Tonight there is no “us” and “them” in York and Clover, Rock Hill and even tiny Great Falls.
Except when pointing across the football field.
No black or white, no politics, no rich and poor. No debates over immigration or health care that bore all people except bow-tie wearing executives who know the difference between merlot and cabernet.
The real beginning of how so many people mark time in their lives, how their memories are forged, starts tonight with the kickoff of home-game high school football. While it’s not 2013’s official “New Year’s Day,” it is the first day all the same.
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On Dec. 1, 2012, I wrote a front-page story about the politicians and their nonsense “fiscal cliff” of budget cuts. Nobody cared. I had to go find an old paper to remember it.
Because that same day Northwestern played for a state title in football.
I sure remembered that.
Northwestern lost in overtime in front of thousands of fans. People remember the last-play incompletions and tears that came with the loss.
In York Chester counties, the largest gatherings of people to assemble for almost any reason are high school football games. Games in some years have drawn as many as 10,000 people.
This area was forged as a tough, punch-you-in-the-nose place. Textile mill work required backs of iron and knees of steel.
Just like the football teams.
All on the home side of all colors, the liberals that wear flat shoes and drive puny electric cars and eat fancy grasses that cost $9 a pound will sit right next to the conservatives who drive camouflaged-painted trucks and want drilling for more oil under the garage next door.
The opposing side’s fans will unite, too, and scream about the other side.
In Clover, a Blue Eagles team that has not won a game in two years, a team and town hurt by a hazing scandal in 2011, opens at home against South Florence. There will be no traffic in Clover at kickoff at 7:30 p.m. even if nobody ever heard of South Florence
Everybody – well, almost everybody – in Clover will be at the home game.
The old refrain “Wait till next year!” starts tonight in Clover for every electrician, every plant worker, every office paper pusher.
Down U.S. 321 10 miles from Clover, York hosts Chester. Chester travels the 20 miles north up that same U.S. 321 to get to York.
In the broadcast booth for Chester, for the 43rd year in a row – calling out the phrase, “He’s a-carryin’ that ball lahk a bouquet a roses on the way to the senior prom!” – will be none other than Carlisle Roddey.
Roddey’s regular job is Chester County supervisor. He is the most powerful politician in Chester County.
But on Friday nights, he is just another fan of his Cyclones.
“Nobody matters more than anybody else on football Friday night,” Roddey said. “You win as a team. You cheer as a team. You are a place and a team, really.”
Roddey is the dean of calling games over radio in this state. His syrupy twang has caused more diabetic comas than any momma’s iced tea and coconut cake. In 43 years, Roddey has never taken a dime of pay.
“Never will take a penny,” Roddey said. “High school football is far too important for money, son. High school football is when people come together, where all the people who fuss and argue sometimes sit together and cheer together for two or three hours.
“It brings people together, these football games, like nothin’ else we got.”
High school football, for these tough-shouldered places such as Rock Hill and Chester and York and Fort Mill, is an extension of the textile plant, cotton-growing hardness of the past.
So what if the mills are gone. The toughness remains.
In eastern Chester County, tiny rivals Lewisville and Great Falls take on each other. The Hatfields and McCoys fought less than these two teams, separated by 10 miles.
And in Rock Hill, defending state champ Gaffney comes east from Cherokee County to take on Northwestern. ESPN3 will broadcast the game online under the brightest lights in this county of almost a quarter-million souls.
Thousands will flock to District Three Stadium to watch in person.
Most presidential candidates of either party who come here, asking for votes during primary seasons every four years, are lucky to draw a few hundred spectators.
High school allows complete and utter loyalty. Housewives and secretaries root just as loudly as mechanics under those bright lights. Ladies who normally never raise their voices will call the referees villains and criminals if the calls go the wrong way.
In high school football there is only the good guys – home – and the bad guys – away. Rock Hill’s blue-bloods will sit right next to the guys with grease under their nails who work on machines at the Bowater plant and root for Northwestern tonight.
School bands will play, and play loudly. The students and parents and just plain fans will roar. Cheerleaders will hold the paper banner out on the field near the field house, and the players will run onto the field, smashing that paper banner to ribbons.
Nobody will worry about the mortgage, or the jerk boss.
There will just be cheers.
As Roddey put it: “If the good Lord made anything better than high school football in the state of South Carolina on a Friday night, he done sure kept it for hisself.”