High school Patriots' symbolic game

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The ball nestled briefly on the fingertips of Shannon Waynewood, a wide receiver with the football team of George Washington High School. It bounced, settled, bounced again, and fell to ground.

The Patriots, as they are known, had recovered from a half-time deficit of 31-6 against Grandview High, and now trailed 31-26 with just under three minutes to play. George Washington's quarterback, Brandon Hayes, whose reluctant passes had been intercepted three times in the first half, threw down the middle of the field, where the green jersey of Waynewood could barely be glimpsed in a traffic jam of defenders.

Somehow, Waynewood had outdistanced them. An open field beckoned; the ball and his outstretched hands were about to dead-heat. A touchdown would put the Patriots ahead by a point.

In the raised seats on the western side of Denver's All City Stadium, the fans of the Patriots, black-white, young-old, kids-adults, about 200-strong, rose to their feet with a shout that was suddenly stifled. The ball bounced. On the next play, Hayes offered another interception. It didn't matter.

In the inner south-eastern suburbs of Denver, between lustrous Washington Park and the Friday-afternoon rush-hour traffic on the I-25 freeway, in the worst of all weeks, a sporting contest was providing what it always does: excitement, distraction, release. For the lucky few who were there, George Washington, whose 1,800 students are 40 per cent white, 40 per cent black and 20 per cent "other" in the words of the school's athletic director, Steve Goldstein, and Grandview, a three-year-old school from the outer limits of the city, provided aspirin for the soul.

Sporting contests rarely change anything, unless you happen to be betting on them. That they dominate a large part of the American psyche says nothing so much as the fact that there has not been much else to occupy that psyche – like war, casualties, the difficulty of making ends meet, and the uncertainty of what happens next.

Sport has been a decades-long indulgence in America. Both the NFL and the NBA are global brands as much as sporting entities. Ditto for the PGA Tour and, to a slightly lesser extent, Major League Baseball. The money they make, the exposure they enjoy, the privileges they take for granted have persuaded them that they are part of the American social fabric; a way of life to be followed regardless of the circumstances.

The events of the week past proved them wrong. Interestingly, it was the athletes themselves who pointed this out, as their leagues dithered on whether or not to cancel the scheduled fixtures. Initially, players like Vinny Testaverde, whose New York Jets were scheduled to play an NFL game in Oakland today, cited fear of flying for their unwillingness to play this weekend. But there was more to it than that for Testaverde, the quarterback who grew up on Long Island. "I'm born and raised here," he said. "I worked on some of those skyscrapers in the city. It touches you deeply."

Testaverde and some of his team-mates said they were prepared to boycott the Oakland match, had the NFL not decided to postpone games. Likewise, the New York Giants had serious doubts about their home game against the Green Bay Packers. Giants Stadium, across the river from Manhattan in Rutherford, New Jersey, had become a staging area for rescue workers and vehicles.

Even the fiercest of prospective opponents kept a proper sense of perspective. "I was leaning towards wanting to play," said Tony Siragusa, a larger-than-life defensive lineman with the Baltimore Ravens. But then, he said, he talked to player representatives from the Giants, Jets and Washington Redskins. "We're all hurting, but there was no question after I listened to them that any team that played those guys would have an unfair competitive advantage."

Apart from this, there was the legacy of the NFL commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, to consider. Under Tagliabue's watch, the league has been a roaring commercial and competitive success. Ultimately, this would have counted for little if his resumé had included the decision to play.

Pete Rozelle, one of the game's most influential administrators, was later said to have regretted his decision to allow games to go ahead on the third weekend of November, 1963, two days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy.

Major League Baseball had initially taken a day-by-day approach to the postponement of games, starting with the hurried closure of stadiums by late Tuesday morning. Soon after the NFL announcement on Thursday, MLB declared there would be no further play until tomorrow.

Ninety-one games are to be rescheduled, the largest number of postponements since 1918, when the last month of the season was cancelled because of American involvement in World War One. For administrators like Bud Selig, the Major League commissioner, history was no guide. "I had only one framework of reference," Selig said. "What should we do? What's the appropriate time?"

For the organisers and participants in next week's Ryder Cup at The Belfry, the question is even more difficult, since there is no fall-back date. An indication of the players' state of mind, at least on the American side, may be that they accepted without a qualm the cancellation of this weekend's $5 million American Express Championship in St Louis.

The loss of a weekend's worth of pro and college football, baseball, golf and Nascar racing will cost the TV networks a fortune, at a time when coverage of the terrorist attacks is setting them back $100m a day. This reflects the increased value put on sports, with TV rights now changing hands for billions of dollars.

At All City Stadium, the PA system produced a scratchy, oft-interrupted recording of "God Bless America"; the George Washington players stood in single file, helmets tucked under right arms, left arm on the shoulder of the team-mate in front. Out in the middle, four students in military uniforms, two bearing flags, two shouldering rifles, showed the colours of the country and the state. It was the antithesis of big-time sport and, for that reason, an escape from the events of the week both perfect and appropriate.