150 minutes of normalcy on Friday nights
BY IVAN SANDERS
What is normalcy?
Many have asked that question since the year 2020 flipped over on calendars on January 1, 2020, and to find an answer to that question right now is sometimes hard to do.
However, for many local residents, the last 13 or so weeks have brought a small resemblance of what normal is especially if it is only for 150 (or roughly two and a half hours) on Friday nights.
They have gathered to support their teams whether or their home field or traveling to other locations where their team was scheduled to play.
It is completely understandable that some could care less about a game played under what most refer to as Friday Night Lights but for many, many years these football contests in the fall often are what has been the subject around a hot biscuit and gravy at Hardee’s or while sitting in the barber’s chair getting a fresh hair cut on a Saturday morning.
Even in houses of worship on Sunday mornings, sometimes the early conversations surround the game on Friday night while waiting for the start of service before church or a way to find common ground to talk about while fellowshipping afterward.
And while the crowds have been limited and requirements for all in attendance including temperature checks, face coverings, and socially distancing have to be adhered to – it has still been a football season.
“In a year that is like none other, for 12 straight Friday nights, with seven of those at Orr Field, all was momentarily right with the world,” said Richard Church, Principal of Cloudland School about the completed season on Roan Mountain. “Yes there were masks, yes there were temperature checks and gallons of hand sanitizer, but we got the opportunity to support our team, our school, and our community.
“Football gave us a three-hour ‘breather’ one time a week to just forget about all that was wrong and focus on all that was right, our kids and our communities.”
And even with all the requirements, it hasn’t stopped the yearning of local communities in Carter County and their desire to put on either the maroon of Unaka or Happy Valley, the blue of Hampton, the gold of Cloudland, and the orange and black of Elizabethton and get as close as possible to the action on their local school’s field.
It has served as a way of rallying the troops so to speak.
“In a time where we are talking about really pushing people apart, this has been an event where we have tried to bring people back together in a safe way,” said Richard VanHuss, Director of Elizabethton City Schools.
“It’s kind of the model that we have tried to do in our schools and branch that out in football and bring the community in. I want to commend not only the faculty and staff at the high school but even the community how they tried to follow the rules that we sat into place and I think that is one of the reasons that we have made it this far is that people have tried to follow those rules.
“It’s all about the kids being able to play,” VanHuss continued. “We are trying to provide for them a sense of normalcy – something they typically would be doing in a non-COVID year.
“It just shows you how much the community supports everything that goes on in our school system – in this particular situation the football team, the band, and of course singing the National Anthem and all those things.
“It just makes it such a community event and always has been and that is what sets us apart is the fact that it is a community event. People have looked for any way they can to stay plugged in because it is such a big part of the community. We are glad that we have been able to provide that for the community.”
So in reviewing everything, sports is not something silly or just a place for a bunch of crazed people to go and shout their lungs out in support of their favorite team or even perhaps a word of correction to those who are responsible for controlling the rules of the game.
Athletics are as much a part of the community as the local place of worship, a favorite eatery, or even a covered bridge.
Sports gives people a sense of belonging to something bigger than just throwing or batting a ball, kicking a ball into a net, or running around a track in a foot race against others.
It is what helps 6,000 fans from a small town in Northeast Tennessee set the high mark for the largest group of fans to support a team in the state football championship wearing a mixture of colors from throughout the county as they came together as one just for an afternoon in 2019.
Sports represent normalcy – what is suppose to happen at different parts of the year as different seasons dot the athletic calendar.
“In the midst of the pandemic that we are in and all the changes and the things that are not normal that people are experiencing, football and athletics in general definitely brings a sense of normalcy to a community and most importantly to our students,” said Elizabethton High School Athletic Director Forrest Holt.
“Our students work hard and get into a routine. This is the only time in their life that they are going to get to play sports at a competitive level for most of them. There is a small percentage that goes on but for most of them, this is it.
“For them to be able to experience this and have the reward of working hard and to be able to play with their teammates and coaches has just been great.”
“I am proud that we have worked really hard as well to keep our kids on the field and courts playing,” continued Holt. “Our coaches have done a great job. There is no question that being able to play sports and football has brought a sense of normalcy and brought a reminder of how things are wonderful in the world we live in.”
And yes, there is something special about Friday nights in the fall when talking about something being normal. Most people start counting down the days between Fridays of each week in anxious anticipation of the next game coming up.
“Everybody still looks forward to Friday nights. They are excited to listen to Tom Taylor and WBEJ radio and get on and watch the live streams. I still get to talk to people in the community, ‘Hey what do you think about Friday night,’ or ‘Hey what about last Friday – that was so great.’
Everybody is proud of our team and our students and coaches,” commented Holt.
“It’s great to have that to look forward to and be proud of and talk about in the community.”
After all, that is what normal is all about and most can’t wait for the day until each day is filled with a normal routine, just not only on Friday nights under the bright lights of a football field without masks, without temperature checks, and sitting close to those you love and care about.
All photos by Ivan Sanders