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A wave of thunderstorms is pushing across the Tennessee Valley. The August heat flees like a coward, routed farther and farther with each blast of thunder rolling out of the belly of the storm.
Tonight is a special night, one that even the rain cannot spoil. There are three events scheduled at Brewer this evening: First, team pictures. Second, a greeting time for the families called Meet the Patriots. Finally, the team will hold its first scrimmage in front of those in attendance. For the anxious parents, tonight is their first real taste of Brewer football. For the players, tonight is their first chance to slip on their real uniforms, forsaking the dingy, numberless white practice digs.
The campus is bathed in a sort of misty, dreamy coolness. The sky, exhausted, looks drained of color. It stretches from horizon to horizon, an expanse of the emptiest kind of blue. The storm has left behind tiny remnants of clouds stranded on the mountains. These little patches of fog shift and creep, like ghosts climbing on the treetops.
The storms have pushed the photograph session back by an hour or so, and this delay has left the schedule in shambles. Parents arriving for Meet the Patriots file into the wet bleachers and wait patiently through the team pictures.
To further the general confusion, the state association has sent a large group of officials-in-training to work the scrimmage as part of their evaluation. A dozen men in striped shirts loiter next to the concession stand, playing with their whistles and waiting for the scrimmage to begin. It is a truly odd sight, like something out of a coach’s secret nightmare.
The players finish their pictures and are herded by the coaches straight into the bleachers. Perhaps a hundred family members are scattered throughout the rows, and the football players climb the steps in waves, stopping to shake hands and speak to the fans. Although it is impossible to listen in on every conversation, by the way the players and different families interact, it appears as if everyone pretty much knows everyone. I keep expecting another contingent of Brewer players to appear and join those already in the stands, but none are coming. This is all there is.
A common lament around here is that not enough boys in the school want to play football. This might seem like a tall tale, a farce that a school in rural Alabama would have a shortage of football players. But it is apparently true. Parents and players alike tell me that there are students every year who are big enough or athletic enough to make a contribution on the team. They just don’t want to. So deep is the stain of losing, so sorrowful the Patriot mythos, that prospective players shy away year after year. As the story goes, they always offer the same stinging line:
I don’t want to play for a loser.
The irony is not lost on the current players: no one wants to play because the team isn’t very good—because no one wants to play. One by one, the players swear to me that they will turn things around anyway.
The Patriots are on the field now. The red squad lines up against the blue squad for the first play of the scrimmage. The coaches on the sideline seem to be shouting more sets of commands than there are players on the field, in particular the singular “LIVE! LIVE! LIVE!” to remind the players that, yes, this is for real.
They are small, and there aren’t very many of them, but here they are.
The ball is snapped and the lines collide. Receivers carve their routes into the soggy grass.
One more season is underway. Once more into the breach with this Gideon’s army.
The defense clogs the passing lanes. The pocket breaks down around the quarterback. Happy feet. Nowhere to throw.
One more chance to knock the rust of losing off the goalposts.
The quarterback tucks the ball and sprints down the field. The defense arrives, and he gives his best juke. It has begun.
Catch up on the Mountain Boys series here: