By RAHN ADAMS
BOONE, N.C. (Oct. 2, 2019) – As autumn leaves begin changing from green to gold and pompon-like chrysanthemums bloom everywhere, old friends and acquaintances gather around unnaturally lined and numbered viridian fields to reminisce about times past.
In other words, it’s October—you know, homecoming time. So go pick up some red or yellow mums on sale outside the nearest Food Lion and a big yellow-and-red carton of fried chicken at the Bojangles on this side of town, and then head on over to the tailgate party outside the football stadium. The old gang will all be there.
To many of us social creatures, that’s what October represents—homecoming. And, in turn, our idea of homecoming has taken on a particular meaning that revolves around high school and college reunions at the biggest attraction those educational institutions can muster—a football game, either under Friday night lights at high schools or slanted rays of the yellow Saturday afternoon sun on college campuses.
I purposely used the word muster in that last sentence because football is, after all, our most militaristic sport, with its offenses, defenses, bombs and blitzes. So what does that make us spectators? Are we like the Washington socialites who assumed the Civil War would last only one afternoon and spent it picnicking on a Manassas, Va., hillside overlooking a stream called Bull Run? Alas, I digress.
But, hold on a second, why do we get together mainly at football games? My beloved alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, holds its annual homecoming celebration in February at a home basketball game, but only because we don’t have a football team. I’ve wanted to attend, but never have, maybe because I’m usually snowed in here in Boone all that month. Maybe next year, but probably not.
My old marching band buddies will love this next suggestion. Instead of getting together at an athletic event, why not hold the reunion in conjunction with an artistic function? For instance, what would stop everybody from tailgating in the parking lot outside a Saturday afternoon band concert? I’m guessing, though, that the band director and boosters might not enjoy frisking concert-goers for bottles and flasks at the auditorium door.
But you get the idea. Instead of gathering with old friends to watch what is basically a violent spectacle, with players being injured almost every game, why not celebrate the finer things of life—art, music, drama, beauty? I know, I know. That’s what the pre-game and half-time festivities are for, when the cheerleaders hold up their big hand-painted banner for the football team to run through, and later when the band plays “Evergreen” a hundred times while the homecoming court is presented, runners-up are named, and the queen is crowned. Now that’s real drama, especially when the title is contested.
I’m just picking at you. I like football as much as the next guy. But I do wonder how much longer it’ll be the Friday night and Saturday afternoon marquee sport on high school and college campuses. With all the attention that chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and other impact-related injuries now get in the media, I won’t be surprised to see a real futbol player kiss the homecoming queen at midfield on the pitch before long. Soccer is the world’s most popular sport, and its popularity here keeps growing.
My connection to the sport was through my father, who had played soccer in high school and on his college literary society’s intramural team. I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but most Thanksgiving Days in the late 1960s and early ’70s, Dad would load us into the station wagon and drive us down to his and Mom’s alma mater, Bob Jones University, in Greenville, S.C., where we’d all attend the annual Turkey Bowl Soccer Championship in Alumni Stadium—whether we wanted to or not.
At the time, I was playing Pee Wee football and didn’t know a soccer header from a handball. Dad’s excited talk about corner kicks and crosses and penalty boxes had me all confused. And then there was that inexplicable offsides rule—I mean, my gosh, shouldn’t that be the objective, to beat the other team to the goal? What kind of sport forces one side’s players to wait for their opponents to catch up to them? And I’ll go ahead and say it again: If you don’t know the players, watching soccer is like watching grass grow.
I think that’s why we enjoyed watching the FIFA Women’s World Cup so much this past July—because media coverage of the U.S. women’s national soccer team was so extensive, for various reasons, that we had gotten to know most of the players long before their knockout-stage matches were televised. Even though none of the players ripped off their jerseys in triumphant jubilation, I’ll always remember this particular finals, because I wasn’t checking my watch or standing at the fridge or looking at my tomato sandwich when all the goals were scored.
In 1975, Brazilian soccer star Pelé made a splash on sports pages when he came out of retirement to play for the New York Cosmos in the North American Soccer League. I even went out and bought a cheap soccer ball to kick around with my little brother, but after retrieving the ball from the creek a couple of times, we’d give up and go shoot some hoops—with the soccer ball. We might have given soccer more of a chance if Dad had taken more interest in teaching us the finer points of the game.
But he never did. In his spare time, Dad was too busy doing adult things like plowing and planting in the spring, tending the garden in the summer, raking leaves in the autumn, and shoveling snow in the winter, to waste his time playing kids’ games in any season. And we never asked him to come play with us. That’s why I was surprised to learn some years ago that my father had been a soccer champion. It wasn’t a secret he was keeping, but he never spoke of it. Or maybe I just wasn’t paying attention.
Now I look at that old photograph of the 1940 Lower Mahanoy Township High School state champion soccer team, and I wonder why Dad waited until the 50th anniversary of those 14 young men’s shining moment to share that information with his own sports-crazy, football-addled son. Maybe he finally told me only because he needed a good excuse to make what would be his last trip back home to Dalmatia, Pa., for the team’s reunion. It was his first—and last—homecoming.
Since his death in 2001, I’ve made my own trips to Pennsylvania, once to the morgue at The Daily Item newspaper in Sunbury, Pa., to read for myself how good Dad was on the soccer field. All the games of that miracle season were easy to find on a single roll of micro-film that my dad’s last surviving sibling and I ran through the reading machine. As we whizzed from one writeup to the next, I asked my uncle Neil why Dad hadn’t said much about being on the soccer team. He said probably because back then, soccer was for the boys who couldn’t make any other squad. Dad liked baseball best, but wasn’t good enough.
High school soccer teams, no matter how good, still have to play their school-night matches on football gridirons. The happily teary homecoming queen will still appear next to the all-everything quarterback in his artificial turf-stained uniform on the front page of the local paper for at least a few more Octobers to come. The athletic boosters will keep selling programs and 50-50 raffle tickets, and we’ll keep buying them until halftime. And the marching band will always yield when the football players take the field again.
But as I look closer at the faces of those 14 farm boys in that old photograph, I see that being the best at something—at anything—was good enough.