by Rob Loeber
Recently, I’ve developed an addiction to Friday Night Lights.
The TV drama is set in a small town in West Texas and centers on the life of the high school football coach, his family, and his players. FNL has its share of soap opera moments and sometimes the storylines stretch the limits of believability, but the captivating thing about the show is how it truly captures life in a small town. The entire community shuts down on Friday nights to watch its team take the field. The players are celebrities and the coach is scrutinized for every single decision and play call he makes. More than anything else, passion for the game of football and pride for the town, come pouring through the screen.
If you get away from the metropolitan areas and keep driving past the suburbs, you can still find the same kind of passion for high school football here in Oklahoma. There are still sleepy little towns that come alive when the lights come on.
Beggs is one of those towns. The community of 1,300 people features old houses, weathered trailers, and beat-up trucks driving down poorly paved roads that eventually lead you to the high school football stadium.
“We got a Dairy Queen, we got a stoplight, we got a convenience store, and we got football,” Beggs head coach Bob Craig told me as we stood in the middle of the football field. “You should see this place on game days.”
The Golden Demons facility looks like a jewel lying in the middle of a dirt field. It is the newest and shiniest structure in the entire town. The field turf, the track, and the scoreboard, all made possible by a bond issue that was passed with plenty of support.
The Beggs varsity roster consists of 37 players. As we drove up to the stadium, it looked like half of that roster was piled into an old clunker. Young men were stuffed in the backseat, one hanging out the sunroof, as they tore off to go get breakfast after an early morning session in the weight room.
“We get federal money that provides breakfast for these kids,” said Coach Craig. “That may not sound like a big deal, but for some of these kids, getting to eat is a big deal.”
Across the field, a smaller group of players is gathered. One is throwing passes while two others are playing the roles of receiver and defensive back. They seem to have endless energy and they celebrate every catch as if it were an actual touchdown.
“I can’t get rid of these guys,” Craig said. “No matter what time of day, I have kids that will be on this field or in that weight room. They’re here because they want to be, not because they have to be.”
Craig wants to win, but he also understands that kids in Beggs have other important commitments. He explained to me that some kids have to miss workouts for what he called “ag events” or FFA meetings and he lets them go because he knows his players are more likely to end up on a farm than in the NFL.
“I tell them to enjoy football as long as you can, because it’s an escape from real life,” Craig said. “Making house payments and buying diapers is real life, and these guys will have to deal with those things eventually.”
In the bigger high school classes like 6A or 5A, football might be more glamorous. There might be more attention, more college recruiters in the stands, bigger crowds and higher expectations. As long as he’s coached, Craig could easily get a job at one of the power schools in this state. He chooses to be in Beggs.
“I think the big time is wherever you are,” Craig said. “When you’re here on a Friday night and you see those bleachers packed and you see people lined up all along the fence, and you see this place come alive, it’s big time to me.”
It must feel the same way to the Beggs players and to the players in small towns across the country. Most of them won’t be recruited or receive division one scholarship offers. Most of them will never play football after high school. But for ten weeks in the fall, they will feel like superstars in their towns. They will wear their letter jackets to the Dairy Queen, be called by their first name, and drive by painted store front windows wishing them luck. They may not be told, but they will realize that football in their small town is more than a game. It is a sense of pride, a sense of identity for the entire community.
In just over a month, those Friday night lights are going to be switched on all over Oklahoma. The game is the same, but the lights will shine a little brighter in the small towns.