Spending Friday nights on the banks of the Chattahoochee River watching high school football isn’t a bad place to be.
In the early fall, before daylight-saving time, it is a beautiful site, with the green water passing lazily, almost an afterthought given the commotion in the foreground. As the quarters progress, the river fades into darkness, and the Friday night lights illuminate Lovett’s Kilpatrick Stadium and Conley-Oakley Field. The air cools to a near-perfect temperature.
Our son Thornton hasn’t played the game since he was in the sixth grade, and our daughter Virginia last cheered when he was playing. They are both in high school now, and our weekly ritual going on 11 years is to spend Friday nights on the riverbank when Lovett has a home game.
Sometimes I wonder why, especially given neither child is involved in the sport.
Parking can be a pain, especially if it’s a rivalry game. Sometimes it is too hot, sometimes too cold. There are always things to do and places to be, and yet week in and week out, we are there with the same group.
The stadium entry is campus-level, and the field is just a few feet above the river. Therefore you only have to go down some stairs to climb to get to the seats. You walk through the gates, and the field is 40 feet below.
The smell of hamburgers and hot dogs is always in the air, as the volunteer parents — the LionBackers — are set up just outside the concession stand, usually the dads grilling over an open flame as the game is played below.
The volunteers also man the concession stand. Every sport is represented. It’s not just football families. There are parents of other athletes including cross country, tennis and soccer all trying to create order out of the chaos.
The stadium is more or less the same as when I was a student there 100 years ago, save for a major renovation of the entry, the ticketing, the press box and restrooms in 2015. There are bleachers down on the track, but the stadium “seats” are large, long concrete blocks in the hillside.
Going back to when Thornton was just a wee kindergartner, we sat a bit to the north of the 50-yard line, more around the 30 — the cheaper seats. Just to the right is the student section, which is an interesting hierarchy in and of itself.
When our children were in elementary school, they sat with us, begging to leave after the first quarter. As they got older, they found their way to the field behind the south end zone, where an alternative football game takes place.
Later they made their way to the track, the temporary bleachers and the candy truck.
We always spied on them. They were little. We found they rarely, if ever, watched the game. They were moving from spot to spot en masse, groups of six to eight students conjoined into a new organism, with one or two spinning off and two or three joining at regular intervals.
And finally, when they got to high school, they joined the student section. The freshmen are at the top, and seniors are up front nearer the field, with the juniors and sophomores rising behind them.
As the years pass, the students move downward toward the field. It is a rite of passage.
It was only when Thornton began high school that I started recognizing some of his classmates’ names over the public address system. Now that he is a junior and Virginia is a freshman, it seems we know just about every player, including where they are thinking about going to college and who they are dating.
What keeps us coming out, warm or cold, rain or shine, plans or no plans, is the community. I am sure it is the same at other schools like North Atlanta, Mount Vernon and Pace.
Our children get to see their friends during the first weeks of the school year, but we, too, get reintegrated to what has become our extended family over the last decade.
My wife and her cohorts pass around their cell phones showing off Instagram photos and videos, occasionally looking up to see the score or the halftime performance. I watch a little football, get caught up with other parents about their summers, the school year and whatever else is going on in their lives.
“Friday Night Lights” is a bit of cliché, but the sense of community on the periphery of those lights is real. It is why we pack up the car on Friday and head out to the stadium, even though our kids — like us — are simply spectators.