Without football season, what becomes of Virginia’s boys (and girls) of fall?

Players from Alleghany High and Covington High face off in the annual Brackman cup game. (City of Covington website)

Considering the scope of a virus that has killed nearly 700,000 people, wrecked national economies and brought superpowers to their knees, a fall without high school football seems barely worth a footnote in the already voluminous tragedy that is 2020.

This pathogen from hell has already deprived the world of the Summer Olympics, the magic of March Madness and, for the most part, baseball.

Several million graduates missed their proud march across a dais in cap and gown before friends and kin to claim hard-earned diplomas. More virtual schooling awaits most students this fall semester and the loss of many other activities, with some districts offering hybrid on-campus/online learning plans. Who knows how many festive weddings, joyous childbirths, golden anniversaries and family funerals were done with loved ones absent or, at best, connected via a tinny, faltering videoconference link.

Primary elections were delayed, holidays deferred and long-planned (and prepaid) vacations are put off indefinitely.

So why shed a tear for the boys (and girls) of autumn?

It’s hard to explain unless you are – or ever were – one of those kids. Five decades ago, I was.

For most of their young lives, high school football has been these teens’ north star and guiding dream. Friday night heroics with teammates for the greater glory of their schools and communities propels them through carefree sandlot games, countless TV hours studying the sport’s collegiate or professional masters, summer training routines and the exhaustion of the practice field. Over time, the years, months and even weeks take on a familiar, even comforting rhythm fitted to the cycles of football, its season and its off-season.

About now, the grueling morning/afternoon preseason gauntlet known as “two-a-days” would be starting. It’s a proving ground in the late summer swelter that prepares players and bonds them as a unit and as lifelong friends. Weeks before that, players have voluntarily conditioned themselves: pumping iron, running wind sprints and agility drills and mentally readying themselves for the challenges of the weeks and months ahead.

Amid that process, the statewide sanctioning body for interscholastic competition, the Virginia High School League, announced the cancellation of fall football with the possibility of a truncated mid-winter makeup season, God willing and pandemic permitting.

It’s not the same as the fall season, but at least it’s hope.

Richmond’s Thomas Jefferson High School Vikings prepare to take the field. (NBC 12)

The game is greater than games themselves. The experience goes beyond competition, beyond wins and losses. It’s practical jokes in the locker room, bus rides home after a win, the crack and chatter of snare drums and the thumping bass as marching bands take the field on a crisp Friday evening, a teammate’s reassuring hand up after an embarrassing stumble, and having that same teammate’s back when they need it. Lifelong friendships grow here. There’s a sense of worth, of belonging, of family, all born of a special shared time ― a time essential to the developing adolescent psyche.

“For these kids, it can be almost like dealing with a death,” said Becky Snow, a former high school and college athlete and coach who now counsels Central Virginia athletes, including those making the sad transition out of sports. “It’s an ending to a part of who they are, a part of their identity.”

When it ends (inevitably, it does), it hurts no matter how long you’ve played. I took off my helmet, cleats and shoulder pads one last time after my final game at Ole Miss in November 1977.

I was lucky.

Fairly quickly, my self-identity shifted from ballplayer to that of a newspaperman, a media professional and trusted advisor, not to mention a dad and husband. Yet despite the intervening decades, the VHSL announcement hit me hard, not because of who I am but because of who I was. My fondest football years were in high school. I know how crushed my teammates and I would have been had our final season in the green and gold been snatched from us as it has for thousands of boys and girls (44 females suited up statewide last fall) in big cities and small towns across Virginia.

Snow’s firm, Champions Mentality Consulting, already counsels spring sports athletes whose seasons were ripped away without warning in March. Football presents its own tricky set of issues, Snow said, because of its tough-guy ethic. And just as strong teams are essential to on-field success, she said, they can also help players cope with the loss of this season.

“Football players have a culture of not showing emotion other than maybe anger or the game face, that unbreakable presence. This is a time to allow them space where they’re comfortable, maybe with their family or their second family – the team – so they can grieve. Maybe they get to see that their team captain or even their coach cry, to see that it’s OK to cry and to let it go,” Snow said.

Being part of a sports team touches the teenage heart and changes him or her forever, and for the better. Back when Richard Nixon was president and a gallon of gas cost less than a quarter, Ray Wooten, my coach at Lake County High School in a poor, close-knit Tennessee farm community, deeply understood strong teams.

It was his superpower.

He nurtured a fierce loyalty and an us-against-the-world brotherhood, even as he seamlessly led the locality’s first racially integrated teams in the mid-’60s.

Coach Ray Wooten (center) and assistant coach Buddy Makin talk strategy with quarterback Chuck Stevens during a Lake County (Tennessee) High School football game in 1965.
(Photo courtesy of Ray and Sally Wooten)

Kenny Chesney captured it perfectly in his homage to high school football: “You mess with one man, you got us all. The boys of fall.” Wooten’s teams were perennial winners during a head coaching career that spanned four decades in Tennessee and his native Mississippi. So I called Coach last week (I’ll always call him Coach, a well-earned title of respect) at his Taylorsville, Mississippi, home to get his take.

“There are a lot of kids who don’t get much love at home. With our teams, I tried to give them that ― wanted to give them that,” Coach said. “Maybe some weren’t great athletes, but you give them a chance to play and feel good about themselves.”

Some seniors who might attend college on football scholarships with a strong final season may lose that chance with a canceled fall season, he said. But the greater loss is to relationships.

“Kids will lose contact with one another. Those friendships that the boys develop once they’re players … well, they won’t have that this year,” he said. “It’s just something I can’t fathom a whole state doing.”

Twenty-eight years after Coach led our 11-1 team through an unbeaten regular season and a playoff run, I got to relive it vicariously through my oldest son’s team at Henrico’s Mills Godwin High School. His 2000 Eagles team capped a perfect regular season with an appearance in the VHSL playoffs. His teammates were like brothers to him, and all the players’ families felt part of an extended Godwin football family in those precious years. A generation later, those players’ bonds with one another and their coach remain solid.

“It was part of my life for 37 years,” said Ron Axselle, who amassed a 166-94-3 record over 25 seasons as Godwin’s first football coach. “You go out there on those hot, humid mornings, you smell the grass and the dew all over it, and it’s hard. You fuss about it, fight through it and then you’re so proud when you survive it. It’s a special, special time that you have with your teammates and you take away memories that you have forever.”

There will be no muggy morning practices on dewy sod or mid-afternoon scrimmages under a hazy, incandescent sun this year. But, Coach Axselle notes, a short midwinter season would at least give football players something that this spring’s baseball, track and lacrosse athletes never got: one last chance to play.

I hope that happens. I hope for them that they play again. I hope that someday, decades from now after we 1970s boys of fall are gone, those fleeting football moments and the friendships born of them remain strong and bring them comfort.