Friday Night Lights - Bobcat Football Gives Us Something To Celebrate
Author: Courtney Hampson | Photographer: Mark Staff
I didn’t even realize the game had started, and the Bobcats had already scored their first touchdown, mere seconds into the first quarter. The crowd went berserk (my indicator that something had indeed happened), and the contagious buzz that is Bobcats football spread through the air. But before we talk about game night, it’s only fair that I take you on the field for practice.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
On most weekday afternoons in the fall, you’ll find the fields surrounding Bluffton High School bustling. As the team makes their slow meander from the locker room to the field, you’ll witness boys being boys. There’s belching, talk about girls, muscle flexing, and as they sit to lace up their cleats, some lounge back in the grass, and let the sun hit their fresh faces.
Before the coaches even appear, the players are up, self-organizing, and throwing the ball around. A little ingenuity seems to go a long way this season, where as of press time, the Bobcats boast a 5-0 record and a scoring rout of 320 points to their opponents’ measly 27.
What started with a little sunbathing quickly transformed into friendly banter, a little trash talking, smiles, spirit, and of course, some crotch-grabbing—typical guy stuff.
But, when Coach Ken Cribb steps on the field, it instantly becomes all business. Backs straighten. Ears perk. Mouths close. Eyes are on the Coach. The varsity team gathers at the center of the field, and assistant coach Alan Dunson leads the team in prayer, in which they seek safety, and sportsmanship, and acknowledge that, “No matter what happens, they are the hardest working team.”
One hundred-seventy young men are spread across multiple fields, flanked by Cribb’s staff of 18 coaches. For nine hours each week, Cribb oversees the practice of four teams: the middle school, freshman, junior varsity and varsity squads. What appears to be mass chaos to an onlooker is, in fact, the calculated organization of skills drills, and team building exercises.
As the varsity squad launches into their warm-up routine, Cribb starts the count down, “10 – 9 – 8 – 7 – 6…” The boys hustle, sprinting back to the coach, whose expectation is that everyone makes it back to his inner circle long before he hits the number one. “We’re here to work,” shouts Cribb. “Yes sir,” the boys respond. And work they do.
At the middle school practice, boys are in pursuit of becoming men. The drills appear no easier for this age level. I witness a player get hit so hard that his hip pads burst right out the top of his pants. That’s serious football—a precursor to what those boys will find on the varsity field in just a few years—and further support for why my original idea of actually practicing with the team was by no means sound thinking.
The varsity squad is split up by position, and they, too, are being worked hard. The sound of crunching pads and connecting helmets will make you shudder. A run through a contraption that I can only liken to a tilt-a-whirl, has the players spinning in concentric circles. They work to maintain their balance and direction as they are flung from the apparatus’ clenches. (My neck was tense just watching each player endure the challenge.) One player lumbers off the field, his cleat ripped in half in his hand. “We practice hard here,” he quips with a grin.
There’s a lot of repetition at practice. “Stance. Stance. Stance.” “Twist the ball. Twist it. Twist the ball.” “Ball on the outside. Ball on the outside. The outside.” They do it, until they get it right.
You’ll seldom notice one player being called out by name. They work as a team. They practice as a team. They repeat the same drill nearly four dozen times until they get it right as a team. Yet, I hear no complaints, only encouragement from player to player. Some laughter. Some razzing. Great attitudes.
On this team, attitude certainly does reflect leadership. The respect for Coach Cribb is evident. And there is a method to Cribb’s madness. He is building a team and says, “I am one of those who believe that the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts.”
I have to ask, “What makes your team win, Coach?”
“Low man wins,” he tells me. This now explains the other “torture chamber”—the power tunnel—where players are tasked with staying low while blocking and moving barrels a.k.a. opponents. According to Cribb, “The best teams can block and tackle.” On game day, you’ll watch the defense crawl to the line, on their hands and knees. Low man wins, indeed.
“Get there early,” I was told—advice I heeded. I weave my way through throngs of fans, young and old. Bluffton football yields more than you might bargain for; the crowd bursts from the stands and is made up of representatives from the entire town, not just students and the players’ parents, as one may suspect. The town council is there in full force. The mayor flips the coin. The police chief is on hand. The fire department is represented as well along with folks from every neighborhood, some who walked over after dinner just to “check things out,” others who drove their vehicle decked out in black and green with streamers flying to be entertained again by the team that everyone is talking about.
Suddenly, what sounds like thunder begins to permeate the air. The fans stomp their feet in the stands. The music rises. And the team emerges, in an orderly fashion, almost marching, two-by-two. They are all business. The cheers are deafening. Can we really be in little ol’ Bluffton?
The team takes the field, and before there is even time to comprehend that the clock has begun its second-by-second descent, a 96-yard kickoff return yields the first six points of the game. The crowd is on their feet. And one quickly realizes we have something special here. It is easy to get caught up in the excitement. The scoreboard changes frequently as Bluffton’s numbers soar. But dare I say it isn’t just about winning.
OUR TOWN, OUR TEAM
The Town of Bluffton has rallied behind the Bobcats. Their storybook rise in the 2010 season seems to be playing out even more dramatically this year. Forget about politics, the economy, who’s dancing with which star, Bluffton football has given us something real to cheer about. A piece of Americana, good old fashioned fun, and a glimpse at what life used to be, when neighbors spilled out from their front porch steps and gathered together to relish the simple things.
From porch lights to Friday night lights, Coach Cribb and his Bobcats have succeeded in creating something iconic, putting Bluffton on the high school football map and giving us—all of us—something to celebrate.