing we do have is high school football.

It’s hard to explain to people who aren’t from here just what all the fuss is about. But I can tell you that it’s about community and pride and the spirit of competition. It’s about cramming as many of your friends and neighbors and maybe your not-so-friendly neighbors into the bleachers on a crisp, Friday night and sharing an experience. Enjoying, for once, what it means to have everything in common… if only for a few hours.

In this place we love our team whether they are good or bad… but even more so when they’re good. And this year, in Minerva, the team is good. Really good. After completing a thrilling 10-0 season and securing the 2011 Northeastern Buckeye Conference Championship, they made history one week ago today by winning our first playoff game EVER. Our team has gone to the playoffs plenty of times, but we’ve never known what it’s like to go on after that. And while that may not seem like a very big deal to you… trust me, around here… IT’S A BIG DAMN DEAL.

Tonight, for the first time in the history of small town Minerva Lions football, we will get our chance…

The following is something that I wrote three years ago, during my first football season after moving back “home” from New Mexico. I honestly don’t know that I can capture the emotion of it any better than I did in my original Friday Night Lights piece. For those of you who don’t quite “get it” when it comes to small mid-western towns OR football… please tune in on Monday when I’ll have something different to offer.

But for all of you who do get it and who will be cheering from the stands right beside me… Enjoy… Post this to your Facebook page… Email it to your friends… But most importantly… GO LIONS!!

Photo courtesy of Liz Smith, 2011

Friday Night Lights

The season is so brief, maybe that’s what makes it so special. In northeastern Ohio, football is king. After all, The Pro Football Hall of Fame is only 20 miles away from my little hometown. Professionally speaking, we may have one of the worst teams in the NFL… but that doesn’t stop us from loving the sport. It may infuriate us and cause people to occasionally fly into fits of rage and throw things… but that’s OK. It just demonstrates how much we care.

However on Fridays, we tend to forget how terrible our pro team is and turn our attention to a different set of heroes: The local high school football teams. They don’t play for fame or money… they play for their schools, their towns, their classmates and teammates. And more importantly… they play with their hearts.

There is something magical in the air on Fridays. It’s as if the whole community is anxiously awaiting the upcoming battle that will happen later in the evening beneath the bright stadium lights. Businesses show their support by placing signs in their windows and merchants display and sell all sorts of items that carry the local mascot. Homes are adorned in bright school colors with flags and banners. Students wear jerseys, t-shirts and face paint to demonstrate their allegiance. And by early afternoon the pep-rallies are in full-swing.

At 7 p.m. it’s as if there is nowhere else in the world to be than at the stadium. The town is empty and the only sound you’ll hear for miles is that of the marching band and the voice of the announcer. The stands are packed and so are the fences that surround the field. Everyone has found a spot to settle in and watch their favorite high school hero for the next several hours. The younger kids run through the crowds tossing the football, no doubt imagining the day when they will be on that field and all eyes will be fixed on them. The adults are likely arguing about the official’s call or even more likely reminiscing about their own glory days… when they too were charged with the energy of youth, fueled by endless possibilities.

It lasts for just 10 weeks, a little longer if you’re lucky. And in that brief time the world around us will transform from the warmth of summer, through the brilliance of autumn and into the colder grasp of winter. The grass on the field turns brown and frosted, the bleachers stand cold and empty, the loud speaker is silenced and the Friday night lights go out. All grows quiet as the world retreats indoors and a few stray snowflakes start to fall across the faded white lines of a vacant field.

Until next year…

Wanderlust

I climbed up the ladder to the loft above my bedroom in search of a place to store a journal I had recently filled. I opened the cabinet doors, slid a couple of boxes out from their resting place and peered inside, unsure of their contents. Suddenly a clear plastic storage bin caught my eye. I put down the cardboard box I was rummaging through and switched my attention to this container. Removing the lid I quickly realized that this one was a treasure trove! It was filled to the brim with old photographs, journals and letters from my high school and college days.

On a rainy Sunday afternoon, this was quite a find! Inching closer to the light from the plate glass window, I situated myself high above the world below and dove in. It was so entertaining to flip through the photos and read the words I had scrawled 18 years ago on the yellowing pages. It felt a bit surreal awakening so many dormant memories from my more “adventurous” days.

Of course I found a lot of journal entries comprised of the usual hopes and dreams of an 18 year old girl: Where would I end up? What kind of job would I have? When would I fall in love? How would we meet? What would he be like? Would I ever get married? Would I ever have children?

But even more interesting than those things, was a recurring theme in my writings. I was obsessed with escaping my small Ohio town in search of adventures and experiences in the wider world. My mom used to tell me that I had “wanderlust,” and I believe she was absolutely right. The dictionary defines wanderlust as:a strong, innate desire to rove or travel about. And I certainly had that! There were so many fascinating places I wanted to see and interesting people I wanted to meet… and I couldn’t seem to begin this wandering soon enough!

Fortunately, from the time I turned 18 I was able to do just that. I had the unique privilege of working on a beautiful Colorado Dude Ranch during the summers while in college. And I lived and worked in New Mexico for 12 years after graduation… allowing me to experience a completely different culture from the one in which I grew up.

During those 16 years I was fortunate enough to climb 14,000 ft. mountains—literally standing on TOP of the world! I spent time rafting white water rapids and exploring miles and miles of untouched Colorado wilderness both on foot and on horseback. I learned to fly fish in the Tetons and Yellowstone … catching, cooking & eating my fair share of indigenous trout. I learned to scuba dive… soaking in some of the Caribbean’s most active and colorful reefs. I plunged into the freezing-cold waters of Lake Tahoe and experienced the lengthy but rewarding struggle of pulling King salmon out of the open Pacific (throwing up the entire time).

I searched for banana slugs while feasting on the sweetest wild berries in the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest and took a 6-passenger sea plane into British Columbia where I participated in the carving of a community totem pole with native people. In New Mexico, Arizona and Texas I blistered my feet backpacking into (and out of) some deep canyons, visited various haunts of the legends of the “Old West,” herded cattle on horseback, learned to shear a sheep, brand a steer, breed a horse, and cook a rattlesnake. And my ultimate claim to fame: I once took first place in a grape-stomping contest at a local vineyard.

Please don’t misunderstand my intention for sharing these things. I didn’t list them to boast. I am proud of doing them. I am thankful that I got to experience those adventures. But mentioning all of these things helps me emphasize how totally mystifying I find the place that I am in right NOW. Today I come home to a peaceful old house with creaky-but-charming wooden floors. If there’s a foot of snow of the ground, I can simply pull on some boots and walk next door in my pj’s to enjoy a hot meal with my family. In the summer I can watch lightning bugs from the porch swing, enjoy a burger off the grill and sing obnoxiously during the 7th inning stretch. In the fall I witness the world around me turn a thousand different colors while tailgating before a big football game.

I’m not scaling mountains, carving totem poles or herding cattle. But strangely—unlike the person I was 18 years ago—I am not restless anymore. I still have that same wanderlust and I know I’ll still travel and seek out adventure, but these days I seem to find infinite amounts of joy in watching fluffy, white flakes fall from the night sky and in laughing with childhood friends over a cold beer.

Life is such an unpredictable journey. I tried so very hard to get out of Ohio—and away from home—only to discover years later that “home” is exactly where I now CHOOSE to be. Sometimes you have to surrender to your wanderlust and strike out on your own in order to travel back around and discover the fact that you’ve come completely full circle.