For most people, the sounds of fall are rustling leaves, a whispering wind, or maybe the mournful whistle of a distant train. For me as a girl growing up, the unmistakable sounds of fall were the cheering crowds, the drumming bands, and the exuberant exclamations of Friday night football announcers at the stadium not too far from my house. When the air was clear and the wind was just right, I could hear it all, envision it all as I sat out in our swing on the front porch. I would smile and listen and dream about being in high school myself one day and becoming part of it, maybe even becoming a cheerleader.
Now you might think that all the drama of Friday Night Lights, in the book (1990), the movie (2004), and the television series (2006-10), was somehow a gross exaggeration of the intrigue and importance of the high-school football scene, but you would be wrong. For countless small communities — and even some not-so-small communities, like San Antonio — high-school sports, especially football, embodies the essence of school pride and serves as the centerpiece of social life in the community (pep rallies, parades, fund raisers, overnight trips, athletic scholarships, school championships, and awards dinners). Moreover, football figures prominently in the social hierarchy of the school: the quarterback, the team captains, the MVPs, the cheerleaders, the pep squad, the Homecoming court, even the coaches and the adults in the booster clubs. These are always popular members of “the in crowd” in town because football, especially in Texas, is not only a BIG thing, but likely the ONLY thing going on.
Of course, times are changing and so is awareness. While football remains far and away the number one most popular sport in America, safety issues, especially Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), have become major risks even for professional players (note this weekend’s concussion of Pittsburgh Steelers’ Mason Rudolph), much less for younger boys whose growing bodies and defensive skills have not yet fully developed. The result is that youth participation in the sport continues to drop. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, 20 schools nationwide have eliminated football altogether, including junior varsity and freshman programs; fewer than 1.04 million high school students played in 2017. (Bogage, The Washington Post, 8/28/18) Add increasing district costs, demographic shifts, political controversy, collegiate athletic scandals, and growing interests among youngsters in other international Olympic sports to the parental concerns about gridiron injury and it’s easy to see why football at all levels is undergoing something of a “market correction” these days.
Even so, fall is still synonymous with football for most Americans, and not just in Texas. I’ll admit that my fondness for the game today is rooted more in my high-school experiences than in any present devotion to the Texas Aggies or the Dallas Cowboys. You see, those long-ago dreams conjured by the Friday night sounds on my front porch did actually come true: I was elected cheerleader in 9th grade. My friends Judy and Nancy were elected too, proving at least in part that practice really does make perfect, or perfect enough. Our hours and hours of incessant jumping and tumbling and dancing, outdoors like popping corn in the heat, and indoors until window panes rattled, were “not for nothing.”
In our school, there were six cheerleaders, all female, elected by the entire student body. Popularity was part of it, of course, but performance and commitment counted for a lot. I can still remember that day as a freshman walking out into the middle of the huge gym to face the entire student body to give my speech about why I wanted to be a cheerleader (as though any girl in the audience needed to be told and any boy really cared) and to do my audition yell. I also recall swearing to myself that I would never pray for anything else in high school if I won that day; I considered it a small miracle when I actually did — and a bigger miracle still when I continued to win every year thereafter until graduation (and so did my friends).
I was fortunate to be elected to other things and to receive other honors in high school, but nothing ever even came close to giving me the pride and the confidence and the teamwork that being a cheerleader did. I knew everyone, and everyone knew me. I extended my friendships far beyond the small cliques typical of most teenage girls and I built relationships not just within the school, but in the community at large. I grew into a leader, refining the skills of organization, communication, and motivation that would prove to be my strengths as an adult. Cheerleading even got me my first teaching job as a camp instructor for the National Cheerleading Association the summer before college!
You can say what you want about the cliché of being a blond Texas cheerleader, but I can tell you that there are worse ways to be identified. Years later, as a high-school English teacher in Connecticut, my students often referred to me as “a cheerleader” because I would never give up, not on a project, or a problem, or any of them. Even my Mother, bless her, in her later years after multiple strokes, used to joke that I was the proverbial cheerleader in her camp.
The memories of all those long-ago Friday nights, the lasting friendships and positive lessons they generated, still comfort me and make me proud even now, especially as the South Texas weather begins to turn to echoes of fall and I celebrate another septuagenarian birthday tomorrow. Friday night sounds still echo in my head, and they’re good.