If you look at the calendar, it will tell you that fall is still more than a month and a half away. Sept. 23, in fact, is when it officially begins this year.
But, unofficially, “fall” has already begun, at least in the South. Yes, I know it’s August. Yes, it’s still 100 degrees outside. Sure, you’re probably going to try to squeeze in one more weekend beach run before the school bell rings.
And yet, football is upon us, and so fall has, for all intents and purposes, arrived.
Oh, I know football isn’t all the way here yet. We’re still in those tantalizing nascent stages. But it won’t be long now.
On the college level, South Carolina and Clemson hit the practice field late last week. The defending national champion Tigers will begin 2019 ranked No. 1 in the coaches poll. My beloved Gamecocks, meanwhile, will be trying to improve on a 7-6 record from a year ago. It won’t be easy, as USC has the most brutally difficult schedule I can remember in my lifetime.
Help is on the way, though, as speedy Clemson running back Tavien Feaster is apparently transferring to South Carolina and will suit up this season. That’s a neat trick. If the Tigers wanted to send the Gamecocks a few more players, that would certainly be fine with me. A couple cornerbacks, a defensive tackle and an outside linebacker would be nice.
And the NFL has started its preseason. College and high school ball are still the kings in the South, but we’ll endure pro ball in a pinch. I found myself in just such a pinch last week, when I sated my football longings by watching the NFL’s annual preseason Hall of Fame Game, which pitted the Denver Broncos against the Atlanta Falcons. Sure, it was just an exhibition, one that was likely only of real interest to die hard Atlanta and Denver fans, or degenerate gamblers. (The Broncos covered!) But, it was a live football game, and that certainly beats the heck out of whatever the talking heads are screaming about on the cable news channels.
This week, many football fans across the Lakelands will get the moment they have been waiting for, as high school football finally returns, at least in preseason form. The WCTEL Kickoff Classic is set for Friday night at Hite Stadium at Abbeville High School. I still call it the Abbeville Jamboree, but I’ll forgive you if you prefer to use the official corporate lingo. A number of schools are set to participate in the jamboree, including Abbeville (the four-time defending Class 2A champions), Belton-Honea Path, Dixie, Calhoun Falls, Ninety Six and McCormick.
I’ve always enjoyed high school ball, but I find myself appreciating it now perhaps more than ever. As professional and major college football have become multi-billion dollar enterprises forever in the pursuit of new revenue and glitzier TV and sponsorship deals, the provincial charm of the high school game remains a callback to simpler times. It is, frankly, the game in its purest form.
It’s the piercing halo of stadium lights calling to you from a distance as you pull into a small town to watch your favorite team play a road game. Even if you don’t have the address to the stadium, you can always follow the lights.
It’s the staccato rhythm of a marching band’s drum section, practicing in a parking lot just outside the stadium before the game, honing those last notes before that night’s big performance.
It’s the exuberance of a home team’s PA announcer, who, aside from calling out first downs and turnovers and players’ names, also spends time reminding you to check your raffle tickets for that night’s winning numbers, telling you about the booster club’s upcoming pancake breakfast fundraiser and encouraging students to attend the “fifth quarter” program down at the Methodist church after the game.
It’s a soggy Chick-fil-A sandwich and a bag of boiled peanuts from the concession stand, and a freezing bottle of Coke from the bottom of the ice chest at the Rotary Club’s tent.
It’s a local pageant queen warbling the national anthem and cheerleaders firing those little plastic footballs into the stands after a touchdown and mamas sitting up on the edge of their seat when their son on the field goes down with an apparent injury, followed by the moment of relief when he gets back on his feet.
It’s talented quarterbacks who are headed to college glory and just-a-step-slow linebackers who won’t play again after the final horn sounds on their senior year. It’s alma maters and seeing your school’s colors bursting through a paper banner as the team rushes onto the field and beating your rivals from the other side of the county, bragging rights secure for another year.
And, you hope — always hope — it’s a season that will end on a cold December night under the state championship lights at one of the big venues in Columbia, at Benedict College or Williams-Brice Stadium.
You never know. This might be the year.