This summer, after hearing a case called Santa Fe Independent School District vs. Doe, the U.S. Supreme Court decided 6-3 that public prayers before high-school football games were unconstitutional. The decision has sparked protests and celebrations in school districts across the country. Self-professed Christian organizations gather at their local stadiums to recite the Lord's Prayer before kick-off, and pagan groups rally happily outside the gates. By contrast, reaction in the Triangle has been negligible. High schools here by and large don't hold public prayers before games, and few fans seem perturbed by the high-court ruling. A fact that sits like a thorn in the side of Short Jimmy Hall.
I met Short Jimmy in 1993, at a Northern Knights football game in Durham County Stadium. He'd driven down from Person County to watch the game and to offer commentary on the Knights' various strengths and weaknesses. Short Jimmy had played high school ball himself, in a corn-patch Indiana town. By the time he was in the ninth grade, Short Jimmy was 6-foot-6; he was lanky, but he padded out nicely in uniform and he was fast. His daddy stayed up three hours past his bedtime to watch Short Jimmy play on Friday nights; his sister sold doughnuts on the sidelines for the uniform fund. Short Jimmy said that, short of his faith in God, there's never been anything more thrilling or fulfilling than a Friday-night game.
Over the years, I've run into Short Jimmy maybe four times. He hangs out sometimes at the Roxboro Road K-Mart, and it was there, just last month, that he stood in the parking lot and gave me his views on the recent Supreme Court decision. He said that football was the only church a lot of people went to anymore, and that if you took God out of football it would be "a sin and a shame." He said that, back in Indiana, his team used to have a pre-game prayer, a half-time prayer and a prayer before showers. And that didn't count the prayer that went out over the loud speakers after the "Star-Spangled Banner."
The prayers, Short Jimmy said, were "to ask Him to help us do our best, to keep us safe and be good sports and be victorious. God was always right there with us," he said. "He was a part of it all. My daddy always said it was a godless world, but not in football. I pray about it at night; I wonder, what in the whole world would God say about all this?"
I wondered too.
Scene: Locker room in a high-school football stadium. It is opening night. In the stands above, parents drink coffee from Styrofoam cups and give each other cheerful accounts of their summers. Flash bulbs pop. On the field, cheerleaders flash their legs in the garish light, and a marching band, all plumes and medallions, crab-steps toward the end zone.
Inside the locker room all sounds are muted, dulled down to a faint roar punctuated by tuba. The mood is glum. Banana peels and crumpled juice boxes litter the benches. A lone jock strap hangs from a chalk-scrawled blackboard. Standing along one wall are a half-dozen coaching assistants, swarthy men with nylon jackets and clip boards and jawbones that work nervously over bits of gum.
The players are suited up: padded, taped, corseted, bandaged. In the stark, locker-room light they appear enormous--pasty and pouchy and oddly passive, like fattened livestock. At some invisible cue, they move to the center of the room, beneath a bare light bulb, and gather in a circle, helmets in their hands. For a moment there is the dainty sound of cleats shifting on the concrete floor, then silence. Several of the players bow their heads.
At the center of the circle is God, a bearish, grizzled man in a team cap. Tufts of white hair sprout from his ears. His whistle hangs forlornly. For several seconds, God stares at the concrete floor between his shoes. Finally he straightens, grimacing, and looks at the players gathered around him. He wears a look of weary forbearance. A supervisor announcing layoffs, a radiologist with bad news. One of the assistant coaches taps his clipboard and glances at the clock on the wall. Kick-off is moments away. God clears his throat.
God: Boys, I don't have to tell you the significance of this moment. We gather here tonight at a milestone in the history of football. A turning point in the saga of this great land. It's fourth and long, boys, and the punter's gone cold.
Tell you why. This summer, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to banish public prayer at high-school football games. Said it violated what they call the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. Now I'm not going to spend a lot of time up here trying to explain the Establishment Clause to simple, good-hearted boys like you. Blessed are the pure of heart. Is there anything more simple than a football player? Anything less complicated by the dark tides of the human heart? What I will tell you is that nine sons-a-bitches who think they're somebody say there can't be any more school-sanctioned praying going on. They're taking me out of the game.
Sounds of shock and despair from the players
Buck up, now. Billy Lee, don't lose your focus, son. Attaboy. Like I say, the U.S. Constitution is none of your concern. Still, you boys deserve the truth. Because one of these days you're going to ask why it had to happen. Maybe you're already asking. Maybe tonight you'll go to bed with your cup of cocoa and you'll ask your mama and daddy, you'll say, "Why did Coach have to go away?" I'm going to tell you. I'm going to lay the truth at your feet like a 50-gallon tub of Gatorade.
This thing started out in Santa Fe. Seems a bunch of students and parents got their knickers in a twist every time somebody organized a prayer before the football game. Said it excluded all the non-Christians in the crowd. Bushwah! Now I'm going to say this just once. My kid has nothing to do with football. Wouldn't know a trigger pitch if it hit Him in the face mask. I'm His daddy and I love Him, but the onliest time the boy turns on the sports channel is to watch figure skating!
Still, these folks in Santa Fe were determined, so I flew out there and we had a chat. There was a lot of fancy talk by the plaintiffs in the case, and a lot of speechifying by people said they were from something called the ACLU. They used words like "co-ersion" and "divisiveness." I speechified right back at 'em, tried to inspire 'em with the glory and pageantry of football. Where else, I asked them, can young manhood surge across the field, risking collar bone and knee cap for the honor of victory and a trip to the state finals? What other Nike-sanctioned pastime holds high and dear the Old Testament blood lust, the elemental savagery of the human spirit, the agony and the ecstasy?
And do you know what they said to me? Do you know what those pencil-necked pantywaists said to me? They said, "Coach, it's just a game." (Very softly) Just a game. (Louder, to thundering pitch) Just a game. Just a game. JUST A GAME. God wipes sweat from his brow, lowers his voice. Football may be just a game to Santa Fe. It may be just a game in New York City. But for a lot of people, Friday night football is religion pure and simple. Hell's bells, it's one of the last places in America where I'm still let in the door!
You take a scrub-town team on the sun-broiled Texas prairie; you take a two-bit high school in the Appalachian hollows--you know what football is to these folks? It's the thing that keeps hope alive! You know what a dusty, run-down county stadium is? It's the place where the tragedy of a gone-bust mill town is defeated by a single field goal. It's where you can mangle somebody and be a winner, where people call out from the obscurity of their lives: "We are here! We are America! Praise the Lord and block that kick!"
Now boys, I'm the generous type. At football fields all across the country tonight, you got folks dancing around in their jammies, celebrating their victory in the Supreme Court. Pagans, they call themselves. The truth is, they've always been welcome in this house of worship. They don't know a pass-run option from a pound-cake recipe, but they're welcome. Jews, Catholics, Rastafarians. T'ai chi, Rolfers, Jungians, colon irrigators. Everybody's welcome.
Except, now, yours truly.
The gravity of the situation is maximal, I won't lie. And I know you boys are real upset about this. And maybe there's little comfort to be had. Rest assured, though, I took careful note of the vote in that there Supreme Court. Better believe that on the Day of Reckoning certain heads will roll. Better believe when certain pussel-gutted justices come to meet their Maker I will personally drop-kick them into Purgatory! For the grapes of wrath are sour, and the sword is terrible indeed!
God pauses, gathers himself
I'll never forget you boys. Heck, I been with you since Pee Wee league. Joey, I was there the day your shoulder popped out of joint and it took six people to hold you down while Doc popped that gentleman back in. Billy Lee, who was it helped you pick your teeth up off the 30-yard line? I've been there to wipe the vomit off your cleats and the snot off your face masks. I been there through amnesia, concussions, athlete's foot, the runs. I've seen you all yelp like scalded pups, seen you twist like gutted fish. I've been with you.
And I'll be there tonight, if only in spirit. Watching, cheering, making sure you hustle your butt every time you hit that sod. I'll be there! Let me tell you boys something. You got your baseball men. You got your basketball men. You even got your soccer nancies. Myself, I'm am one-hundred-and-ten percent pigskin. Give me grass drills in the August heat! Give me a near-in belly toss, first and long, with blood on somebody's face mask. Give me a suburban mother, bundled against the cold, praying for her son's spinal cord. Football is pain! Football is discipline! Football is character!
Be good boys for Coach. Respect your elders. Choose a decent and affordable college. Love your country. Drink your milk. Be men! Be proud! Now get out there and hustle, hustle, hustle! Look super! How to play! Hit somebody! Hit somebody! Hit somebody!