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Only a Game

Out on the perimeter, something akin to magic happened.



By most accounts a football game was not in order. It was Friday night, September 14th, just three days after the televised horror show in New York and Washington. Clear skies, a breeze with just a hint of autumn, a beautiful sunset off where the city meets the river.

Most had spent this day of prayer and remembrance dressed in red-white-and-blue, on their knees in church, or lighting candles on their porches. By now we had all seen the airliners finding their targets again and again on TV. By now the TV stations were offering no commentary along with the images; instead, they had theme music, giving the carnage a balletic quality that it never deserved. By now, the sight of the immense World Trade Center buildings collapsing onto themselves or the smoldering wound in the Pentagon were all-too-familiar. The dust-covered faces of the firemen and cops who staggered from the rubble told us all we needed to know: that there would be no happy ending to this unprecedented atrocity.

Major League Baseball had cancelled its games through the weekend, as had the NFL and Division I college football. According to some reports, as many as 70 percent of the country's high schools announced there would be no sports. About the only sporting event going that week was, ironically, the WWF Smackdown. Across the country, stadium lights were dark, stands were empty, and the grass on countless playing fields was undisturbed.

Out here on the perimeter, something akin to magic happened. The high schools in the area decided to go ahead and tee it up, play the games, and let go of the terrible images for just a little while. There seemed to be a kind of unspoken consensus that this was a good thing to be doing, gathering here at Red Devil Stadium behind Germantown High School to watch the latest installment of the ancient football rivalry between Germantown and Collierville. Here, we seemed to agree, was just the potion to lift the dark spell cast three days before.

So we lit candles. We sang the National Anthem, facing a flag hanging limply at half-mast from its pole just beyond the goalposts in the north end-zone. We paid appropriate respect to the thousands of dead and missing.

And then we cheered, as the referee whistled and the players got down to the business of playing a game.

As anyone with whom I attended high school will recall, I was just not cut out for football. More an emaciated nerd than anything else, I did manage to go to the home football games, if for no other reason than because that's where the weekend party usually began. Back then, I never realized that memories were being formed and stored for a night just like this, when all of us needed desperately to believe in such simple, innocent, and ordinary miracles as the one being played out before us.

Maybe it was the bright stadium lights that made it all so hyper-real. Or maybe it was the colorful uniforms on the players, the coaches, the refs, the cheerleaders, the dance team, the band. Or maybe it was the wild enthusiasm of the students in the stands, their faces painted with American flags, their focus on finding a way through the complicated maze of teenage pressures. Whatever the reason, the two-hour spectacle had a cinematic quality to it, as if every thing and every moment were bathed in a pure white light that was capable, if only for a short time, of helping us understand that the world was still more good than evil.

We store up such moments as these for when we need them. Touchdowns and passes caught and shanked field goals and penalty flags. A throng of kids at the refreshment stand. A girl in line in front of me working up the courage to offer to buy a boy a soda. Marching bands, bass drums, brass and flutes and xylophones.

Sure, there were plenty of other games around Shelby County that Friday night. Other rivalries, other uniforms. This was not a suburban phenomenon. And yet, the scene in Germantown was an old one, by our standards, and that somehow made it special.

Two hours of alternative time passed -- no TV, no suicide hijackers, no collapsing skyscrapers. Two hours to forget the world outside the stadium. Two hours to return to the past, or revel in the present, or be aware that the future looks mighty ominous indeed. It was a breather, out here in Burbland, that helped us all appreciate the normal rituals we so regularly take for granted.

And who won? Well, everybody, that's who.

You can e-mail David Dawson at

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