Oceanside or in a sea of wheat, small town football is special

By Jayson Jacoby June 10, 2011 01:43 pm

If you ask a traveler who has recently visited a small town what it is that best symbolizes the spirit of the place, he’s apt to name a prominent building, or perhaps a park.

I like to have a look at the local high school’s football field.

There needn’t be a game going on, or even a practice.

I don’t mind seeing the field in the off-season, so to speak, when it’s empty and silent, the bleachers naked, the scoreboard dark, the grass bereft of its autumnal accessories of yard lines and cleat marks.

There is a certain sadness to such a scene, to be sure — the same sense of gloom that permeates any vacant place which was designed not for quiet solitude but for the rambunctious games of healthy young people, whose lungs and limbs are years from the first tentative hint of decrepitude.

You could say that a football stadium is the antithesis, then, of a cemetery, the latter being a sanctuary where solemnity prevails and raucous behavior is considered uncouth and disrespectful.

Yet it seems to me that the gridiron and the burial ground, despite their vastly different purposes, have quite a lot in common as well.

In particular, each parcel has unusually fecund and well-tended soil — both in the common, horticultural sense, and in a historical one.

I wonder, whenever I stroll past a football field, how many games have been played there.

How many young men have run onto the green swath, their stomachs queasy with that peculiar mixture of excitement and anxiety that afflicts a person who is about to perform a difficult task in front of an audience.

How many parents sat on the benches above, insulated with blankets against the chill of an October evening.

How many old-timers, scions of their little cities, men who gather each morning for coffee and conversation, have watched the game and as they watched they reminisced about their own moment of glory on this same patch of turf, the touchdown pass they snared or the game-saving tackle they made against the arch-rival back in ’38.

All this history has weight, you know.

You can feel its burden, this density of memories in their thousands, concentrated in a plot little larger than a barnyard.

There is, though, an elusiveness to this past, a sense that it consists of only fragments with no mortar to bind them. This frustrates me.

I wish for a thorough telling, a documentary of sorts.

Probably something like this has been assembled in some town, though I’ve never heard of such a thing in Oregon.

The project would require considerable effort, but of a relatively simple sort.

Most of the pertinent material would be available from the high school, the local newspaper and the library.

With those rich sources I suspect a competent historian could put together a package that not only chronicles the legacy of high school football in the town, but also uses the sport as one constant thread in weaving a wider assessment of the place’s cultural and social fabric.

I’d take up the task myself except I’m no historian, competent or otherwise.

I am, though, a traveler whose curiosity has yet to be satiated. And I’ve noticed, having visited a fair percentage of Oregon’s small towns, how similar my feelings are when I see each place’s football stadium.

This despite their having little in common besides 120 yards between the end lines, and goal posts.

I recently looked at a pair of high school fields that illustrate the sometimes dramatic differences between rural stadiums.

The first is at Neah-Kah-Nie High School. It’s in Rockaway Beach on the Northern Oregon Coast.

The second field is Heppner High School’s, about 300 miles away by car, in Morrow County.

It happens that both compete at the same level, Class 2A, which includes schools with enrollments between 106 and 225.

The settings for their football fields, though, could hardly be less alike.

The stadium at Neah-Kah-Nie — the school is named for a prominent mountain close by — is near enough to the beach that you can hear the breakers from the bleachers.

The field is next to the school. The complex is quite confined, by Highway 101 to the west, and by a steep slope to the east. The slope and much of the surrounding land has the dense foliage typical of the coast — impenetrable thickets of salal and other shrubs, and an overstory of lodgepole pines.

(These pines, stunted and gnarled by the incessant, salt-laden sea wind and the nutrient-poor, sandy soil, exemplify the species’ Latin name, pinus contorta, rather than its common name, lodgepole. The “lodgepole” moniker comes from the variety common in Central and Eastern Oregon. Although botanically synonymous, with two needles per bundle, these interior pines grow tall and straight, which made them ideal building material for American Indians’ lodges and tipis.)

Heppner’s stadium, by contrast, is better than a mile away from the high school. The football field is adjacent to the Morrow County Fairgrounds and rodeo arena.

(Neah-Kah-Nie is in Tillamook County, which, though it’s better known for its placid dairy cows than for ornery bulls, also hosts an annual rodeo. I did not know this until I Googled. I Googled because I didn’t want to expose my ignorance, and shoddy research, by writing a snide aside comparing the retiring nature of Tillamook’s bovine population with Morrow County’s rough-hewn herds.)

The view from Heppner’s field is expansive, in part because there are no lodgepoles nearby. No pines at all, come to that, except for an occasional one that a homeowner planted in a yard. You can see thousands of acres of wheat fields, though. And thousands more acres where other things grow.

This discrepancy in landscapes is due, of course, to climate.

Neah-Kah-Nie, exposed to saturated Pacific storms, gets about 75 inches of rain a year.

Heppner, deep in the rain shadow of the Cascades, averages 14.2 inches.

This would be part of the story of these two towns and their football teams, had I the wherewithal to write it.

I imagined, as I sat in my car in the parking lot next to Neah-Kah-Nie’s stadium (Home of the Pirates) and watched the rain sluice down (it was, naturally, precipitating during my brief visit), how many games have been contested there in just such a downpour. I could see the players tramping to the locker room after the final whistle, their uniforms so slathered with mud that you couldn’t make out the colors or the numbers.

Two days later, as I stood on the sidewalk above Heppner’s field (Home of the Mustangs) on a sun-filled late morning, I thought of the different sorts of inclement weather the players and spectators have endured over the decades at that stadium.

Certainly there have been many games played there when the temperature was far below freezing, or with the grass covered by snow.

Then, too, with football season starting in early September, no doubt the stifling heat of summer — a rare problem on Oregon’s north coast — has often plagued the teams, and made them pine for the crisp nights of autumn.

And yet for all these differences, the true history of these two places — the human history, if you will — must be much more alike than not.

There is no appreciable difference, anyway, between teenagers who grow up along the salty coast and those who are reared on a cattle ranch.

You can’t distinguish between parents’ love for their children, or the crack of shoulder pads colliding, or the aromas of popcorn and coffee, or the squeals of the little kids who romp in the grass beyond the end zones.

These things are constant, consistent, universal.

Whether the high school football field is the heart of a small town is a matter of opinion, of course.

But I doubt anyone who has had occasion to visit one on a Friday night in fall, to sit within the warm bright glow of the lights and watch the wild scene below, would dispute that the stadium, were it an organ, would be a vital one indeed.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.