By Nicholas Dingus, Sports Editor
As usual, winter had come to south central Ohio in early October, and by late November, she had completely consumed corn country. As 2007 was drawing to a close, my father and I set out on a pilgrimage; every Friday night for four weeks we would bundle ourselves up in our warmest clothes and hop into his old pickup to go watch his alma mater play in the state football playoffs.
My father grew up in a small community 15 minutes east of Washington Court House, Ohio. He attended West-fall High School outside of Williams-port another 15 minutes to the north-east. While he never played football while a student at Westfall, he did play baseball with his best friend, Lonnie Puckett. After high school, my father eventually moved away to Columbus. Over the following 20 years, my father and Lonnie’s friendship continued, assuring that this relationship, fostered in their childhood, would have a lasting impact on my life.
Throughout my early childhood, I can remember every Christmas my family would spend Christmas Eve with my mother’s family in Grove City and the next morning head south to spend several hours with my father’s family. After stuffing ourselves with grandmas cooking for the second time in as many days, we would say goodbye and head to our last holiday stop in Derby to visit with Lonnie’s family, my father’s second family. These visits were never long, but they stand out in my memory. The Pucketts became my extended second family, just as they had been my father’s second family twenty-odd years before.
As happens with friends as they grow older and start families, the opportunities that my father and Lonnie had to see each other became fewer as their children got older. Lonnie had two sons and a daughter who all attended Westfall. Lonnie’s youngest son, Cameron, was a great soccer and basketball player just like his older brother, but also played kicker on the football team. 2007 was a magical season for Westfall football; the Mustangs finished the regular season with an undefeated record of 10-0 earning themselves the number two seed in the state playoffs.
When the playoffs began in early November, my father and I set out for Williamsport in the blistering cold, along with Lonnie and his father.
I had just finished my first season playing football for my middle school in South Vienna. I had grown up watching college football on TV with my family; watching the Buckeyes on Saturday afternoons was a tradition in our home. This, however, was different; this was my first taste of high school football, and, just like that, I was hooked.
As a 12-year-old, that first playoff game seemed straight out of the movies; the entire town was packed into the small stadium to support their boys. The atmosphere was electric! The sounds of air horns and cowbells still ring in my ears, and I can still smell the hotdogs and nachos being sold at the concessions stand. From the comfort of their home field, Westfall easy beat their first playoff opponents, New Lexington. The following week we traveled to Teays Valley high school in Ashville to watch Westfall play Waverly, whom they easily beat; the next week they won a close game against St. Clairsville in Gahanna.
The next week was full of anticipation and excitement as the next Friday the Mustangs would be playing in the state semi-finals against Coldwater in Clayton, near the Indiana border. My memories from that night have been etched in my mind, down to the smallest detail. That night was especially cold, even biting through the heater in my dad’s pickup. I clearly remember listening to the Ohio State basketball team play VMI on the radio. Kosta Kuffus was a freshman and scored a lot of points helping the Buckeyes to victory.
By the end of the first quarter, everyone in the stands knew that Westfall was in trouble. Their potent offense couldn’t break the Coldwater defense, and Coldwater’s running backs were unstoppable. By the end of the half, almost all hope of a comeback was gone.
Nestled deep in my giant orange and grey winter coat with a now cool hand warmer in each of my pockets, my heart sank as I watched the orange numbers tick down to zero. It was over; the perfect season had finally come to a drastic and violent end in Clayton, Ohio. Even though it was not my school, I felt a connection to this team, and this loss devastated me. For the last month I had followed them on their journey, and unbeknownst to me, became a fan.
I still have not been to a Westfall football game since that night in Clayton; over the next several years my love for football grew, and as I moved from South Vienna middle school to Northeastern High School, I dreamed of one day playing in the playoffs. I could still feel the atmosphere of that cold Ohio November.
While I never had the privilege of playing in a playoff game, I can firmly say that to this day, there is nothing that I can think of to compare with high school football in America; this is especially true in small towns.
Living in a small town, it was amazing to see the support that a small community throws behind their team; even a team as bad as ours. It has been almost six years since I played my last high school football game, and I can still remember the pride I felt running out onto that field every Friday night. Even now, high school football holds a special place in my heart.
I envy the young men that run out on to that field with their whole lives in front of them yet are only focused on the next several hours. Then I see the fans: hardworking people who once a week, take time out of their schedules to come together as a community to get away from the stresses of everyday life.
I now look back at my own life and realize that it was that November in 2007 and a school that otherwise, I have no connection to, that lit the fire of passion deep inside me—a passion for something that is much more than just a game, a passion for community.