The Making of a Football Fan – High School Game Is ‘Chance To Be Best’


Editor’s note: This originally appeared last year at the start of football season in 2013, but with the state football champions halfway complete and bowl games all that remain for college fans, we thought this was worth another read. Enjoy.

The author of this piece, J. Frank Parnell became a football fan for life the night his high school team won the state title.


If you’re not a football fan, the next few months may be taxing – especially if you live with a football fan.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m a fan. I understand football, although sometimes I get tired of obnoxious play-by-play announcers, their sidekick  “analysts” and on-the-field reporters on networks that broadcast every game, no matter how banal. I’ve also heard enough sports radio from Tommy, David, Randy, Rick and, well, Wally, who rehash practice and rumors. At least they’ll have fresh material when the season starts.

Still, I have football fever. I caught myself watching 2012’s Virginia Tech-Georgia Tech tilt the other night. Although it was way past its expiration date, and I wouldn’t have cared much about it when it was live, that game reminded me of what’s to come when the FBS season begins Thursday, Aug. 29. Either North Carolina at South Carolina or Liberty at Kent State will kick off first. Both games are scheduled for 6 p.m.

For Arkansas college football fans, this season couldn’t be more intriguing: Bret Bielema will try to resurrect the Hogs, Bryan Harsin and the ASU Red Wolves are on the verge, the UCA Bears are ranked and hope to go deep in the FCS playoffs, UAPB has a tough task improving on last year’s amazing season and Hendrix College is back on the gridiron after more than 50 years.

Then there’s high school ball, which begins Sept. 3 with the doubleheader First Security Bank Kickoff Classic at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium. I enjoy watching the college games and the NFL, but someone with my athletic ability is much more familiar with Friday night.

Many other football fans are, too. That’s the thing about high school football — millions of former high school players can relate. Sometimes we forget how few players appear on a TV screen. The number of former college players is nowhere near the number of former high school players. And you don’t have to be Bo Jackson to play – and play well – in high school.

In the mid-1970s, I was a sophomore on a phenomenal team for its size. Although I would start in my junior and senior years, I couldn’t crack the A squad as a tenth-grader. I was, however, on every special team and had roles as a backup guard and defensive end.

We made it to the state championship game – a brutal affair on a muddy field shrouded by blowing snow. We scored on our first possession and tacked on a two-point conversion, which held up until we headed for the locker room at halftime.

Our coach was a caricature – a large man with a head so big his cap looked like a Barbie accessory. He gnawed constantly on a cigar, which was intermittently lit. He often talked without removing it, which resulted in grunts and growls rather than words. This was the kind of coach who silenced a locker room with his eyes, not a yell.

We were cold, wet, tired and not at all sure we could finish off our nemesis and take home the trophy, which was cherished more than any honor in our small town. Many starters played both ways and games like these were marathons for them. We stretched out on benches and a concrete floor, and chugged water as we tried to warm up.

After we settled, Coach spoke.

He didn’t talk about offensive alignments or coverage strategies for defensive backs. He wasn’t worried about effort or trick plays. He wanted us to be in the moment, to understand where we were.   He removed the cigar.

“Listen up,” he barked. “Most people live their whole lives and never get the chance to be the best at anything. You’ve got that chance.”

That was it. Not “Don’t fumble,” not “Cut out those penalties,” not even “Block somebody!”

He said all he had to say, and now I wonder if it was a spur-of-the-moment thought or if he’d planned it for weeks.

The snow picked up after halftime and the field was sloppier. Our opponent staggered, slipped and slid inside our 10-yard-line three times that night but never scored. We couldn’t score again, either, but it didn’t matter; 8-0 was good enough.

It was our night and I’m sure the night I became a football fan for life.

When I remember Coach’s quote, I forget about Bobby Petrino, gross athletic budgets, drugs in the NFL and everything else that’s wrong with the sport. I remember the guys in the locker room and a coach who believed in his team.

J. Frank Parnell is an occasional correspondent for Sporting Life Arkansas. He is currently digging through his attic for photos from his gridiron glory days to share with us, but until then, here is a photo from the Dumas High School Bobcats’ 1969 championship team.

j frank parnell high school football fan

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