A couple of days ago Sam M., who lives in western Pennsylvania, sent in this amazing Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story about the high school football team in Clairton, Pa., a hardscrabble mill town that was, as it happens, the setting for “The Deer Hunter.” Here’s how the piece begins:
The doors to the Clairton Bears’ locker room are closed. A space usually pumped full of booming bass from hip-hop music is silent, except for the young man in the corner wearing a black No. 9 jersey. Sitting on a bench, he bows his head and cries.
His name is Robert Boatright. He’s a senior running back and defensive end. Senior Night festivities are complete, and Boatright still doesn’t know if he’ll play college football. Now he’s gulping back tears.
Terrish Webb is Boatright’s best friend. He moves to Boatright and consoles him. Webb knows where he’ll play next year, at Kent State. Even with his clarity on a night full of questions, Webb begins to cry, too. His father was murdered when Terrish was 11, and it hurt hearing his dad’s name announced on Senior Night.
The rest of the seniors join Webb in forming a circle around Boatright, wrapping their arms around each other. Nobody else can enter. They’re the protectors of a historic winning streak that weighs on them daily. It’s at 55 now, will be 56 in a few hours, one more box checked until Heinz Field on Nov. 23, when they’ll likely set a state record of 60. If they lose before then — or any other time, really — they believe they’ll be seen as failures.
The seniors softly break the silence.
“I love y’all.”
“Every snap, dog.”
“No plays off, dog.”
“Go to the whistle, dog.”
“This is our last year in orange and black, man.”
A door opens at the back of the room. It’s Stuart Price, a former Bear and a Clairton barber shop owner. He sees the players sharing this moment and becomes angry.
“Break up that circle!” he yells.
The man is serious, and they know it. The town is always watching, its expectations never far from their minds. The boys love Clairton, proudly play for its reputation, but a resentment hangs in the room. Why did football have to mean so much?
Price’s presence has changed the mood. He has poked the Bears. A player flips over a bench, trying to build up the rage required to play this game.
“This is our life!” yells Titus Howard, a senior wide receiver and cornerback, who has committed to play at Pitt. “This is our ticket out!”
The Clairton Bears are on the winningest streak in American high school football today. And this matters because:
The town is nothing without the school, and the school is nothing without the Bears.
Part Two of the series is here. Part Three appears tomorrow.
Clairton, as you’ll see in the piece, is very poor, and just barely holding on. In his comments to me, Sam M. wrote:
These people can SUCCEED. They can operate at a very high level. Football ain’t easy. I don’t mean the actual game; the community infrastructure required to be good at this is amazing. There’s the pee-wee league. There’s the money. There’s the volunteering. There’s the knowledge. The facilities.
These people not only got good at it; the got basically unbeatable. They are beating private schools with almost endless resources.
We might say that it’s silly for the people to invest so much into this while their world crumbles. But is it?
I suspect not.
I agree, and think that the reason for this is the same reason why it made sense in an earlier age for poor communities to pour everything they had into building beautiful churches. Life is hard, and people need something to help them transcend the experience of having their faces ground by their poverty. People who mock that don’t know what it’s like to lack hope for redemption, and for assurance that life is more than defeat and purposelessness.
You may say that that’s an illusion. I say that this illusion is only apparent, that there is a reality buried beneath the illusion. Even if it is an illusion, though, life is hard, and people need to believe in tomorrow to get through today.
This is, obviously, “Friday Night Lights” territory, and it brings to mind the deep philosophical and spiritual beauty of that show. I avoided FNL for years because I thought it was just a standard rah-rah show about football. Boy, was I mistaken. It’s a show about life in a small town a lot like Clairton — not as economically depressed, it seems, but still, a place where not a lot is happening. Dillon, Texas, would be nothing without its high school football teams. What does the team give to the people of that town? What is life like for its players when they graduate? What happens when the Friday night lights dim in a young man’s life, and he has to wake up and figure out what to do with himself? FNL was a show about striving, and sometimes failing, and sometimes winning, and what the possibility of winning does to a town and the souls who make it their home.
In FNL, kids who have good prospects leave Dillon, where the “poverty” includes a lack of choice. One character moves to Chicago to pursue a career as an artist. Another ends up as a sports agent in New York. Some stay in Dillon, but it’s generally understood that they didn’t have the wherewithal to launch themselves beyond Dillon’s orbit. The delicacy of the series is that these people are not seen as losers. They can become the kind of people — like Coach Taylor, or the successful businessman and team booster Buddy Garrity — who keep the town going. A meaningful life is available to those who stay behind in Dillon. But many of the kids who give the town its reason for being — the football players, I mean — see the team as the thing that’s going to get them out of Dillon. This is the paradox and the pathos at the heart of the drama — and to the real-life drama of Clairton, which sounds much poorer than the fictional Dillon, and its team more like the Lions, the team created on the poor side of Dillon towards the end of the series).
The New York Times wrote today about the Clairton Bears. This quote gets to the heart of their story:
“The businesses have shuttered; we lost our mill, lost our grocery store,” said Tom McCloskey, the principal at Clairton High School and an alumnus. “It seems the odds are stacked against the town. Football is a way we can persevere, ride the success of the team. A lot of people look forward to Friday night. Everybody comes together around one common good thing we’ve got going on.”
The football stadium. The medieval cathedral. The one common good thing we’ve got going on. The thing that makes us believe that we’re all in it together, and that we’re not nothing.