The smell of fresh popcorn mixed with smells from grills burning. The sounds of coaches barking and cheerleaders cheering. The feel of cool fall air creeping in.
It’s high school football and I love all of it.
Tonight marks my first fall back in Western New York in five years, but I have dedicated most of my life to being involved in high school athletics and there is no place I would rather be on a Friday night or Saturday afternoon than a football game.
Aside from four years in college, I cannot remember a fall without high school football in my life and I am glad Western New Yorkers get to experience it once again after so many had to miss out last year because of COVID-19. Sure, there was a spring season, but it just is not the same.
My life in high school football goes back to my childhood. My father was a high school football coach at Notre Dame High School in Batavia, so many days were spent on the practice field, locker room or film room. I was taught to view the game differently than a fan, even as a kid. Watching a game does not mean following the ball and a great play is not simply created by who has the ball. It was all fascinating to me.
If Notre Dame did not have a game on a Friday night, I may have accompanied my father on a scouting trip to see a future opponent and he would often put me to work, helping chart formations and personnel long before Hudl existed or even portable video cameras were the norm.
Many may scoff at the quality of Class D football — or any high school football, for that matter — but when those gold helmets caught the sunlight, it was like watching the University of Notre Dame to a 10-year-old kid. My older brothers and their friends were like NFL players in my eyes. I lived and died by each play, each game.
It wasn't until I got older and began to attend games for a living that I truly understood why I loved high school football. Of course, it wasn’t hard to discover that I enjoyed being around my father, brothers and friends. But it was also the atmosphere and the intensity. Working in South Dakota, I saw entire towns yearn for the success of their high school teams and no NFL team could compare to what they saw on Friday nights.
At its best, high school football is the purest form of the sport. It is one town versus another with nothing more than pride and a year’s worth of bragging rights at stake. For two or three hours, there is nothing more important to those players and coaches, who channel all of their hard work and discipline into the joy of competition.
The chasing of scholarships and the increasing number of parents who believe their sons should have more playing time than the next kid or loudly criticize the coach from the top of the bleachers are intruding on that purity more often, but it is still football and it is still fun.
Every fall I welcome high school football back like it has been gone for a decade. But it is good to be back in Western New York and I am excited to share this season with everyone who has battled through the strangest of years.
See you on the sidelines.
Respond to GNN Sports reporter Nick Sabato via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NickSabatoGNN.