For more than 15 seasons it was an autumn Friday night ritual. If Hillsboro was playing a football game, I was there as a reporter for one newspaper or another. In all those years I missed one Hillsboro game — because of the rehearsal for my youngest brother’s wedding.
In the two-plus decades since, I have been called on from time to time to cover a Hillsboro or McClain football game. But it has been a while.
This Friday (this column was written Thursday), though, I will be back on the sidelines, covering Hillsboro’s season-opening game at Western Brown High School.
It will be somewhat surreal.
A lot has changed since that first game I covered back in 1983 — besides the fact that my hair is now gray rather than brown, and my waistline has expanded. I will no longer be allowed to freely roam the sidelines like I once did. Now, because of the coronavirus pandemic and in an effort to socially distance the players on the sidelines, I will only be allowed to stand from the 10-yard line to the end zone on either side of the field. I will also have to stand two yards behind the sidelines. My responsibilities will also not end once the game is over and I have interviewed the coach like they did all those years ago. That changed long ago with the introduction of the Internet, and I now I will need to write a story and post it online after the game is over.
There have been a few other changes over the years like I will be using a digital camera rather than the film cameras we used to employ, then had to develop our own film. But basically it will just be another football game, and the fact of the matter is that I’m much more comfortable covering a football game than a city council or school board meeting.
Back in the day I knew most of the Hillsboro kids that were playing. Friday night, I might know a couple.
Hillsboro versus Western Brown will take me back to one of the more memorable games I ever covered.
I do not remember the year, but I believe it was in the late 1980s. It was toward the end of the season, and Hillsboro and Western Brown both came into the game sporting decent records. It was a rough and hard-fought game with several personal fouls called throughout the contest on both teams.
The game ended in a Hillsboro triumph, and as the teams were exchanging postgame handshakes in the middle of the field, pandemonium struck. I was still on the sidelines, so I can‘t tell you exactly how it started. But from what I’ve been told, the two players who had been flagged for most of the personal fouls locked horns once again. Somewhere in the course of things someone bashed Hillsboro’s Joe Moses — who was not dressed and on crutches — in the face with a helmet. Before long there were fights all over the field.
I’m not talking a couple fights. I’m talking piles of players going at it all over the field. I watched as coaches flung players off pile after pile, only to watch some of the players jump back into the fray, then the coahces would have to chase them down again. After the chaos went on for quite a while, I turned to look around and noticed that fans on both sides had streamed out of the bleachers and were getting dangerously close to the field.
It could have been more ugly than it was. But about that time though the coaches and law enforcement officials managed to bring things under control.
The whole time the fight was raging, I was standing on the sidelines watching, ready to defend myself with a camera and a clipboard if any player in football uniform decided I was fair game. It seems reasonable to think I got some really good pictures from the whole episode. But that was back in the days of film cameras, and by the time the fight started I had used all three rolls I brought with me.
If I remember correctly, Hillsboro and Western Brown cancelled athletic contests against each other for a few couple years after that. It was not a popular move with the players and students, but it was the right call by school officials.
That was all long ago, and in recent years Hillsboro and Western Brown have opened several football seasons against other with no real problems. Oh, I’m sure there have been some spats here and there, but nothing remotely close to what I saw that one night at Richards Memorial Field.
Athletics have a way of stirring up emotion. I imagine that after having to skip their 2020 spring sports seasons because of COVID-19, a bunch of high school kids will be ready to cut it all loose and those emotions will flying high Friday. It is only natural.
But let’s hope it’s the spirit of athletic competition that rules the night rather than raw emotion. Let’s hope we have learned a little something from all the chaos we’ve witnessed in recent months. Let’s hope the kids realize it’s a privilege — not a right — to represent their hometown under the Friday night lights, and that the game ends with them all healthy.
And, kids, if you see an older than usual reporter standing along the sidelines, cut him a wide berth. Because he does not move as quick as he once did.
Jeff Gilliland is the editor of The Times-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 937-402-2522.