Football: A fall tradition in schools across America

This is the second of two articles about the role of secondary school activities in communities across America. The first story was about school marching bands.

It’s Friday night in the United States, and all across the country a fall ritual is unfolding. Cheerleaders ready their pompoms. Marching band members warm up their musical instruments. Teenage boys gather in field houses to pull on protective gear, cinch up their cleats and get ready to charge into packed stadiums lit by enormous lights. It’s secondary school — or high school — football season, and for many Americans this is the best season of all. (In the United States, fall comes during the months of September, October and November.)

Football — not to be confused with the 90-minute, feet-only game Americans call soccer — is less about the game itself than everything else it inspires. For players, it’s about working hard as a team to accomplish something no one person could ever do. Coaches use the sport as a metaphor for life, with lessons on overcoming obstacles. Fans love the sense of community the sport creates, with cheerleaders, dance teams and band members all there to keep the excitement levels high.

Decatur High School, Texas

Football players running through large team sign onto playing field (© Tim Richardson)
Decatur High School football players take the field against their rival, Alvarado High School. (© Tim Richardson)

“We all want to win, and we all love the game,” says Mike Fuller, head coach of the high school team in Decatur, Texas, population 6,600. “But the real reason I coach is to try to help young men be the best that they can be, not just on the field, but throughout life as husbands, fathers, bosses, employees, wherever life takes them.”

Fuller has been coaching for 25 years now, four of them at Decatur, and he works upwards of 90 hours a week making sure he’s giving the athletes his best. It’s a demanding life, with days that start when his alarm clock goes off at 4 a.m. Sometimes he won’t get home until 1:30 in the morning. In between he’ll study videos of the teams his team will face to formulate a winning strategy, go over equipment lists with the 16 other coaches under his command and make sure his players are keeping up with their schoolwork.

On left, football players in a tackle hold; on right, football coach talking to team of football players (© Tim Richardson)
Left: Decatur defender tackles Midlothian Heritage running back. Right: Coach Fuller addresses his team after a win. (© Tim Richardson)

“School does come first,” Fuller says, “but most players get better grades during football season because they have to be absolutely focused on everything.” Besides leading players through workouts and drills, Fuller also tries to teach his players how to be good teammates. “It’s about a lot more than just winning and losing — [it’s] about getting people to work together,” he says.

Pewaukee High School, Wisconsin

Football teams playing, with one player leaping into air as ball passes overhead (© Don Gorzek/Lifetouch)
Pewaukee High player Seth Bickett, Number 12, tries to prevent his opponent from catching the football. (© Don Gorzek/Lifetouch)

Football governs most of Seth Bickett’s life. The 1.8-meter, 107-kilogram senior started playing ball during elementary school and now plays defense for Pewaukee High. He tries to break through the opposing team’s line to tackle the opposing player who has the ball, who might be the main ballhandler, the “quarterback.”

As soon as one season ends, Seth is in the gym lifting weights to get stronger for the next. During the school year, he’ll be up at 5 a.m. for a morning practice. When school ends at 3 p.m., he’s back out practicing with the team until 6:30 p.m. All the while, he’s documenting what he eats to make sure he’s in the best shape he can be.

Seth is expected to maintain good grades and not miss any assignments. “You really have to learn how to manage your time,” he says.

Malcolm High School, Nebraska

Cheerleaders doing steps on left (© Ted Kirk/Lincoln Journal Star); a ball carrier being tackled on right (© Heidi Hoffman/Lincoln Journal Star)
Left: Malcolm High cheerleaders dance during a game. (© Ted Kirk/Lincoln Journal Star) Right: Malcolm players tackle an opponent from East Butler. (© Heidi Hoffman/Lincoln Journal Star)

Football, with spurts of high-intensity action followed by longer pauses as teams ready for the next play, can feel like a slow game compared to soccer. There’s little doubt though that a rowdy crowd can keep the energy of the game high and thus help the players.

Enter the cheerleader. “I love it,” says Samantha Fortik, who has been on the cheerleading squad at Malcolm High for four years. Malcolm is a small town in Nebraska with only about 400 people, and football games are a fun way to spend a Friday night, she says.

The cheerleading team does about 40 cheers, most of which have been handed down from generation to generation. As captain, Samantha calls out the cheers so everyone knows which one to do. Short cheers might last just a few seconds — “Hey, Big Blue! We’re counting on you!” — while others can go on for 30 seconds.

“Cheerleading has made me a more confident person,” Samantha says. “My mom says I hold myself taller even though I haven’t grown.”

Massillon Washington High School, Ohio

Large crowd around two school buses with people hanging out the windows (© Jenna Watson/Tiger Legacy/Daylight Books)
A Massillon player presents the trophy to fans who gather after the team returns with a victory. (© Jenna Watson/Tiger Legacy/Daylight Books)

One community serious about high school football is Massillon, Ohio, a town of 32,000 people, 10,000 of whom might show up for a game. The local hospital gives baby boys footballs when they’re born.

“Football brings our town together,” says Kathy Catazaro-Perry, the mayor of the former steel town that now makes potato chips, frozen meals and bacon for Wendy’s fast-food restaurants. “It’s about tradition.”

Two men joyfully embracing on a football field (© Gary Harwood/Tiger Legacy/Daylight Books)
Fans embrace after a victory. (© Gary Harwood/Tiger Legacy/Daylight Books)

Catazaro-Perry never misses a game. She has made bets with the mayor of a rival town. “If we win, the mayor [of the other town] has to wear a Massillon jersey to a city council meeting, and if they win, I have to wear their jersey to one of our meetings,” she says. “We have a lot of fun.”

Football players making their way through machine-made fog (© Caitlin Bourque/Tiger Legacy/Daylight Books)
Massillon players run onto the field through a veil of machine-made fog to confront their biggest rivals, the Canton McKinley Bulldogs. (© Caitlin Bourque/Tiger Legacy/Daylight Books)

This article was written by freelance writer Tim Neville.