It’s Senior Night for the Jacksonville High School varsity football team, and you can feel the vibrant blend of excitement and nervous energy. Sure, the Homecoming game is big for a high school athlete, but you only experience Senior Night once. For those senior players who only participate in football, Senior Night is all the more memorable.
The varsity players crowd the locker room, sitting, kneeling, and standing to make room. It begins with head coach Mark Grounds. He leads his team and staff in a silent prayer, then initiates the annual rite. He stands in the center of the players and speaks. All eyes are on him as he opens his heart and shares a profoundly intimate detail that has a direct and very powerful correlation to his relationship with his players. When he finishes, he opens the floor for each senior player to stand and voice his feelings on why he’s proud to be a Crimson football player. The players go one at a time, emotions running high as they address their teammates and coaches. Eyes moisten, including my own. Every Senior Night I’ve had the privilege to be a part of has touched me in surprising ways. Young men, who were freshmen a fleeting four years before, prepare to play in what could be their last home game. The sentiments are real and heart-felt and familiar to those shared in seasons’ past, yet it’s each year’s individuals that make it fiercely unique. Once the season is over, the majority of the seniors will never put on a football uniform again. Right now, most can’t imagine what that void will mean in the future. But for now, for this night, for this intimate gathering, the team explores what’s truly at the heart of not just football, but of all sports. Kinship and passion and dedication and moments that will last a lifetime. Your teammates will remain your teammates for the rest of your life, and in fact that notion only becomes more evident as these student-athletes mature and look back at their youth.
And it’s not necessarily the words spoken, but the sentiments they evoke. Just standing up and expressing themselves is far more difficult for them than anything that will happen on the field. Typically loud voices are softer on this night. Voices rarely heard speak true and clear. Love and appreciation for teammates and coaches are expressed over and over. More than one player touches on their relationship with Coach Grounds as a father figure. Tears are shed.
With each player’s brief testimony, I become more and more choked up. Despite the passing decades, I still have memories of my Senior Night. Looking back, I realize I didn’t have a clue about the significance of the occasion. I was happy to walk out on the field during pre-game and have a photo taken with my parents, who were so happy and proud. But I was really just thinking about the game. And I don’t remember thinking too much about it being my LAST game wearing pads. I was thinking about wanting to play well, hoping our team would win the game, and maybe taking a punt return or an interception back for a touchdown. But the thought of it being my last game was too much for me to digest and truly comprehend. Even after the game, which we lost, I was too caught up in the loss to appreciate everything that ended when the season did.
As the ritual winds to a close, the sum of the heart felt declarations threaten to overwhelm me. I smile and swipe at my eyes, my heart blooming with so much appreciation and love. There’s now a kinship that now goes beyond player and ex-coach. Soon we’ll be part of the fraternity of ex-Jacksonville High School football players. Sure, we’re from different generations, but we wore the same colors, shared the same locker room, and sweated and bleed and helped teammates up off the same field. We shook the hands of our opponents and down the road may have even coached with one or two.
The seniors win their game over rival Chatham, breaking a two decade plus losing streak against the Titans. It will be a memory of a lifetime for the players and their parents. But I’m not sure the game winning moments on the field were more powerful than the ones shared pre-game in the locker room.
I was proud to be a Crimson then, and I’m proud to be a Crimson now.