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Friday Night Legends 
& Small Town Heroes

 By Michael O’Brien, Contributing Editor  (C) 2001

Editor’s Note:  Oregon Magazine contributor O’Brien (who works the sports desk on a small town newspaper,  the Tillamook Headlight Herald)  grew up in Eastern Washington, a place of many small towns.   His reminiscences seemed particularly appropriate to accompany Pigskin Pete’s treatise on the Rangers of Dufur (pop. 527), Oregon)

 It’s just gotten dark but the streets are deserted.  Friday night and the only light on is the Texaco beacon burning at the edge of town.  Looking for a late dinner?  Sorry.  Shut it down, roll up the sidewalks.  Home game tonight.

A few miles east the sky glows bright.  You can see it from the highway.  In fifteen minutes they’ll be kicking it off.  The one radio channel that comes in out here is busy with the clash between a high school band playing “Louie Louie” and a breathless broadcaster trying to yell over the top of it.  “It’s a new season folks and a lot of questions will be answered tonight.”

Count on it.  How the banter around town goes for the next few months, alternate-week travel plans, décor in the downtown windows, utter joy or utter sorrow, it’s all on the line.  A lot of questions will be answered tonight.

Will it be like 1996, when every cash register in town had newspaper clippings taped to it?  When waitresses dyed their hair bright red and black two-tone on game days.  When the team rode through town every Friday afternoon after school on the fire truck, sirens a-blazing, pedestrians cheering and waving.  This from the seventh week on, through the state playoffs.

Depressing alternative

Or will it be a listless autumn?  People going through the motions, fire trucks in their sheds on Friday afternoons.  Taverns bustling at 8 p.m., two hours earlier than they would be during a winning season.

This ain’t the Metro League, the talent scouts are elsewhere.  The only unfamiliar faces are the ones in the visitor’s’ grandstand, bundled up with their purple and gold or colors de jour, reflecting their own loyalty to their team.  People everywhere are slapping backs and hustling for their perches, usually the same unofficially reserved spots where they’ve sat for years.  The kids are on the field, banging pads and looking for relatives in the distance.

Uncles, cousins, older brothers, holding down their permanent jobs as town legends, watching and taking their individual journeys down memory lane.  A wistfulness in the eyes, recognizing the pre-game hoopla from a spectator’s viewpoint rather than from the field, through a chinstrap…the field where their reputations were made not so long ago.

Small town destiny

In a small town, much of who you are in life is worked out by your senior season on the football field.  If you were among the lucky ones, chances are you got away for a few years and played some Division III college ball.  Then, it was back to the family business or farm, raising the family…and for the best, a free cup of coffee forever for that catch you made to get your team to the quarterfinals.

If your picture is still in the trophy case at the high school, you may even be playing free golf or eating free lunch as long as the owner can afford it.  Those chosen few married the prettiest girls in the county and still wear old letter jackets to city council meetings.

A lot of questions will be answered tonight.  The names keep popping up through the years.  Starting at offensive tackle—“is that George’s kid?  Man, it seems like only yesterday.  Hope he’s got his poppa’s game!”

Although it’s possible to spend your whole life in a small town without seeing your ex-sweetheart, it’s only so if you don’t go to football games.  In that row of the bleachers sits (from left) the city planning commissioner, the quarterback’s father-overalls still covered in mud-must have just finished up, Bill and his wife from the feed store, the guy from the forestry department with his tie still on, a 28-year-old single mom with all five boys in tow and the sixth one on the field warming up…and at the end there,  Father John from the Catholic school.  There is no other event that would draw the same demographic.

Most everyone has a raffle ticket in their pocket, 50-50 fund-raising-split with the SAFE graduation party, winner announced at halftime.  Coach Rockwell says the same thing in the pre-game interview on the radio that he said 28 years ago.  “We’ve got a great group of kids this year and our goal is the playoffs.”

The kids on the field know that their fate for the next few months is about to be decided.  Whether or not the town cop looks the other way as they zip down the avenue a few miles over, or whether or not they face a barrage of truck windows rolled down and older guys yelling: “when you gonna learn to catch the damn ball?” as the players appear on Saturday, walking anywhere in town.

It’s any rural town on any Friday home game night and a lot of questions are about to be answered.  The fate of two towns is at stake. 

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