The twenty-first century aughts were a crucial formative period for my psyche. From 2000-2010 I watched, learned, tried, failed, and mastered the art of being an American teenager. Many, perhaps too many, of my memories from that period revolve around a television screen. I came of age at a time when media was easier to consume than ever before. I consumed it accordingly.
Any pop culture sommelier will recall the aughts as an embarrassing time in American history. There was a media trend that occurred during those years that had an unexpectedly long-lasting effect on my life. It was the trend to romanticize high school football players on screen, both in film and television.
American football has a long history of being portrayed in cinema. The first films about football were shot as early as the 1920s. Famous films like “The Longest Yard” and “Rudy” set a precedent in the twentieth century for the popularity of football as a dramatic subject. But these films largely focused on college and professional football stars. And while it is true that without professionals there would be no amateurs (classic chicken or the egg scenario), as a teenager I was not interested in how professionals were portrayed on screen. I was interested in the pathos of how high school football players were portrayed.
As I research this subject now, it appears that depicting high school football in film is a relatively recent phenomenon. Specifically, there appears to be an increase in content focusing on high school football players starting near the turn of the century.
“Remember the Titans”, for a short period, was my entire personality. It was followed by films like “Radio”, “Friday Night Lights” and “The Blind Side”. Then, in 2006, a reality television show capitalized on the same trend these films had found. That show was “Two-A-Days”.
While I loved movies about high school football, “Two-A-Days” was a reality tv show about the subject being made at a time when I was actually in high school, making it the most relatable to me by far. It premiered at a time when the screen was all I knew about high school football because I attended a school that was too small to field a team. The only thing I knew of high school football was on MTV, and I loved it. My friends and I all wanted to play for Hoover High School.
These images were critical in the formation of my idea of what a high school football star should be. The actors in “Remember the Titans” are easily in their twenties and thirties, but I was watching them like “Why don't I look like that?”. “Two-A-Days” finally showed me kids that looked like me.
I do not know how the marketing people knew millennials would be suckers for teenagers in tight pants pushing one another in the rain, but boy did we eat it up in the aughts. This created a perfect storm of sorts in my personal life. In spring of 2007, a year after the premiere of “Two-A-Days”, my high school announced plans to have their very first football team. Based on everything I knew about high school football; it was clear what I had to do. It was time to suit up, score the touchdown, get the girl, and go to state.
I was not the only one trying organized football for the first time: we all were, coaches included. I remember within thirty minutes of the opening drill of the first practice we had to call an ambulance. Some kid dislocated his kneecap and couldn’t move. For whatever reason, I ignored my instincts to leave. This was just one of the dangers of the job.
Football, it is worth mentioning, is a physically exhausting thing to do. I spent the next few weeks catching my breath, vomiting, or both. We had our first scrimmage two months after our first practice. It would be in front our brand-new bleachers and under our shiny new lights. It was the MTV Friday night I had been waiting for.
Finally, just like I had seen it on screen, there would be fans cheering for us from the bleachers. All my media consumption had prepared me for the moment, and I was sure I knew what to do.
Except, I really didn’t know what to do. Like I mentioned earlier, football is hard. I started the game as a second-string wide receiver. I got a few routes in, but our quarterback was a fifteen-year-old kid whose heaviest-set features were freckles. He was barely qualified to hand the thing off, much less throw it. I finished the first half without any of my promised glory.
On the first play of the second half, our second string running back went down with an exploded spleen (seriously, these coaches no clue what they were doing). Ambulances were called, prayers were said, and the game soldiered on. There was no back-up plan for the back-up, so the coaches became desperate. They settled on my scrawny behind to be the next running back, presumably because I was the most available at the time.
Now this was the moment I was sure I had been waiting for. I got into the huddle, lined up, took the hand-off, charged straight ahead, and… smack. I got tackled, hard. There was a kid in the grade below me, David Bain, who was a nice enough guy but must have had some hormone issues because that boy was a man. He took the wind out of my sails several times that day.
The game drug on and both sides lost their energy accordingly. The fans began to wonder what they would be doing later when suddenly, sometime in the fourth quarter, something magical happened.
All I can remember is that I was really tired. And I mean like really, really tired. The red-headed QB told me I was going to run it outside. Certain I could not possibly survive running directly into David Bain again, I agreed to the plan. I took the ball, ran towards the sideline, and… shit. Here comes David Bain, again, leading with arms that are still hairier than mine.
That’s when it happened. It was like my guardian angel took control of my body and committed me to the physical equivalent of speaking in tongues. I pulled a move that can only be described as theatrical, and I no doubt got it from watching too many football movies.
I faked right and spun left. Neither me nor David Bain were sure of what had happened. I completed the spin and kept running, as shocked as anyone to still be on my feet. I imagined David Bain had turned into a pillar of salt behind me, but I was not going to slow down to find out. Veins full of fear, I ran for my life. And that’s when I finally had my movie moment.
I looked to my left and the entire bleachers were on their feet cheering. I held the ball out in front of my face and dropped it as I crossed in to the end zone. I did a stupid little dance with my teammates for celebration. It all happened, and I’m sure this part of my memory is infallible, in slow-motion. For the first time in my young life, I was the person I saw on the screen.
After the game, the coach announced that I was the new number two running back. My future as an American high school football star was looking bright.
And then, just as quickly as it had started, it was over. The very next day I stepped onto the practice field, tore my ACL, and never played football again. I have torn my ACL again, several times, but never playing football.
This was the end of my football narrative. Seemingly in step with my age, stories about high school football fell out of popularity as I got older. Most football movies these days place their focus on the professional, and perhaps that's a good thing. Knee surgeries notwithstanding, football is an incredibly dangerous sport which children should under no circumstances be encouraged to play. But still, for one brief, shining moment in the early 2000s, being a high school football player was cool. For one even briefer, even shinier moment in 2007, I got to be who I saw on tv, and that was even cooler.