Felix Caroll: Lessons lived and learned under the Friday night lights
The fact is made definitive when Paul Gibbons shuffles into the wrestling room of Monument Mountain Regional High School and flicks open a diary-sized metal door to reveal a single black switch, which he twists and — click! — erases the starry night sky just like that. It's game night; electric lights now illuminate a crisply painted football field that, over the course of two hours, will be thoroughly abraded by cleated feet and bare knuckles as the hometown crowd cheers the hometown team.
The stars can take a backseat for a couple hours. It's Friday night lights at Monument, a ritual of intertwining rituals that plays itself out similarly in high schools across the nation.
Here, we have Spartan head football coach Chris D'Aniello, a 1999 Monument graduate, a football standout back in the day, presently the school's auto shop teacher, who still remembers his locker combination number, and whose coaching priorities begin with no one getting hurt. As an unfinished cup of morning coffee reheats in the microwave, he peers out the auto shop windows to take a gander at tonight's rival, the Amherst Hurricanes, now arriving in a school bus.
"They got some big guys," he says, adding, "So do we."
Here, too, we have band director Michael Gillespie, a center point in band-room, pregame bedlam, who will speak a single word, "Uniforms," in the same vexed manner Jerry Seinfeld says the name of his neighbor-nemesis "Newman." Yes, uniforms. By accepting this band leader position two years ago, Gillespie was summoned to the challenge of not only preparing this 50-plus-member unit to play complex classical arrangements while marching backward, forward and sideways, he was also conscripted to the task of helping them navigate the busted clasps, missing suspenders and errant plumage to the point at which they can file out of this room at 6:45 p.m., a single, well-pleated, maroon-and-white marching machine.
Here, too, we also have Jack Passetto, the tall, cheery, longtime voice of the Spartans, who has gathered his notes and cross-referenced the rosters. He makes his way under the lights and up into his high perch at midfield. Over the course of four quarters, he'll temper his voice with just enough heat and hammer whereby a first down by Monument becomes a categorical "MONUMENT, FIRST DOWN!"
"I can't help it," he says. "I know the kids. I love the kids. I like to see them do well."
Here, too, we have Gail Guarda, mother of senior Spartan tackle, Chris. With a squad of like-minded mothers, Gail leads the team's booster club and manages the game-night snack bar, making sure a pile of burgers is left aside for the team itself.
"I treat the team like they're all my kids," she says proudly.
For his part, Gibbons, the athletic director here for 44 years, gives a cursory look at those electric lights. All is well an hour before the 3-1 Spartans of Monument face the 4-1 Hurricanes. Gibbons can now step into the shadows to help direct the cars stacking up out on Route 7 and to gloat about his beloved Yankees.
Meanwhile, everyone else is stepping toward the lights — parents, students, alumni, teachers and toddlers.
And Alissa Rathbun, a junior, here to support her boyfriend, Kenny Zucco, No. 28, the one with the bruised arm.
"She really likes him," says her friend, Shallea Brown.
Others, too, step toward the lights: Referee Mike Monti joins a circle of similarly striped officials stretching on the 40-yard line. And then there's that Amherst bus driver, Bill Glucksman.
"I'll show you something," he says, doubling back to his conveyance and re-emerging with a framed photo of Monument's 1970 varsity soccer team. "Can you pick out which one's me?"
The man's a Spartan!
"Nice to be back," Glucksman says, grinning.
It's game night, a crisp autumn evening under a bowl of electric light.
Meanwhile, inside, Gillespie has the band warming up, testing out their self-created "chaos chord," an auditory equivalent of a crockpot of pasta e fagioli tossed against a brick wall and left to ooze, a tune to employ from the grandstand at opportune moments to make Amherst "quake in their cleats."
"Remember," Gillespie tells his crew, "cheer your team on. We can make a difference in the outcome of this game."
And with that, the band files out of the room, out of the building, leaving behind blank-faced music stands, turned every which way like an aimless assemblage of disembarked bus tourists.
Down the hallway, D'Aniello's team awaits him in the ill-smelling locker room. With his reheated coffee, he enters. "Smells like football," he says.
D'Aniello gathers the hometown team into the shower room for a final pep talk that ricochets off the tile. He tells them he loves them, and with a final, collective "1-2-3-family!" they're out of the building, lining up beside the band at the top of the hill, just outside that ring of Friday night light.
Drum major Ruby Jones then shouts "Atten-hut!" The matching white shoes of the marching band snap together: stomachs in, chests out, shoulders back, elbows frozen, chins up. And with the crowd hushed, Gillespie, who moves quick and precise like a bantamweight boxer, cups a hand to the side of his mouth to bullhorn a battle cry across the hills.
"This is — "
"Sparta!" the band bellows.
And with that, the hometown band glide-steps down the hill to the beat of the drums, escorting the hometown team into the Friday night lights, where, on this evening, they will fall to Amherst 42-14; where the marching band, having practiced for weeks, will nail the halftime performance, though they'll be the first to declare their giant M looked a bit droopy in the middle due to an absent trombonist; where Passetto will announce the winning ticket number, 3992139, in the booster club's 50-50 raffle.
Where, with his 16-month-old son, Leo, in his arms, coach D'Aniello will be the last to leave the field. Under the bright lights, he'll see the bright side — that his team outscored Amherst in the second half and that he had the opportunity to impart a message his young squad will not soon forget.
Here's what happened: In their defeat, the team had gathered out on the field, bodies bruised, heads bowed. D'Aniello stepped before them annoyed, but not about the loss.
"You guys say you're a family, but you need to get out of your own heads," he said, pointing to their injured teammate, Max Buffoni, sitting alone on the sidelines with a sprained right leg. No one had thought to carry Max out onto the field to be with the rest of the squad. Mortified, the team made haste to retrieve their hobbled teammate, their brother.
"That was a pretty good life lesson," a smiling D'Aniello will say after the players depart the field and just before the custodians shut out the lights till next time, Oct. 28, versus Lee.
Felix Carroll is The Eagle's community columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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