Summer, fall football: Chill is in the air

We talk about the weather all the time in Vermont because we get so much of it.
Today is the last day in September, our best month. We claim it as autumn, but it’s really still summer, at least the first three weeks. Now, it’s officially fall, and has been for the past week.
September is mild, mostly, but there’s a crispness in the air that suggests the austerity to come. The first frost arrives in September. We start the day in fleeces and sweaters but often shed them by midday.
September’s about what’s going away. All is green and lush at first, the harvest, corn on the cob and red juicy tomatoes from the garden and supper on the porch. By month’s end, the landscape is russet and gold. Canada geese fly overhead, honking.
We appreciate September’s beauty and warmth because we know it will end, and soon. There is melancholy beneath the beauty. By now, the days are short indeed. When October arrives, the brilliant colors explode like the finale of a fireworks show, and then … the darkness: the short dreary days of November and December.
This is a sports column and we’ve already jumped (we’re about to jump) to the inside page and there has been no mention of sports. Thanks for jumping with me. Here it comes.
Sports are seasonal too. Just about my favorite sports experiences, moments from year to year, occur in September, one at the high school in Middlebury, the other at the college.
September is football season. The centerpiece of the fall weekend in September is a football game. Like so many of my Middlebury friends, I like to go to the MUHS football games: Friday Night Lights in Middlebury, Vermont.
From my home in Cornwall, I can see the glow in the sky from the lights of Doc Collins Field and hear the voice of Wayne Smith, public address announcer, identifying the players and situations: “Hastings carries the ball; Williams and company in on the stop. First down for the Tigers!”
It’s a timeless experience. The scene has changed little over the years. The dads stand on the sidelines and fret, perhaps remembering their own youth in the game — and the moms are in the stands with other family members, hoping no one gets hurt. Friends of Football hawk programs and 50-50 raffle tickets in the grandstand, and serve chili and dogs in the concession booth.
Former players, and parents of players long gone and grown-up, help coach from the stands: “A pass! In that situation? What was he thinking?” All are convinced the officiating is crooked, or at best incompetent: “They call holding on us, but not them! C’mon, ref!”
The darkness surrounding the stadium gives the whole scene a surreal flavor. I like to spend some part of the game at the north end of the stands, in front of the row of exuberant fans watching the game from the beds of their pick-up trucks in the parking lot.
Kids, high school age and younger, race around in noisy packs on the outskirts of the play on the field, betraying little interest in the game. Their parents pray their hijinks under the cover of darkness are still just innocent play.
My other favorite fall sports scene is that beautiful early fall Saturday at the college when all the Panther teams are at home, last Saturday, for example. The games occur simultaneously — or nearly so, in the warm middle of the day, with the men’s and women’s soccer teams competing on adjacent fields, a field hockey contest nearby, and the football game coming up at the stadium on the hill.
I stand on the berm at the east end of the track where I can watch both soccer games at once. This spectator arrangement typically means that I miss every goal scored, as I am viewing the men’s game when the women score, or vice versa. At some point, I walk over to field hockey on the turf field, as that’s the sport Annie, my 13-year-old, is now gravitating to.
Before long, I hear the booming baritone of Russ Reilly welcoming fans to the football game at the amphitheater above the athletic facilities: “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls: welcome to Youngman Field” and I make my way up the hill where I watch robust young men crash into one another for a couple of hours.
I cheer unabashedly for the Panthers, for I know some of those young men inside all that gear — these gladiators are my students in their real lives.
My late dad, the football player, loved to come to Middlebury when the Bates College teams arrived to play the Panthers. He would look out over these acres and acres of playing fields, with scores of athletes, competing fiercely, in the great outdoors, shake his head and marvel at the scene.
Coming from Bates College, whose campus is hemmed in by city streets, he thought Middlebury athletes and fans lived in sports heaven.
I think he was right.

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