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Hurricane Season

An excerpt from
By Neal Thompson
Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster

                                              (click book cover above to read Swampland's review)

Hurricane Season chronicles the remarkable recovery of the John Curtis High School football team after Hurricane Katrina

From Chapter 9, "For the Love of the Game

On Friday, September 2, all across the country, the high-school football season is about to commence. In many thousands of stadiums, from coast to coast, teenaged boys are suiting up for the season's first game, their thunderous friends and anxious families in the grandstands.

Instead of suiting up for the Battle on the Bayou against the Cottonwood Colts, Patriots' running back David Seeman is in Humble, Texas, sitting in the nosebleed seats of a high-school stadium that feels large enough to hold an NFL crowd. He has motored here on a golf cart from his aunt and uncle's house, where his family is now living. He'd always heard about Texas football, and he's awed by the biggest high-school stadium he's ever seen. But it feels absurd being a spectator on a Friday night in September.

It's not always easy for a high-school boy to pinpoint just what it is he loves about his chosen sport. The appeal varies from kid to kid. For some, it's all about the victory, about confronting an adrenalized opponent and beating them to a pulp. For others, it's the glory, the thrill of having thousands of fans and beautiful cheerleaders calling your name as you dance or dive into the endzone. Others could choose from a long list of football's more obvious attributes: pride, teamwork, brotherhood, tradition, achievement.

Some boys just like hitting people. There's something pure and raw about the sheer, physical brutality of the game, the satisfaction many players get from going head to head in the trenches against a noble peer and then outrunning, outblocking, or outwitting him, dragging him down. It may be a cliché, but it's true: a football game is a war without guns or death.

Some kids, like Kenny Dorsey, actually love the practice sessions as much as the games themselves. In practice, the endless repetitions and drills hone players' skills, developing in them a supreme confidence in their ability to throw the perfect block and make the perfect tackle. Which gets to the meat of the game: As Chicago Bears Hall of Famer Red Grange said, football comes down to two things, "blocking and tackling." Likewise, legendary college coach Pop Warner, who helped create the nation's Pop Warner youth leagues, long insisted that there's no substitute for knocking the other guy down. "When you hit, hit hard," he always told his players.

As Warner learned during a career that spanned American football's first half-century, high-schoolers are still just boys, but they're playing a man's game. Coached properly, the game can teach them more about themselves and their abilities than many classroom lessons ever could. Coached poorly, they learn darker lessons: that the slower, weaker guys get cut; that pain should be ignored; that winning is the only thing.

Because it's hardly a solitary game, each lesson, each success and failure, occurs before parents, grandparents, siblings, friends, girlfriends, and a few thousand strangers. Washington Redskins quarterback Sonny Jurgensen once likened football games to group therapy for fifty thousand people a week. His coach, the most legendary of all, Vince Lombardi, always stressed that execution and fundamentals were the key, just as J.T. does. But Lombardi's players always knew that winning was the real goal -- "the only thing," in Lombardi's word -- and that anything less than first place was, as Lombardi put it, just "hinky-dink."

There's a fine line between pushing teen boys too hard and not hard enough. J.T. is among those who strive to walk that tightrope, to expose kids to more physical discomfort than they'd ever imagined, then show them how overcoming that discomfort means they can achieve things they once thought impossible. It's not just a football lesson, but one they can take with them to college, to the military, to Wall Street, to forever.

From J.T. and his assistants, the Patriots have learned plenty about the thrill of victory and the payoff of perseverance. They've come to realize that Curtis football is teaching them about respect, dignity, poise, patience, trust, and the value of hard work, about life. J.T. always reminds players that he's not only coaching them to win on Friday nights, but to win every day. Yet the lessons of the game vary wildly from school to school. At many schools, coaches model themselves after stone-faced drill sergeants and pound on their impressionable young players, calling them insulting names and instilling in them that football is all about inflicting pain, being macho, being a man.

High school football has, after all, become big business. MTV has launched a reality show, Two-a-Days, featuring Alabama's Hoover High and its pugnacious coach. Hoover's games will be watched by a million viewers. Their stadium holds 15,000 and the school spends $450,000 a year on its football program, nearly twice John Curtis's entire athletic budget.

In many football-rabid communities, coaches spend huge amounts of time raising funds to pay for their twenty-thousand-seat stadiums. College recruiters now start visiting promising players as early as eighth grade, and the recruitment game has become a spectator sport in itself, played on Web sites such as Scout.com, Rivals.com, MaxPreps.com, and the magazine Rise. USA Today and Sports Illustrated are also expending more and more ink on high-school football and the recruitment game. These days, when a top high-school player signs with a top college, ESPN is there.

All of which gives players a taste of the big leagues and stokes their wildest fantasies of fame and fortune. Potential stars like Joe McKnight have been lured toward a college career since their first days of high school. Younger kids are already asking Joe for his autograph. J.T. cautions his team that only a small number of high-school players have the talent to earn a football scholarship, and only one in many thousands has a shot at a professional career. He tells them constantly that the odds are long and hopes are often dashed. Instead of thinking ahead to the NFL, they should focus on enjoying every last minute of high-school football, he says, and perform as if each game is their last.

Some players recognize that they're not NFL material, and are mature enough to enjoy the camaraderie of the sport, being part of a unique club that's one of the few places where race and economic status mean nothing. Football is a great leveler. This year's Patriots include the son of a preacher who owns his own corporate jet alongside the sons of fast-food workers. Their disparate backgrounds are irrelevant on the field. The satisfaction of pulling off a perfectly choreographed play is sublime, and the nights when everyone is doing his job, playing in synch like a well-oiled, efficient machine, and the scoreboard shows it... they'll remember those nights 'til the day they die.

J.T.'s lessons go against the grain of an increasingly zealous football culture that emphasizes the razzle-dazzle and showboating of the individual more than the team. He is wary of this trend, but tries to impress on his kids that being part of a successful team can be its own victory. As Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith, the NFL's all-time rushing leader, once said: "For me, winning isn't something that happens on the field when the whistle blows and the crowds roar. Winning is something that builds physically and mentally every day that you train and every night that you dream."

Every high-school football player dreams of making the big play under the Friday night lights, hurling the fifty-yard touchdown bomb or running an interception or kickoff return the whole length of the field for a triumphant score. Among the Patriots, every last one of them also dreams of winning a championship. It's what's expected of them as a Patriot. And they'll give everything they've got to make that dream come true.

That's why it's so horribly painful, on the first Friday night of September, to be relegated to the sidelines.

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