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It is August, and I am inside the Brewer locker room. Practice has just ended, and junior Jalen Chatman sits on one of the wooden benches, talking to me about the upcoming season. Chatman is a linebacker who moonlights as a fullback in the Patriots’ power sets. He is about 5’9” and 210, just the right size to put the wood on someone, as they say around here. The number 42 has been carefully shaved into the side of his close-cropped hair.
If there is one team he dreams of beating, it is the Hartselle Tigers.
I ask him why. What is it about Hartselle?
“Because nobody thinks we can beat them. If we can beat them we can beat anybody.”
I prod further.
“What would it mean to you to win that game?”
Jalen nervously brushes his fingers across his face, as if clearing invisible cobwebs away. He starts to answer, stops, and then a smile bubbles up from inside him. His lips pull back to reveal bright blue braces on his teeth.
“A lot.” He says, shaking his head as if I wouldn’t even believe it.
Week two of the season sees the Patriots in Hartselle to play their cross-county rivals. Hartselle is a very good team, one of the best in the state. The Tigers regularly make deep runs into the playoffs, and last year they came within a whisker of making the 5A title game. It has been 11 years since Brewer last defeated Hartselle, and none of the games in that span have been close.
Brewer takes the field and huddles on their sideline for a final prayer. Hartselle’s entrance involves smoke machines and a giant inflatable football helmet that the players run through. The home team pours through the helmet, their no-frills crimson jerseys blending together into a churning river of burnt red. As the smoke from the machines drifts over the field, Brewer’s huddle suddenly seems small and uneasy.
Hartselle begins on offense and moves down the field with ease. They stall a bit at the goal line, and 1st and goal becomes 4th and goal from the 2. The offense remains on the field. Brewer is being offered a chance, an opportunity to stand up to the bully and punch him in the mouth. Hartselle snaps the ball and the underdogs have two yards to prove their mettle. The Tigers hand it off and their running back hits the wall of bodies and is wrenched down right at the goal line. The Brewer parents leap to their feet—it looks short, surely it’s short—but the referee’s hands go up, and it is a touchdown.
Midway through the first quarter there is a partial power outage at the stadium. The press box and PA system lose power, and the scoreboard also goes black. This brings a sort of eerie calmness to the Brewer fans. Hartselle is breezing up and down the field now, piling up one touchdown after another, but without a scoreboard none of it seems real.
Not everyone is watching the game. A couple of teenage lovers have crept behind the bleachers and are passionately making out under the cover of Friday night football. Eventually the girl happens to catch me staring down at them, and she gives me a look that can only be described as PLEASE DON’T TELL MY MOM. I suddenly feel about 500 years old.
Brewer has a brief moment in the setting sun. The Hartselle quarterback drops back to pass and is flushed out of the pocket after several Patriot linemen fight their way into the backfield. Linebacker Desmon Pegues circles around the corner on a blitz and wrestles the quarterback to the ground for a sack. The Brewer fans stand and shout their encouragement to the field below.
Hartselle is hardly troubled by the loss of yardage, and a few plays later they cross the goal line for another score. As the Hartselle band comes to life, one of the fathers next to me crosses his arms in indignation.
“I’m getting mighty sick of hearing their fight song.” He mutters to no one in particular.
When the scoreboard finally comes back on, Hartselle is already leading 35-0. By the second half they have stopped all passing plays, and by the fourth quarter they have their third string on the field. Despite these concessions, Brewer can neither move the ball nor prevent the Hartselle reserves from adding to the lead.
With less than a minute left in the game Hartselle muffs a punt and Brewer falls on the ball. On the game’s final play the Patriots set up in a shotgun and send receivers deep. The pocket bends and cracks, and the Hartselle third-stringers come streaming through the gaps and into the backfield. Westin Pritchett winds up and heaves one last throw as the defenders converge on him. It is a desperate, wobbling spiral that sails downfield with the hopes of the parents pinned behind it like a tail on a kite.
Nick Humphries follows the ball to the end, chasing it out of bounds. The pass falls to the ground and bounces on the grass. The whistles blow, and the Brewer offense begins the long walk back to their sideline. The teams form single-file lines to shake hands at midfield. Hartselle’s line is twice as long. It winds around the field like a giant snake until finally the boys break rank and jog towards the locker room.
The teams exit the night headed in different directions: Hartselle will chase an undefeated season and another run at the state title. Brewer will return home to regroup for homecoming week. This Friday the high rise lights will come on in the valley. Parked cars will line the sides of the old country highway. The longsuffering Patriot fans will bathe themselves in hope, scrubbing away the hurt of tonight’s loss. Every game is a new beginning in the hills of North Alabama.
Read the Mountain Boys series here: