No topping the tingle of a Friday night

BY foxsports • September 20, 2013

Two weeks into the NFL season, I’ve covered three games involving six teams in two states — and that’s not a Cincinnati-belongs-to-Kentucky joke.
Last weekend I walked around beautiful Berkeley, California, but not for too long. I didn’t want to miss a minute of Johnny Football vs. Nick Saban. Tomorrow, I’m going to see Florida A&M. In the last three weeks I’ve seen Teddy Bridgewater and the two leading candidates to draft him next May.

As far as good jobs go, I have one.
As far as my football obsession goes, I took the red eye from San Francisco to make Bengals-Steelers on Monday night. On Thursday, I went to my cousin’s eighth-grade game and then even caught the very end of a flag football game a few of my friends’ sons were playing.
They’re six. And really need some work on their technique.
Anyway, Football Season has been my favorite season as long as I can remember. And a big part of that is my tiny little football-obsessed hometown, a place just south of Akron that’s not technically called Manchester but everybody calls it Manchester. And anybody who knows a little about high school football in Ohio knows at least a little about the Manchester Panthers.
The Panthers are always small and slow and rarely highly-skilled, but they’re also almost always tough and gritty and rarely lose to other small and slow and slightly-skilled teams. Jim France, who’s both the principal and head coach at Manchester High, is in his 43rd year as coach. The defensive coordinator has been there almost as long. Some of the same people have been going to the games — near and far, sun and snow — for even longer.
I don’t get to many games anymore, and frankly I couldn’t name two players on this year’s team. But I always root from afar, and via Twitter of all places I found out that the 3-0 Panthers apparently have a big one tonight. They’re on the road at Fairless, a school that doesn’t have much football tradition but does apparently have a good team this year and is 3-0 coming into tonight.
Through Twitter, I found out that Fairless hasn’t beaten Manchester in football since 1985, the year Coach France wasn’t allowed to coach because it was the first year he took over as principal. That was so long ago that my parents didn’t even live in Manchester then — and we lived in Manchester for almost my entire schooling. I am not young, in case you couldn’t tell.
Anyway, the conference was formed in 1989, and every year since 1989 Manchester has beaten Fairless. That includes a couple Fairless teams that were good enough to make the state playoffs, if I remember correctly. Some friends pointed me to some Twitter talk (the best kind, you know?) that showed me that lots of folks this is the year that all changes. I even saw a hashtag, #StopTheStreak.
In at least a couple of small towns 45-plus miles from where I am now, this game is a really big deal. And though I love my stadium tours and big-game Saturdays in Columbus and being close to the NFL machine, I still can get a little tingle thinking about what it’s like at those two schools today, what it will be like on that bus ride and in those locker rooms just before kickoff, all the emotion that will be swirling through a stadium that surely doesn’t get many crowds like the one it will get tonight.
Even compared to the big-time high school operation at Massillon or the University of Mooney, just to name a couple, Manchester-Fairless is small-scale football. All of about four guys on the two teams, maybe, will ever play a down of football beyond high school. The game will get 12 inches of coverage in the Canton and Massillon papers and that’s about it. But for almost three hours tonight, there’s not a bigger or more important thing anywhere for anyone involved. I can’t go, but I’ll be plugged in.

I have no idea if Manchester is any good, or if Fairless is good enough to #StopTheStreak. I do know that Coach France turned 70 this week and, frankly, he doesn’t remember all the games he’s coached. But I know he remembers every one of them that the other team was convinced it was going to win.
Back when I was in college, I wrote for a local weekly newspaper and part of the deal there was going a weekly high school football predictions column. In that column I made jokes — not even good ones — and people got mad if I insulted their school or their team with things like calling Fairless “Fair-At-Best” or saying I saw a bumper sticker that said “My honor student beat up the Minerva football team.”
People got really mad. Call-my-editor and send-nasty-emails mad. Eventually I quit because they were just jokes, but there’s no joking about the importance of these games to so many people in so many places. This small-town football stuff is serious.
No matter who wins tonight, I won’t lose any sleep over it. If Manchester wins, I’ll simply send one gloating tweet. If Fairless wins and stops the streak and burns the town down (figuratively, of course) in the celebration process, that might even be pretty cool. 1985 was a long damn time ago, right?
Just kidding about that. Go Panthers.

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