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Dave Nichols: Done correctly, football builds character, memories

Shadle Park High School football coach Jim Mace. Aug. 22, 2018. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Shadle Park High School football coach Jim Mace. Aug. 22, 2018. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

It’s that time of year again.

Now that the skies have cleared and the air is a bit cooler, thoughts turn to football. The pros and college will kick off soon, and the Washington high school season starts for Thursday night in some places and on Friday everywhere else, like their neighbors in Idaho did last week.

If you’re reading this column in print, first – thanks! Our 28-page football season preview section accompanies this newspaper. If you’re reading online, click here to be redirected to our high school sports collection to check out all of our previews.

We wrote up everyone from the Greater Spokane League to the smallest B schools* to North Idaho and everywhere in between.

* Well, about that: Somehow – inexplicably and inadvertently – the 1B preview was omitted from the special section. It therefore appears below on the weekly preps page.

I want to thank writers Jim Meehan, Ryan Collingwood, Steve Christilaw and Justin Reed for helping profile some of our local teams and athletes. There are some terrific stories in there. Also, kudos to sports editor Ralph Walter, the photography staff and especially to page designer Madison McCord, who made it all look so good with our “movie poster” theme.

Memories of Friday night high school football are indelible and tangible, whether you played or not. Just saying the words evokes a certain set of thoughts and feelings. Most are overwhelmingly positive.

But football is taking a hit these days. Participation is down, even as high school sports participation overall increases. Some schools are eliminating programs. The injury factor has parents steering kids into “safer” sports. Some are avoiding athletic pursuit altogether.

There are coaches and parents who take it much too seriously, and it’s difficult to find officials willing to suffer the abuse in some areas.

And I have to admit that in certain situations, “toxic masculinity” – supervised or not – can take things too far.

Still, when managed by professional administrators, mature coaches and responsible training staffs, the experience young athletes get playing football is unlike any other.

I have my own memories of playing football back in the Stone Age.

My high school football career was not particularly impressive, but it had its moments. I attended three high schools over five years as we moved several times during those years.

I played quarterback and linebacker growing up, but a knee injury in practice before the start of my first sophomore year put an end to that. I missed the entire season and when we moved – because of the injury and missed required credits because of the transfer – the new school system granted me an extra year.

Yup, I got a “redshirt” year in high school.

Because of lack of speed and mobility after knee surgery, I became a two-way lineman and wasn’t happy about it. But I adjusted and stayed in the game.

Over my three years of varsity, we won seven games.

Still, I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

One of the things high school sports does – but football in particular – is tie generations together. Fathers and sons. Best friends. Brothers – figuratively and literally.

I have two younger brothers, Jim and Sam. I’m three years older than Jim, six older than Sam. They were both pretty shrimpy as kids, and I was always considerably bigger and stronger than both.

As kids we used to play a game called “Over the Top,” for which we’d pull a mattress off the bed. They’d play an offensive and defensive lineman and I’d be the running back and have to get from one end of the mattress to the other for a touchdown.

It always just descended into me taking a flying leap and landing on both of them, squashing their smaller, weaker bodies under me.

Our mother was always afraid my friends and I would “break them” when we roughhoused or played football in the yard.

One time, we did.

On our icy yard one winter, several of us fell on Sam playing tackle football and we broke his collarbone. He kept playing for another hour, sucking up the pain, but more afraid to quit and never be allowed to play with the big kids again.

One of my favorite memories of high school football came my senior season. At the end of the last two-a-days practice, the seniors got to scrimmage the freshman team.

Jim was on that team.

In ninth grade, he was a roly-poly, maybe 5-foot-8 and nearly 200 pounds. I was my full height at 6-foot and 255.

Jim played nose tackle and center that season. So did I.

For three series we went head-to-head on every play. I pushed him around like I always had in our yard, knocking him down and taunting him jokingly the entire time. It’s how brothers showed affection.

He stood up after each play and got back on the line, ready to take some more. Every single time.

Jim survived, and finally hit his growth spurt the next year, thankfully after I had gone off to college.

His senior season he went 6-4 and 280. He was named all-school, all-county and went on to play Division III for three years.

The spectacle of high school football on Friday nights across the country is as much the national pastime as any other sport. It’s romanticized in novels and Hollywood scripts.

Whether your school plays on a synthetic field with packed grandstands or plays 8-man on a dusty field in the country, it’s the same game between the lines.

Crunching pads. Barking coaches. Marching bands. Screaming parents. Chanting cheerleaders.

It’s all there. And it’s time once again.


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