Life in small town America, really small town America, is dominated by church and school. You have to live in a complete bubble to escape that fact. Right or wrong, high school athletics dominate school life in a small town. Many of the signs marking the entrances to communities say, "Home of the Eagles" or something like that in reference to the mascot of the school, and water towers often have the likeness of these mascots painted on them. Football in the fall, basketball in the winter, track in the spring, we follow our hometown teams both because we are proud of our kids, and because truth be told, in small towns we don't have much else to do for entertainment.
We are hard on our coaches. The movie "Hoosiers", called by a title I can't remember in the UK, is stunningly accurate in its portrayal of the way communities critique high school coaches. In the 8 years I served on our local school board nearly all of my stress was caused by one coach or another, and the way the parents and kids interacted with them. Nearly everyone is an expert on coaching in a small town, since nearly everyone played one sport or another. You hardly ever hear "the other team was just better than we were" after a defeat, generally losses are caused by poor officiating or bad coaching, or a combination of both. Just ask the parents.
There is no question a losing season drags the morale of a small town down. Conversely, a winning season generates enthusiasm and pride. Our small community has enjoyed a perfect football season this fall, culminating in our team playing for the 8 man state title this afternoon. Over the last few years we have come close, but never quite made it. Our town collectively held its breath as we won one game after another, hoping it wasn't all a fluke. After winning substate last week, even guys like me who don't care much for football spent quite a bit of time and conversation trying to evaluate our chances in the big game.
Hoosiers is also accurate in the way it portrays the entire community rallying around a team in a good year. Store windows had signs cheering the boys on, much of the town made the two hour trip to watch the game, and thanks to regional radio the rest of us listened this afternoon as boys we have known since they popped out of the womb played on brilliant and warm fall day. We got our monies worth, a real nail biter. Right up to the final moments the outcome was uncertain. My normal "who cares" attitude about sports pretty much vanished. I was hauling cattle and listening on the radio in the pickup when I noticed my neighbor had two cows out, both of us were irritated about the interruption. I got to do the running, as I was running back to my pickup he yelled out....."we are ahead by 8!!". It wasn't until there was about 40 seconds left it became certain we would win. I called one of my best friends who had a son playing and suggested he and about a half dozen other fathers strip naked and run around the field, the culmination being a group hug of the coach, "it'll make the paper" I assured him. He declined the notion of a naked run, but admitted he had tears streaming down his face.
It will make the paper anyway. A quick glance at the Emporia gazette website a few hours later reassured me of that, as it boldly proclaimed our small towns victory. Just like the end of "Hoosiers", our small town will remember this day for a very, very long time.