By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Cedar Creek senior star wide receiver Bo Melton stood on the track that rings the football field at Rowan University on Dec. 4, trying to fight back the tears after West Deptford beat the Pirates, 19-13, in the state championship game. The final horn had sounded, and just like that, Melton’s outstanding high school football career was over.
When asked what was going through his mind, Melton didn’t even talk about the game. He didn’t talk about highlight-reel plays he had made while wearing the Pirates’ uniform the past couple of seasons. He talked about how much he was going to miss putting on that Cedar Creek jersey, not because it meant he was about to do the one thing he loved most in this world, but because he and his teammates would never again wear those jerseys together on a football field.
“Me and my players, I love playing football with these guys. It’s indescribable what our team chemistry is. I just love these guys. It’s hard to see it go,” Melton said after the game. “I wish the best to them and for my future. I just wish the best for everyone.”
As one of the most highly recruited players in the nation, Melton will be moving on to play college football at Rutgers University. He has a lot to look forward to in his football life, but that’s not the case for everyone. There are plenty of guys who play their final high school football game, and that’s the last time they ever strap on the helmet and shoulder pads. But those memories live on and become a part of high school football players. They’ll continue to wear their varsity jackets to games even decades after they graduate. They’ll remain friends with the guys who they sweated and bled with.
There’s something about football that makes young men not want to ever let that feeling of the Friday night lights go. Even when they become old men. It’s a brotherhood, and entry into this exclusive club is paid in offseason lifting sessions and brutally hot summer two-a-days.
“To me, unlike other sports, the camaraderie is second to none in football, because it takes a team to win. It takes a team to do everything. In basketball, baseball, swimming, wrestling, it’s more individualized. The team ultimately wins, but you can have a couple of outstanding players in those sports who can carry the team, but not so much in football because of the physical nature of the sport. You can have great players and not have a good team,” said Mainland Regional coach Chuck Smith, who has coached high school football in some capacity for nearly 30 years. “The amount of time football players put in, especially in the offseason — with our guys now, we’re already in our second week of offseason training and we have a core of 30 guys who come in at 5:30 in the morning to lift. And that will continue throughout the year. So they develop these relationships through all that time, the conditioning, how hard it is during practice in the summer. The grueling nature of the game itself develops a bond that is unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced in my lifetime.”
Andrew Donoghue, a senior quarterback at Ocean City, also plays basketball and baseball. He said the bonds football players share are unique to that sport, and there are many reasons why.
“Playing other sports, I’ve noticed that when you play football, it’s a lot tougher. Practices are a lot harder, when you have those two-a-days in August you’re doing a lot. When you’re doing all that, you’re making friends and working together as a team and as a family. I feel like that translates to the football field, but it also translates off the field. You’re always hanging out together and you always know you have each other’s back and will pick each other up. I hear people talking, and they don’t want to lose that feeling,” Donoghue said. “It goes back to how hard the games are and how tough the practices are. Baseball and basketball are fun, and they are tough sports, but I think football is the most team sport out of any of them. You need to rely on every guy to produce in order to be any good. In the middle of those games, when times get tough, that helps build relationships and friendships that last a long time.”
It might be the physical nature of football that lends itself to young men learning to rely on each other, and pushing each other to get the best of their ability. In football, you’re asking your teammate to risk personal injury on every play for the good of the team.
“That’s a lot of it. To put your body on the line every play to try to advance the football — that’s kind of crazy to think about outside of the game, but when you’re in the game that just shows how tough you have to be and how you have to work together. If you can’t work together there’s not going to be a good outcome,” Donoghue said. “So it really teaches you that connection between people. You’re only as good as your weakest link, but as long as you work together, good things can happen.”
“It’s just that culture. Being through everything with each other, you build that lifelong friendship. You battle with these guys and you never really want it to end, so you try to hang on to that feeling,” said Eric Anderson, Oakcrest head coach. “I’m not sure if (the physical nature of the sport) is the main reason or if it isn’t. It definitely comes into play to be some factor of it. You make that bond, and I guess from spending so much time together you get to know each other personally and not just on a football level. You get to meet people’s families and become good friends.”
“Personally, I think it’s the aggressiveness off football. You’re going into battle with all your teammates and they have to have your back in order to be successful,” said Matt Epstein, a senior lineman at Mainland. “And when you are successful, you know you put it together and you, as a team, can work together and really accomplish something great.”
Football also has a unique pageantry to it. Many small towns across the country completely shut down on Friday nights when the home team is playing. There are the cheerleaders, the marching bands, the face paint; little kids starting up their own pick-up game behind the bleachers. Football is more than just a sport, it’s a community gathering, and perhaps that’s why football players never want to lose that feeling. It’s a feeling of being part of something that is bigger than yourself, bigger than just scoring a touchdown or making a big sack. It’s that feeling of not only representing your school and your colors, but your town. There’s a reason Kenny Chesney wrote a song called “Boys of Fall” which talks about everything that football means to young men, and the schools and towns they represent.
One verse of that song reads, “In little towns like mine, that’s all they’ve got; newspaper clippings fill the coffee shops; the old men will always think they know it all; young girls will dream about the boys of fall.”
“Me and my friends get together and still talk about games, practices, coaches we had. Those are lifetime memories. When you’re a kid you don’t think about it, then you find yourself on the other side of it, especially having coached for the past 28 years. You’re telling these stories to the kids and how they’re not going to appreciate the bond they have until 20 years down the road and they are looking at you like you have 12 heads. But it will come to them,” Smith said. “Even the guys who I coached at Oakcrest, we’ll get together occasionally and go out for wings and they’ll reminisce about the games, the practices, players, stuff like that. It’s fun to sit back and hear them banter about those things. That’s what it comes down to. You always remember those lifetime memories, and that’s what makes this game so great.”
“The student sections, they really encourage us and we want to go out and play for them. When you’re out there on the field you’re thinking, ‘wow. All these people are coming out to watch us. We have to work together to give them something to watch and thank them for coming out here.’ It definitely helps when you have people out there watching you. You want to perform well for them,” Donoghue said.
Anderson said part of what motivates he and other coaches is the opportunity to show young men what it means to be part of a bigger family, and a part of something that will make an impact on their lives long after graduation day.
“It’s because you are out there six months or more, three hours a day, grinding, blood, sweat and tears. You’re spending six or seven days a week with each other and you become a family. It helps you grow and gel. Once you stop playing with those guys you have gelled with for a couple of years, it’s a big deal. It’s like losing part of your family. It’s not something people want to break away from. It becomes your comfort zone and you become tight with your band of brothers,” Anderson said. “All we ever ask for is everybody’s best, and whether it’s good enough (to get a win) or not, we just want everybody to go out there and give their best effort and however the game ends, it ends. These guys go out there and lay it on the line for each other. Whatever they are playing for, whether it be their family or their friends, it’s a great thing to see. It’s a great feeling when you see guys graduate college, get a good job, start their own family. They are succeeding in life, and that’s the ribbon on top. You’re happy for them and you get a sense of gratitude that maybe you did something right as a coach to help them along the way somehow.”
“Being together eight months out of the year on a daily basis really connects everyone. You feel it every day. You feel as though you are brothers,” Epstein added. “You’re basically living together, honestly. You’re best friends and brothers. You couldn’t ask for more.”
Epstein said he gets a kick out of seeing guys who graduated decades ago showing up to Friday night games wearing their old varsity jackets. He thinks he’ll be one of those guys 20 years from now.
“It makes me happy they are,” he said. “It proves that 25 years down the line, I can still be friends with people I’m friends with today. We’ll never break the bonds that we made.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN