The League

Jon DeNunzio
Sports Editor

Jon DeNunzio

A Sports Editor and lead blogger for Playback.

In Person, the NFL Is Third

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Yeah, sure -- the NFL is the best version of (American) football -- provided you're watching it on television.

If you go to the stadium to watch your favorite NFL team, you probably have to put up with at least five of the following six hassles: horrible traffic, ridiculous prices, obnoxious drunks at the tailgate next to yours, obnoxious drunks in the row behind you, endless commercial breaks and a bombardment of marketing.

So, in person, the NFL finishes *third* -- behind college and high school football.

The college game: fall Saturday afternoons, on-campus stadiums, marching bands (or, preferably, nutty scramble bands like this one and this one), school colors, tradition, live-animal mascots, and comeback-friendly clock rules (most seasons).

The high school game: Friday night lights (literal and literary), booster club-run concession stands, two-way players, the wing-T offense, 5-2 defenses, halftime raffles and family-friendly pricing.

If you're hard-core and a lot of the above is just window dressing to you, I'll also say this: in my years of covering high school sports, I saw as many, if not more, dramatic moments in high school games than I have watching the big guys. As a coach once said to me, when you put a group 16- and 17-year-olds on the field under playoff pressure, you never know what's going to happen.

The best football game -- any level -- I may have ever seen live was a 1992 Virginia region final between Stonewall Jackson High of Manassas and E.C. Glass High of Lynchburg. Stonewall -- a team I had covered several times that fall -- had a tough running back named Monta Hicks, a resourceful quarterback named John Fulcher and a rugged defense. A week before, they had won a playoff game for the first time under longtime coach Jim Powell.

I remember the gray sky, the yellowed turf and the just-cold-enough air from that late Saturday afternoon matchup in Lynchburg. Scoreless game until the final two minutes, when Fulcher connected with Hicks for what had to be the game-winning touchdown.

But with 20 or so seconds left, Glass ran a halfback option. Completed pass, down to the Stonewall 3. Somehow, without timeouts, Glass found time to run one more play (another high school specialty -- hometown clock operator?). Touchdown. Overtime (alternating possessions, like college -- a superior format to the pros).

I can still see Fulcher coming around the right end in overtime, an option keeper -- but he lost the ball. Glass recovered the fumble, kicked a field goal, and a noble Stonewall team realized its season was done.

The power of the moment started with the drama and shock at the end of a well-played game. But it also came from three months of following a group of high schoolers, seeing the end of the line for Fulcher and many other seniors, and knowing that as small as this game might seem in the greater American football landscape, nothing was bigger to those involved that day.

Jon DeNunzio was a high school sports reporter and editor from 1992 to 2007.

By Jon DeNunzio  |  October 17, 2008; 1:16 PM ET  | Category:  NFL Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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