I grew up in one of the Rust Belt’s many corroding spikes where we set our clocks no longer by the five o’clock bell at the steel mill, but by the pulsing of the bass drum against a Friday night sunset. It echoed like a clarion call, and not once did we fail to gather as fallen leaves burned in mounds on the outskirts of town. Like football, this burning was a ritual we returned to every autumn. The old mills had turned to haunted houses since the steel industry collapsed over a decade earlier in the 1980s, leaving thousands with nowhere to work, nowhere to go, no place to be. The gleaming futures our fathers had built for us had rusted, so we took comfort in knowing that a pile of leaves would still burn bright at the strike of a match.
Every Friday at twilight, the marching band cast a Sleeping Beauty spell over the crowd as it played the national anthem—the night itself an iron woman who pricked her finger and put an entire town to sleep. The moment suspended, spanning a hundred years or more, only for us to wake up and see we’d been replaced by those who were younger, faster, sleeker. We’d grown old in these very bleachers, awakening only to wonder how so much time had passed.
Here’s how it passes:
It always starts with a number, a girl’s favorite number found on her first love’s jersey. That number is painted on her cheek and stitched into the thinnest part of her underwear. That number stands in the middle of a huddle full of boy-breath and masculinity as narrow as the spines arching around it. That number represents a boy with Spartan bravery and a blue-collar budget as he runs the ball downfield. His eye trains not on the end zone, but on a college scholarship if he can get it. If boys don’t go to college, they go work. They go to war. They go to jail.
Beyond the huddle, a chain-link fence shivers in the wind. Untethered feet dangle from tailgates in the parking lot. The pop machine makes a shushing sound as it tops off one more Styrofoam cup. A pilling mascot with a horsehead stands off in the corner like a nursing home escapee. Pompom streamers tremble in the wind. Someone scores a touchdown, and the high is so euphoric it feels like a spiritual conversion.
Tomorrow, the pocked field will look empty and soulless, like a Rust Belt Golgotha. But for tonight, the boys play. Legal tender is useless here; all currency is counted in yards gained or lost, every game a reenactment of the first away game American settlers ever won against the wild new world’s indigenous people. When it’s over, girls will rise like ghosts to comfort their wounded warriors beneath bleachers and in back seats. These boys are princely and virtuous, despite the rumors that they like to hold ice cubes to girls’ nipples until they turn blue. Those are just rumors, after all. Don’t these boys write love notes like no other, penned in the darkened study hall basement, so emboldened are they by the very jerseys they wear?
This is a night of more than just football. It’s a night of fresh haircuts and blushed cheeks. It’s four-wheel drive trucks, it’s spent Zima caps and condoms, it’s Levis and short skirts and lights so bright you have to shield your eyes. It’s the only time grown men will remove their ball caps. It’s trees in the distance and the warehouses beyond them and all of the empty mills, farther still. You can follow the concentric circles outward until they collide with another stadium, another school, another life that isn’t yours but the shadows are the same.
We tell ourselves it hasn’t always been this way, even though we know that it has. The uniforms are the same, as are the instruments, the cheers, the plays, the night sky. A life can be measured in a series of first downs and missed passes, the number of times a man falls to his knees only to get back up again. The men who raised us took a lifelong vow to their steel-industry sweetheart only to watch her die, so they find what solace they can in the young. That freshman with the arm, that kid from the wrong side of the tracks who knows how to block, that senior with a gaggle of college scouts courting him and a girl in the bleachers who believes he’ll love her forever. In that ephemeral half-second between a touchdown and the swell of a town’s cries, we believe we are as infinite as the sun.
But the sun is just a dying star, and this tradition burns like an ashen empire that worships the myth of youth. It lies so sweetly to generation after generation because it lies so lovingly to itself. Surrender your heart and your money, and you’ll ride your way into immortality on the broad backs of the young. Death targets you while low to the ground, scheming to take you out at the knees, ready to pounce at the shrill of a whistle. And we say: don’t you cross that line, don’t you dare. You cannot—you will not—come into my house and take what’s mine.