The Boys On The Bus

To gauge sports' grip on us in a time of tragedy, the author took his son to a high school football game
To gauge sports' grip on us in a time of tragedy, the author took his son to a high school football game
September 23, 2001

Everything in the little town came to a halt at dusk on the day America mourned. Five police cars, blinking blue as they wove in escort, sealed off traffic and froze pedestrians in their paths. Drivers peeled to the shoulder of the road and stopped, waved and craned their necks to glimpse the passing procession.

In Paris on that same day, last Friday, the Metro had gone still so passengers could pray, and the bells of Notre Dame had tolled for an hour in memory of thousands of people feared dead. In Berlin 200,000 had gathered before the Brandenburg Gate to reflect at the place where the wall between democracy and communism had stood. In Dublin commerce and drinking had both been called off, shops and pubs shut tight, and in England the Queen had broken off her holiday to return home and grieve. In America, where the mass murder had occurred, four busloads of kids were leaving Summerville, S.C., to play a high school football game.

I was in the fourth row, left side, lead bus. Weeks earlier I'd promised my 11-year-old son, Noah, that we'd play hooky last week and make the five-hour drive to Atlanta to watch the Braves and the Philadelphia Phillies decide a pennant race. A nightmare had intervened, so here we were instead.

It was an odd thing to do—to go to a game—on a day when you walked around wondering why the hell games mattered anymore. But I wanted to know what a game felt and smelled like at a moment like this, why people bothered playing and watching, and even more so, what it all smelled like to my son. Sports, thanks to me, had already taken firm grip of Noah's life, but now and then I'd get this uneasy feeling about where it all might be leading, a feeling I'd never spoken of with him. Now that the earth had shaken and the whole deck of cards had spilled on the floor, it made no sense to hide what I'd been holding.

Already the stink of sweat filled the bus, the smell of teenage boys looking inside themselves to see if what they would need, just an hour later, was there. The Green Wave of Summerville High was leaving its flag-festooned town and heading to its biggest game of the season, at Stratford High in nearby Goose Creek, against the team ranked No. 2 in the state. However, the Summerville boys, too, were a perennial power; in two of the last three seasons, the winner of this game had gone on to win the state championship.

Noah flipped and spun a football in his hands. That had been the first thing he'd thought of when I told him we were going to a ball game on the day of mourning. "Can we go on the field?" he asked. "Can we play catch?"

"Well, I. . .guess so," I'd said.

Hell, what had I expected? I'd flung him, back and forth, between two worlds. He'd played on a baseball team in Australia, where parents applauded and cooed, "Awwww, bad luck, mate," whenever a boy or girl on his team swung and missed by a foot—and he'd played on a traveling AAU baseball team in the U.S., where parents stormed the dugout and seethed at coaches for pulling their sons out of games so benchwarmers could have a chance. He'd lived for a year in an old fishing village in Spain, where adoring grandmothers stroked his head each day on their daily shopping strolls—and he'd practiced for a year under a coach who nailed him in the head with a basketball from 20 feet away when his attention lapsed.

As his dad, I'd assigned him to ladle cabbage to the homeless in soup kitchens, and as his coach, to break the press in the last second of one-point, double-overtime championship games. He'd lived out my ambivalence, spent some years thousands of miles removed from box scores and title chases, spent others high-fiving me over touchdowns and slam dunks, slurping down SportsCenter and sports pages first thing every morning along with cereal and milk. Only a month ago my wife and I had argued over whether Noah should play baseball on the travel team again this fall, only a month after his all-star tournament had ended; argued over how much competition was too much in the making of a kid. She'd won.

Now, with a kickoff scheduled to rise into the air at eight o'clock and join the smoke and human ashes riding in the wind, with sports and suffering suddenly teetering on the scales of a national debate over who we are, I too was craning for a glimpse. A sideways look to see which world's values had taken stronger hold of my son; to see what ruled in his heart when people were suffering; to see what I had wrought.

In whispers I asked the boy seated in front of me on the bus if our police escort was unusual, related to the tragedy and the day of prayer. No, he murmured, it happened every time the Green Wave hit the road. I started there with Noah, on the edges of what I wanted to learn. "What do you think," I asked, "of 86 kids getting a police escort to play a high school game?"

His eyes squinched. "They don't even do this for big league players," he said. "Must be nothing to do here."

I gazed around the bus, wondering which boys really wanted to play and which had just been swept along. The pros had shut down. The colleges had fallen silent. Why not the high school kids?

I laid that question in the lap of a legend, the Summerville coach, who had won more football games than any other coach in history. I wanted Noah to hear the opinion of John McKissick, a 74-year-old grandfather who had stayed for 50 years at one school, where he'd won 483 games, 10 state titles and 25 conference championships. A man who'd gone shoeless growing up in a two-bedroom shack after his daddy went bankrupt during the Depression, and then found his calling in a town that once postponed Halloween because it fell on a game night, and molded the lives of 1,700 of its kids because he never cut a player. A man who would've dropped from the sky as a paratrooper in the 82d Airborne during the invasion of Japan had two atomic bombs not dropped from the sky first.

Never in those five decades in Summerville had McKissick gone a week in autumn without coaching a football game, not even when a heart attack killed his father the day before a game. But hadn't he wondered, when even some of the townspeople started calling in and saying the game should be postponed, whether it was time, finally, to let people sit still, to think and to feel?

"No," he said. "I don't think these kids should be home watching TV. I think they've seen enough. To be honest, I don't think they'd be home watching it anyway if we didn't play. Look, everybody has mourned. We've had moments of silence, prayers, talked about it in school. I called the team together the day it happened and said, 'Keep the people who died in your prayers, but we can't let it interfere with our schoolwork and our goals here on the football field. We've got to not dwell on it. We've got to keep moving on.'"

He noticed the bump on Noah's football where our dog's teeth had broken the skin and let the bladder push through, and he got him a replacement. "Kid on our team's daddy worked at the Pentagon," McKissick said. "Name's Ryan Snipes."

Noah was silent, unreadable. I went looking for Ryan, a sophomore tight end with big hands and heartful eyes. On the morning of the attacks Ryan had watched a classmate—a girl whose father had called her that morning on his way to a meeting in one of the World Trade Center towers—faint when she saw the towers implode. That shook him, hard. Suddenly flashing before him were pictures of the Pentagon in flames, the building where his dad, an Air Force lieutenant colonel, had meetings nearly every day. Everything inside Ryan, level by level, collapsed. He bolted for the classroom door, and then fell to tears in front of everyone in the school lobby the moment he saw his sister and mom. For the next three hours, every 30 seconds, they called five phone numbers: nothing.

"There aren't words for the emptiness I felt inside," Ryan said. "Finally around two o'clock my sister called again, and I heard her say, 'Dad,' and I knew he was alive. I cried again. He'd gotten a call on his way to the Pentagon to turn back, just after the planes hit the World Trade Center."

Ryan's sister and mother persuaded him to swallow his embarrassment over the tears and to return to school that day for practice, and to play this week to celebrate life, to show the terrorists that Americans can't be cowed. However, the girl who'd fainted didn't return to school on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, her empty seat filling the classroom with dread, and the locker room was quieter than it had ever been, and Ryan's sports heroes kept saying no, no way they'd play ball at a time like this.

Now game time was nearing, and the guilt was sawing away. "I don't know how I feel about playing this game," Ryan said. "Where I'd like to be right now is up there digging up the rubble. I think a lot of the guys haven't been sure how they felt about this. Then we decided yesterday, Let's win it for the people up there."

The buses rolled into the parking lot at Stratford High. Noah carried his ball as we followed the players out. From the opposite direction came the Stratford Knights, heading toward the field for calisthenics. The two squads passed each other in single file, inches apart. On the day of national unity, no two players exchanged a glance.

Me? I had my notions on the subject, but I hadn't said a word yet to Noah—I didn't want to stack the deck.

He'd never been in a football locker room. He'd never seen kids prowl and pace and pee before a game. Comp McCurry, the Green Wave's hard-muscled, hard-jawed young assistant coach, worked his way through the locker room, popping players with forearm shivers and chucks on the chin: "Woooooo! Ready to play a ball game! Ready to strap it on! Ready to bust some chops!" The boys strapped on their equipment and filed out in silent platoons—offense, defense, special teams—accompanied by McKissick's sergeants, steeling themselves one last time for what was about to come. I looked at Noah. No, 11 years old was too young. He couldn't be watching those kids and seeing what I was seeing, future soldiers being readied for an unimaginably treacherous war.

The stands were packed, 8,000 strong, wearing patriotic ribbons and waving flags. The bands from the two schools joined on the field and played God Bless America. Eyes filled with tears. Coach McKissick kept his team behind the stands, speaking softly to the players, fighting the tide. "Gonna do what we've done for 50 years," he said. "Nothing different. Get your mind on the football game."

The P.A. announcer began a tribute to those lost and those still searching for them. His voice crackled, then cracked, then choked with sobs. The flag was raised, and a minister said a prayer. I turned to Noah. "Have you prayed?" I asked as Stratford students sent balloons into the air.

"We had 15 minutes of silence at school today," he said.

"What happened during those 15 minutes?" I asked.

"I heard Sidra sniffling, so I think she was crying, and Laura Jett's mouth was moving, so I think she was praying."

"But you—what about you?"

"Yeah. I did. And I prayed in bed the other night for all the families."

"Was that the first time you've ever prayed—not at dinner with us, I mean, but on your own?"

"Uh. . .I guess."

"Might want to try that again."

"Yeah."

The metal stands beneath us began to shake from the stomping feet. The kickoff sailed through the night, and the crowd, as crowds are wont to do, roared. The Summerville offense quickly stalled. "Do you think we should go to war?" I asked Noah.

"No," he said. "I don't want to worry about getting bombed every night. I don't want to end up right dab in the middle of a war."

I loved that dab. I looked out as cheerleaders for the black-clad Knights cartwheeled and flipped before us, and somehow I saw my high horse. I couldn't resist climbing on. "You know," I said to Noah, "a lot of people say we should have games right away so we can get back to normal as soon as possible. But maybe we shouldn't be in such a hurry for normal. Maybe we should stop for a while and think about whether we could do better than that. What if we started spending, say, only a quarter of the time we spend on sports and did something good for some of those families we saw on TV?"

He said nothing for a while. Then he asked, "Is that called a reverse?"

I glanced at the field, where the Stratford quarterback had passed the ball to the wide receiver, who was passing it right back to the quarterback.

"No," I said. "That's a flea-flicker."

Stratford was leading 7-0 in the second quarter. I sat there watching fans cheer and groan, parents pass out burgers, tuba players blare the Rocky theme song. I had been to only one Summerville game in my life, so I couldn't quite gauge whether it was me or if the air really was lacking a certain charge. Ryan Snipes's mom sure noticed it. Then a Stratford kid fumbled, players dived for the bouncing ball. . .and the stadium went black.

Stone cold black, lights out, all four stanchions. A gasp went up. My heart clawed its way into my throat. A girl cried, "They're gonna bomb us!"

A teenager called, "What should we do?"

"Quiet!" men shouted. "Quiet!"

"Dad, look!" said Noah. "There's a plane up there!"

"It's O.K.," I said. All eyes were fixed on the blinking light. "It's just the electricity. The power went out."

On the field silhouettes stampeded here, then there. "Dad," said Noah, "don't you think we should go?"

"No," I lied.

A few people began to exit. "Ladies and gentlemen!" the P.A. announcer called out. "Please limit your movements!"

The plane had nearly passed. "They wouldn't know about a little thing like a Summerville football game. . .would they?" Noah asked.

I hated that they. We sat through 12 minutes of silence and darkness during a football game on the day America mourned.

He wanted to play catch at halftime behind the stands, so we did, running down each other's spirals as a trumpeter on the field played taps. He wanted to eat funnel cake buried in sugar, so we did that, too, as we talked to the piccolo player whose 42-year-old dad spoke of reenlisting. She was scared and thought we shouldn't be there.

We settled back into our seats and watched Stratford score on a one-yard burst to take a 14-0 lead. The crowd roared. I looked at Noah and stumbled around for words.

"So, what do you think about games?" I asked.

"Huh?"

"You know, what do they mean to you? I mean, when a game you're playing in is about to start, what's it feel like to you, how important is it to you. . .I mean, really?"

I waited. Had I gone too far, drilling him on the stop-and-go move under the driveway hoop, hitting him grounder after grounder in Shortstop Showdowns between Jeter and A-Rod? Had I pulled the rope back the other way often enough, hard enough? Then again, how far would my heart sink if he said, You know, Dad, winning, losing—I don't really give a hoot.

"I try my hardest to win games," Noah said. "I'll dive on any court for a ball except the one at our school—it's just too hard. I don't like losing. I think about what I could've done better."

"And how about that championship game against Charleston Catholic, the double-overtime loss?"

"That bothered me awhile. I pretended it was that game a couple of days later when I was playing alone, and I made all kinds of baskets, and we killed 'em, and the announcer kept saying, 'Look at Noah Smith! He's going wild!' I didn't think about it much more after that. That's only one game. If I make the pros, I kinda think I won't remember that."

We rode back to Summerville with the Green Wave, another half hour of silence, after its 21-0 loss. Coach McKissick said his boys had looked confused out there, and that maybe events had made them lose focus. Ryan Snipes said his game face had sure gone to pieces during that pregame prayer and tribute. Coach McCurry exploded, stepping over bodies and shoulder pads in the bus to scream, "Nothing's damn funny!" at a couple of players who'd pulled down a window and exchanged giggles with a girl.

We left the bus and got into our car to head home. Now that it was over, I told him what I really thought: that there was nothing terrible, or even remotely disrespectful, about playing a game or watching one. That most of the fans out there seemed to enjoy the chance to come together and show that they cared about their kids, their country and the families who'd lost so much. And that, God knows, no matter the individual price down the road, we needed folks now who didn't dwell, who turned anguish into action, lickety-split.

However, something, I said, was still off about that game. I'd played in and watched too many games not to know it. Because when games are right, they're like pulling a blanket over your head when you're a kid—suddenly the world goes away and nothing outside that little space even exists; it's delicious.

Yep, it's like playing a trick on yourself, and for it all to work right, it has to start with the players believing that the outcome really matters, then spread out over the crowd and the viewers at home and cover them too, get them screaming and jumping and throwing pillows at the screen. Only a few athletes, or maybe a handful of fans, not losing themselves in the game can start lifting the edge of the blanket, start making everyone see that the game doesn't mean a thing. So how can we possibly expect the pretense to hold up three days after a mass murder, and why would we even ask it to? But, I said, when it does work, it's a thing of such beauty that I want him always to treasure the trick, on one condition: that some part of him, when he isn't playing in a game, knows it's just that—a trick. O.K., Noah? Noah?

I took my eyes off the road and sneaked a look in the backseat. It was nearly midnight on the national day of mourning, and the kid was fast asleep.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)