The Mountain Boys

This fall OKTC is proud to bring you the story of the Brewer Patriots, a high school team from rural North Alabama. OKTC will chronicle the Patriots as they struggle to break free from a reputation as a perennial losing team.  We will introduce you to the players, the coaches, and the sights and smells of Friday nights in the hill country the Patriots call home. 

It is August, and hope is running like a river throughout the South, deep and strong.  It flows across every football field in Alabama, filling in the scars that last season left.  It has even made its way through the wilderness to the Brewer Patriots.  The sons of the hills have drunk deeply of the stuff; there is spring in their steps as they bound across the freshly mowed practice field.  The new season, what once seemed so far away, is now bearing down on them, awful and wonderful and full of promise.  For now, their opponent is the summer sun.  From its perch in the heavens it torments them, burning the air thin and daring each boy to quit.  
 

There is no town that claims the Patriots as its own.  There is no city to rally behind the team, no hometown newspaper to cover the games.  There is nothing but a handful of communities and stoplights scattered across the surrounding hills.

Last year’s team, laden with seniors on both sides of the ball, finished the season 2-8.  The squad before that also went 2-8, as did the team before that.  It has been 13 years since the school last went to the playoffs.
Nothing here comes easily. 

This can be seen by looking at the stadium, which was carved out of the side of a small mountain.  The practice field looks like it was dug out of the surrounding Alabama forest with great difficulty.  A wire fence runs around the edge of the field, seemingly as a reminder to the forest of where it is no longer allowed to go.  50 foot pine trees sway on the other side, angrily watching the ground that used to be theirs.
 

The Patriots are on the field now.  They are a small team, destined to be underdogs in most of the games on their schedule.  Local opinion seems to hold that this will be a very difficult year for the team.  If the players have an awareness of these sentiments it is buried deep within the bravado of cresting manhood.  In years prior, that same bravado has melted off under the strain of mounting losses.  But that was then, and this is now.  Everyone is undefeated in the summer.
 

Eleven players stand as defenders holding big blue foam pads.  The first team offense is lined up against them, listening as the coaches preach the playbook.  The offense runs play after play, probing the defense, looking for seams.  Sometimes the same play is tweaked until every possible outcome has been played out.  The coaches convene just behind the line of scrimmage, pointing and barking adjustments after each burst of action.
The stubborn sun hangs in the air, refusing to fall with the passing hours. Sweat bees dart about in the summer heat, skimming over the surface of the grass.  The bugs are everywhere, nipping at knees and elbows and any piece of unguarded skin they can find.  I must have made a spectacle of slapping at them, because one of the players inches close to me.

He has big innocent eyes that peer out from deep inside his helmet like twinkling stars on a country night.  He is skinny and long; his practice uniform doesn’t have a number but I think he is a receiver.
 

“The bees, right?” He whispers, so as the coaches won’t hear him. “They won’t leave us alone.”
 

He tells me, in the most earnest tone you can imagine, that if I ever see him on the field flailing his arms it’s because the bees are bothering him.  It seems like an odd thing to be worried about at this particular moment.  But then again, when I was 15 all sorts of strange things worried me.
 

Whistles pierce through the muggy haze and all football activities cease.  The players close in around the coaches and fall to one knee on the grass.  Today’s practice is ending early because it is Wednesday and many of the families have church tonight.  Only the head coach speaks now, running through a list of announcements and instructions for the coming days. 
 

Now that the din of practice has ebbed away a new noise rises up to take its place.  The rattling howl of cicadas rings out from the heart of the forest.  It is a jarring, unsettling sound that zigzags through the air in such a way that it feels like it is coming from all directions at once.  In other parts of this region these insects have died out, but here in their pine fortress they are alive and well. 
 

The coach takes a moment to look out over his troops.  The players are worn.  Shoulders are sagging under the late afternoon heat.  Some of the faces are marked by that gridiron paste of sweat and grime and little bits of grass. 
 

“It’s getting close.” Their leader says over the droning cicadas. “Soon we’re going to start hitting other people.”
 

The rows of young heads bob up and down.  A few of the boys even muster grunts of approval.
 

I take a few steps back and notice something:  We are not alone.  A father is standing on the sideline with his young daughter beside him.  Beyond that, on the gravel path that leads to the practice field, another father is leaning up against the front of his parked minivan.  Even farther down, behind a chain link fence 50 yards away, a mother stands in the shadows with her hands on her hips, watching. They are all watching. 
It won’t be long now.
 

The summer sun is finally setting, and hope is running deep in August. 

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