Strong Safety: A Season In North Alabama Football

OKTC will cover sports from a variety of perspectives. We hope you enjoy this piece from a rural North Alabama high school.

And now, introducing Matthew Pierce.

The perfect blue sky is bleeding pink at the edges. The summer heat has finally broken. It is Friday night in North Alabama, and two school buses full of teenage restlessness just zoomed by my house with a
police escort.

Football.

 

Hartselle High School is visiting Brewer High School in the second week of the season. On paper it looks like a mismatch: Hartselle is a confident and hungry team, fresh off a heartbreaking defeat in the third round of the state playoffs last year. Brewer, meanwhile, has not been to the playoffs in 11 years, and their previous season produced only two victories.

I live between the two schools, so it seemed like a good idea to check out the game. I catch a ride with my sister, who is married to one of the coaches for Brewer. I assume she is holding a vast cache of inside information that other writers are not privy to. What is Brewer’s game plan? Any last minute injury updates? Any secret defensive schemes?

“Their colors are navy.” She informs me proudly.

My sister drives me through some of the best Alabama back highways you can find, past cars on cinder blocks and chickens pecking in gravel driveways. Past something called the Smokey Holler Café, which looks about the way it sounds.

We arrive at Brewer High School and step into the middle of the only show in town. Navy and red-clad partisans flood the school grounds. Campaigning politicians loiter about the ticket window, shaking hands and drawling loudly about Change. Members of the marching band pace nervously in the parking lot. Every so often a cheerleader or two brushes by in a gust of ribbons and short skirts. What a night to be a teenage boy.

The Brewer football complex is situated in a nook between several small mountains, and it looks like they cut the field out of the side of a hill. Giant light structures rise high above the field and keep everything bathed in a glare that feels downright prime time.

Soon the game begins. Hartselle takes the opening kickoff and engineers an effortless touchdown drive, almost like Brewer isn’t even on the field. I turn to my sister, who is sitting with her head in her hands.

“They’re so small.” I say, pointing to the Brewer team.

She nods knowingly.

The teams trade possessions and the game has lulled the place quiet. There is something stirring though, deep in the bellies of the underdogs.

The rout that once seemed so imminent has yet to unfold. Midway through the first quarter the deficit is still only seven, and Brewer is putting together an unlikely march down the field, growing stronger with each first down. The home fans are lively now, waking to the idea that their team still has its foot in the door. Another first down. Brewer is within a long pass of the end zone, and hope is rising up out of the bleachers like a phoenix into the cool mountain air.

The Hartselle defense stiffens and the drive stalls. It is fourth and long, and the Brewer offense remains on the field. On the crucial play, the Brewer quarterback is flushed out of the pocket and hurls a desperation attempt all the way to the end zone. The hope of the entire stadium sails on this, the wobbliest of spirals. A Brewer receiver and a Hartselle defender make simultaneous dives to the same spot.

The ball hits the grass and skids to a rest without being touched. Incomplete pass, turnover on downs.

It was a tiny window, but it was the only window Brewer would be afforded. Hartselle quickly doubles the lead, then seizes upon a turnover and runs in another score. And just like that, the game is out of reach.

Something catches my eye in the waning moments of the second half: With Hartselle coasting comfortably, one of the Brewer defenders is still bouncing around between plays, slapping his teammates’ helmets and flailing his arms at the crowd. Even from the bleachers I can hear #12 screaming at his gridiron brothers, some of whom look broken and tired. This last defender is trying to hold the line one final time, determined that the Hartselle third string won’t break through for another score.

He’s digging his heels in like the end zone behind him is a lake of fire.

The defense holds, and the game ends with a final tally of Hartselle 35, Brewer 7.

I find #12 after the game. He introduces himself as Shawn Ricketts, a senior who plays about six different positions. He is a short boy, his slight frame held together with a network of lean muscles. He holds his head high and answers my questions with the unsettling sense of someone who knows that it’s all just a game.

“Where does all that passion come from?” I ask him.

“Well,” he begins, and soon it all makes sense.

Shawn lost both his parents when he was in the 7th grade. He has played his entire high school career without a mother or father in the bleachers. He tells me that he has dedicated his senior year to their memory. With measured tones, he appraises his chances for playing in college (“I’m too small.”), and reflects on the late game defensive stand (“If you don’t have pride, that kind of team will hang a hundred points on you.”)

I ask him about the fans, and his honesty is striking.

“Everyone knew we would lose tonight.” Shawn says bluntly.

He isn’t angry and he isn’t sad; he doesn’t even look like his team lost. He seems perfectly at peace with his effort in the game. His eyes dart across the empty bleachers and out to the illuminated field, where a group of small children run around reenacting the night’s game.

“I mean, they wanted us to win….but they knew we wouldn’t. And they still came out. That’s why this place is so great. It’s a family.”

Shawn talks some more about family. He calls the team his family. He calls the fans his family. He has this place wrapped so tightly around himself that if you cut him open it would be hard to tell where Shawn began and Brewer football ended.

One last question.

“Did you leave it on the field tonight?”

Shawn almost smiles, but not quite. This is the easiest question of them all.

“I left everything.”

I finish the interview and Shawn saunters back to the attentions of a pretty blond girl by the bleachers. Behind us, there is a little boy on the football field in a plastic helmet and a miniature Brewer Patriots jersey. The little boy is running through the end zone, and it’s not hard to imagine him as a defensive back 15 years from now. Dusk is upon us, and the toddler slips on the dewy grass. He tumbles to the ground, the ground where sweat and blood and little drops of glory have fallen.

The night air is sweet with each breath.

It is Friday night in North Alabama.

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