It was cold — the first cold night of Autumn after a long stretch of heat. The sky was inky black, the stadium lights blocked out the stars, but the sky outside of the orb of light was sparkling. The air was crisp, settling into the lungs with every inhale, and tinged with the scent of barbequed foods and hot chocolate.
The team, like usual, was struggling in the first half. They would probably continue to struggle in the second half too — fumbling play after play, crumbling under the weight of the bigger, better trained players of the opposition.
But that doesn’t matter, it never does. This is a small town football team. This is a football team full of players whose fathers played on the same team. This is a football stadium full of alumni, some gray-haired and sitting in pairs, their cheeks tinged pink and their eyes glinting under the lights as they hold the hand of their high school sweetheart. This is the kind of team that draws a crowd regardless of stats.
This is a team with spirit. This is a team with support, no matter how unfounded. The support of the cheerleaders, of their friends, of a marching band, of parents and booster organizations and townies.
In the second half, something sparked in them. They emerged from the locker room to lukewarm applause and people milling towards concessions. Their first matter of business was a touchdown. A beautifully executed one. They gained possession of the ball and ran until they scored. Their score went from 7 to 13 and then to 14 with a successful kick. And then they scored a couple more. Their defensive line became a brick wall. The other team was held fast up through the second half of the fourth quarter.
And then they broke through. And then they broke through again. The stadium, once lukewarm, was explosive. It was louder than ever. People were on their feet, fists in the air, screaming. “GO REBS, GO! C’MON, REBS! HOLD THEM BACK, REBS, HOLD!”
The boys were tired, they were tripping over their cleats and clods of grass. They were falling hard with every nudge. They were down 7 points. The stadium, for the most part, was satisfied. They came so far. They played so well. It was okay to lose this one, even if they didn’t want to. They earned some respect, and they were tired. Everyone understood.
But they couldn’t stand for it. The clock ticked down from thirty. They had some yardage, but not much. Twenty. Quarterback breaks through the line and runs. Ten. He’s tackled. The other team has a flag pulled, five seconds back on the clock. The quarterback throws to the linebacker, the linebacker takes off, the quarterback breaks through, he reaches up just in time to snatch the ball out of the air, tucks it under his arm. Five seconds. He runs, the stadium is screaming, he falls under a pile of the opposing team. Zero seconds. The stadium holds it’s breath. Touchdown. The game is tied.
Overtime? This team? The stadium exhales at once and starts yelling again. “OH GOD, REBS, GO.”
Fifteen minutes are back on the clock. The Rebels hold. And they hold. And they hold. They gain control of the ball and they are held. And they are held. And they are held. Five minutes on the clock. And then they break through. And then they are blocked. And then they break through. 45 seconds on the clock. And they score.
And they win.
And the game ends to the most triumphant crowd the stadium has seen in a very long time. The cold air is still there, but it’s been forgotten — everyone is sweating. Everyone is crying and yelling and jumping. The band swells, the fight song reigns over the crowd, but just barely. And then the alma mater plays, it’s first notes bleeding into the last of the fight song.