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Gerald Carbone: The Glow of the Friday Night Lights

Saturday, November 02, 2013

 

Gerald Carbone looks back at the memorable battle between two of the state's top gridiron giants.

The marching band hit some sour notes but its teenage members so immensely enjoyed making music that their enthusiasm spread through the rows of metal bleachers rising steeply from the floodlit sidelines.

Breath visibly puffed as the band members withdrew instruments from their lips and sang: “Hey-aaaaay baby! I wanna know! Will you be my girl.”

In the glow of the Friday night lights two of the best high school football teams in Rhode Island smacked heads to determine gridiron superiority: unbeaten Bishop Hendricken, wearing Kelly green, vs. the once-defeated Portsmouth Patriots in red-and-white-and-blue. I had seen an online listing for this game and, seeing how Bishop Hendricken High is two miles from my house, determined to head out for a night’s cheap entertainment.

Bishop Hendricken’s built at the edge of a cornfield, and the stadium looks like the football equivalent of Field of Dreams. Bright lights flooded the field, but the edges were so dark that I could barely see the woman who sold me a ticket for $5.

I chose a spot near the 50-yardline and plunked down on a long metal bench. Cold shocked my backside. So that’s why the veteran spectators perched on cushions or woolen blankets.

Beside me sat a woman introduced by her daughter-in-law as an 81-year-old former high school cheerleader for the Westerly Bulldogs. She must have been a senior in the late 1940s. As I recalled, Westerly fielded some great post-war teams.

“Oh yes,” she said. “Did you know Coach Mudge?”

I had not, but have since Googled him and learned that he was one tough man. He lost a lung to childhood illness but that did not stop him from being a two-way player for Rhode Island State. He played all 60 minutes the first time State, now URI, beat Brown, a national powerhouse in days of leather helmets.

“Is she talking about the Westerly Bulldogs again?” he daughter-in-law teased.

The sound system at this field of dreams was broken. Every time a penalty flag flew the referee, the one in the officiating crew wearing a white hat, engaged in a game of charades to indicate the offense.

Holding, he gestured, clasping palm round wrist, an easy one. He waved like a baseball umpire making a safe call: Penalty declined. Then he made a chopping motion with both hands: Intentional grounding. Portsmouth accepted that penalty, backing Hendricken deep near the glow of an end zone scoreboard.

But Portsmouth could not hold back the Hendricken Hawks. Almost every-other time he touched the ball Hendricken’s No. 22, Remington Blue, ran for a touchdown. I had never seen anything like this. Blue possessed a rabbit’s quickness but looked too short to be so good. A scouting report listed him as 5-foot-9, but on a field of 6-footers he looked little.

No one said so but we were all wondering whether we were watching a talent who will become a household name, or whether the brutes of Division 1 college football would eat this kid up.

Blue ripped off a long, loping touchdown run to make the score 34-14 and his coach took him out. Without the anticipation of watching Blue run I lost interest. I stood to say bye to my new friend who had cheered Coach Mudge’s teams in the 1940s. My legs felt so heavy from cold I almost toppled over.

Where the lights faded at the margins of the field a steady stream of exiting teenagers lightly passed me by, kicking dry leaves as they pressed on into the night.

Gerald M. Carbone is the author of Nathanael Greene, and was a journalist for twenty-five years, mostly for the Providence Journal. He holds a Master's in Public Humanities from Brown University and has won two of American journalism's most prestigious prizes--the American Society of Newspaper Editors Distinguished Writing Award and a John S. Knight Fellowship at Stanford University. He lives in Warwick, Rhode Island.

 

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