Nothing matches purity of prep football

Sep 12 2011 - 6:30pm

MIAMI -- I took my son to his first high school football game Friday night. He is a 14-year-old freshman at Coral Gables High. His school was playing my alma mater, Palmetto High.

I was torn.

Should I be a supportive parent and cheer for Gables, which will be the second home of my three kids in the coming years?

Or should I remain true to Palmetto, the place where I grew up, the place that I love more now -- in the warm glow of nostalgia -- than I did when I was a teen and just wanted to graduate and leave Miami behind forever?

The debate went back and forth in my mind like the Panthers and Cavaliers on the field, running and tackling as they have for 50-plus years. The outcome was not critical in the big picture of South Florida football. What used to be a fierce rivalry between Miami powerhouses was one of dozens of games between mediocre teams.

But I wanted my son and his friends to enjoy this rite of passage. I want them to invest in school spirit, knowing that the dividends will make high school seem less like a sentence to be served than a journey to be savored.

"Glory days," sings Springsteen.

High school is a place in time that is impossible to recapture. But high school football allows you to alight there.

Sit in the stands and watch the raw emotion, the imperfect pageantry. Call me a hopeless romantic, but it's the purest feeling we've got left in sports.

When I was in high school, everybody went to the games. They were social occasions. We honed our tans at Crandon Beach and contemplated which jeans to wear with our blue-and-white T-shirts.

On a rainy Friday, there were maybe 600 people in the Tropical Park stands for a matchup that used to draw 10,000 in the 1960s and 1970s. The team rosters, once 80-strong, have shrunk to half that size, as have the marching bands.

"The game used to be the culmination of the week," said Harold Cole, 63, the former Coral Gables High athlete, coach and athletic director. "Students were excited to wear the jersey or play the drums. Now it's not the cool place to be. Kids would rather go to the mall, sit at home on the computer or text each other."

Yet I find the games irresistible, like the corny tearjerker movie you can't stop watching.

You've got the big, ungainly kids, jiggling baby fat, who squat along the line of scrimmage and cannot be budged. You've got the little kids, still growing into their shoulder pads. Cheerleaders who haven't had boob jobs. Trumpeters who hit sour notes. Flag twirlers who drop flags.

Youth in its awkward, blooming earnestness. Sometimes, you want to hug the boys, wiping tears as they tightrope between childhood and manhood. They will be gone all too soon.

High school football is more moving than pro football. NFL fans can be downright nasty. The players have the physiques of video game androids. The coaches cover their lips with a laminated playlist, lest someone decipher their extremely complicated strategy. Secretive, sterile and oh-so-serious.

Big changes

When I covered my first high school game for The Miami Herald, roving the sideline to record statistics, I was mistaken for a water girl by Southridge coach Don Soldinger.

I filed my game stories electronically on a Radio Shack "laptop" that was the size of an air conditioning window unit. This entailed finding at pay phone at 11 p.m. and attaching rubber couplers to the handset. For games at Homestead's Harris Field, I used the phone in the 7-Eleven parking lot, which was in demand on Friday nights. I got to know the drug dealers in that lot on a first-name basis, and they always wanted to know the score.

High school football used to be bigger than University of Miami football. The 1965 Gables vs. Miami High game drew 48,000 people to the Orange Bowl. Today, only a few rivalry games, such as Friday's Belen-Columbus game or Northwestern vs. Central, will attract 10,000.

"Dade County has so many schools that it's become fragmented," Cole said. "It's not like Lakeland, where the community still comes out."

The dizzying array of magnet schools and the de-emphasis of neighborhood schools mean kids are commuters with no connection to the school near their house. Declining attendance is a main reason that 70 percent of the public schools lose money on football. Palmetto High athletic director Yvette McKinney, my former track coach, has to perform a budget juggling act each week. Palmetto lost $2,000 when its game against Columbus was canceled because of bad weather. There are fewer parents at booster club meetings. Principals resist making time for pep rallies because no one can waste a moment in preparing for the FCAT.

'A different time'

"I loved playing against Palmetto and coaching against Palmetto," said Cole, who raises money for prep sports through his Dade Schools Athletic Foundation. "It was a very different time in Miami."

A more innocent time, before two of my classmates became infamous as criminals: Scott Segal, the accused Ponzi schemer who tried to murder his girlfriend by stuffing her in the trunk of a car and rolling it into a lake. And Bobby Lester, the basketball star and my former running partner, who later became a crack addict and the "Biting Bandit."

Before Gables High became known as the school where one student stabbed another to death outside the cafeteria.

Take me back. Take me back to the "Lights Out" game between Palmetto and Gables, when the power died in the middle of a pass play and no one could be sure whether a mysterious touchdown catch was actually made.

Take me back to Gables' four national title seasons. To Palmetto vs. Killian. To Carol City's peak. To those electric Soul Bowls between Northwestern and Jackson. To the triumph last year of Central High, a formerly F school threatened with closure, raising up its surrounding neighborhood with the first state title in school history.

To Willie Wilcox at the microphone, intoning, "Remember, remember," in his preachy baritone.

Lured to the past, we can only go forward, like those boys on the field, running with abandon as the cheerleaders scream and jump.

Palmetto 20, Coral Gables 19 in a thriller that ended with a last-second blocked field goal. I had to smile with Panther pride.

Savor these nights and days, I want to tell my son. But I'm his mother. What do I know?

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