Opinions

Chris Floyd Reflects on Shooting American High School Football

Above: Image by Chris Floyd
Above: Image by Chris Floyd

London based photographer and filmmaker Chris Floyd shares his experiences and images shooting American college football in Texas.

“This is your time. Go get ‘em.

Go on, go get ‘em, this is your time now

This is it, your time, go on now……………………”

What is happening here?

As each player prepares to go on to the field of play a member of the Highland Park Scots coaching staff, a rotund, stocky man, makes a point of saying something inspirational to him. A short, quiet exhortation that implies timing, destiny and honour. These players are boys, seventeen, eighteen years old. Generally they do not acknowledge it but they know where they are and what this is. It’s everything they’ve wanted as far back as they can remember and for some of them these months will be the greatest of their lives. The future is not yet written.

Above: Image by Chris Floyd
Above: Image by Chris Floyd

The girls that make up the Highland Park Belles Drill Team are getting something similar from an equally inspirational lady at the side of the pitch. Their faces are locked into a rictus of concentration. Their tights, American Tan to the last, glisten as the final, ethereal hues of the dusk succumb to the interrogatory clarity of the floodlights. This is Texas high school football. Us and them, over and over again. None of it is ambivalent, all of it is vital.

What is happening here?

Highland Park, Texas. It is the first Friday in September and all through the day the external temperature display inside the car has been relentlessly and malevolently defying gravity. It currently reads 108F. The air is torpid, inert and the only sound to be heard outside of the car is the sound of a uniquely American kind. It’s the drone of wealth and it comes in the form of over employed air conditioning units outside of each and every house on the block, reflecting back from the bone white concrete driveways. Across the street a blue and yellow sign is stuck into the lawn of the house there. “Belles Spaghetti Supper. This Friday 5-7pm. HPHS Cafeteria. Catered By Amore.”

Take a spin in the car, if only to turn the dial on the A/C and keep out of the asphyxiative, lacerating furnace of the ambient air. In some other countries it would only ever be possible to experience this atmosphere sitting inside a pine cabin, naked. The grass that lines the front lawns and pavements of Highland Park is that shade of green from 80s teen movies, where 15 year old boys ride bikes in quiet, wide streets looking for Ally Sheedy. Well fed, healthy, comfortable, confident and lush, resting on the hammock of infinitely long hosepipes.

The Highland Park Soda Fountain, one hundred years old, is doing cool and intense business. Nineteen bar stools line the counter. Find one and wait your turn. The Lime Freeze looks like the only game in town, the oasis in the desert. The glass door has a poster on it with head shots of all of this season’s Highland Park Cheerleaders and Scotsmen. These are different to the Belles. The Belles are more acrobatic and perform a show at halftime. The Cheerleaders are pictured in a sort of triangle with a caption underneath that says ‘KEEPING UP THE SPIRIT’. Beneath the Cheerleaders are head shots of the five Scotsmen. Their role is uncertain. There is also a separate shot of them atop the horizontal bar of a football goal. There is a sponsor logo at the bottom of the poster too. Being involved is mandatory here. To not be involved might be a bad thing. Perhaps it would be best to go back and get involved.

The pre-game spaghetti supper is a thousand square feet of systematic and efficient, production line involvement. The five dollar dinner is the fly on the line. The school hall is a grid system of long trestle tables carpeted in auction items, donated by parents, local businesses and other concerned parties. These are not small items. There’s some big ticket stuff here. A week long spa trip to a Colorado desert retreat, a day at the Texas State Capitol as a guest of a member of the House of Representatives, high end loot worth bidding on. The hustle in here is a microcosm of America’s unique ability to be individually entrepreneurial, yet it’s in the service of the group. It’s a sort of American socialism. Over here it might have been called The Big Society, until that initiative died an oxygen starved death from lack of Big Government funding. What drives this though, is the unspoken responsibility placed on the shoulders of all who live in the shadow of the team, the town and the school to be involved. The closeness of the community, in terms of social standing and reputation is highly observed. The Highland Park Scots are the hive and the citizens of the township are the bees bringing in the pollen. What use is an unproductive bee?

Mums sport football jerseys and badges with pictures of the players or the cheerleaders. There’s a queue to have the team logo stencilled on a cheek. ‘Scots’ on one side, ‘Belles’ on the other.

Game time. The opponents are from Monterrey, Mexico which means that the crowd, only halfway full, politely endure the playing of the Mexican national anthem. Three boys in the crowd strip off their shirts to reveal ‘U’, ‘S’ and ‘A’ painted on to their chests in red, white and blue. They are standing in the wrong order though, so it reads ‘AUS’. Someone tuts and points this out. They quickly realign themselves. A Scotsman, standing nearby, apologises for this infliction of overt nationalism.

The boys’ posturing goes wasted. The Mexicans have fielded a lowly fan base for the game, possibly only a crowd of one on their side of the pitch. It’s hard to tell but it may just be a local kid who’s snuck into the away end in a gesture of defiance. He was too high up in the stands to go and ask. Down at one of their corners a lone cop stands watching the action, big gun on his hip. From here, looking across to the home side of the field it’s obvious that the industriousness doesn’t stop when the game starts. A stream of people are filing in, carrying and wearing merchandise from the team shop beneath the stands.

Above: Image by Chris Floyd
Above: Image by Chris Floyd

A third of the way through the game and the home side of the stadium is almost full. Most of Highland Park could well be in here. The cops, ambulance and fire officials mingle amongst themselves down in one corner of the field. Along the sideline the players who are not currently on the field of play spend most of the time on their feet watching, exhorting, willing it to go right. The big digital clock on the scoreboard stops and starts in defiance of real life with a regularity that is hypnotic.

Various team coaches draw up plays on portable white boards. They wear the uniform of white, middle America: khakis, white polo shirts, sneakers. They are gruff, confident and look like they get to eat well for it. The relevant team members fan around them and give the impression of listening intently. They look like they are really listening. Head coach, Randy Allen, wearing a shirt, tie and panama hat paces the line with a clipboard in hand, pen in his shirt pocket. Coach Allen signs off all his emails ‘Go Scots!’

The players fit all the stereotypes. Nothing is missing. Have these kids actually evolved to be mirror images of the characters in every high school and college movie ever – Grease, Animal House, Revenge Of The Nerds, Porkies, American Pie – or were they always like this? One kid is so like the quintessential changing room towel flicker, so like Biff Tannen, that he is scarcely believable as a fictional character, let alone an actual real life flesh and blood one standing here tonight. He must weigh 280 pounds and his knees look wrecked already.

The Scots put the pressure on and Monterrey quickly fall behind. The lead is too comfortable. The cheerleaders, sitting it out on the side are a line of ponytailed princesses, banded up high and tight, teen imprints of their mothers, checking their Facebook pages on their iPhones. The band, sitting in the bleachers, strike up. The band leader, an earnest girl in white cotton gloves on a podium at the front, fixes her eyes absolutely on the musicians as her arms strain. Every muscle in her arms gives rise to the belief that in her head she is trying to control an excitable muscular dog on a tight leash.

My host leans in to my ear, “You know, John Hinckley, who tried to assassinate President Reagan, is an alumni of this establishment.”

This is a micro society maintaining it’s place in the order of things. The support system that holds the team up and generates the resources for it to be viable is self determination at work. It is competitive on every level you can possibly imagine, within itself, as well as in its attitudes to those it is up against. It’s uniquely American, it’s how individuals bring their express individual attributes to the situation and leverage them for the benefit of the team, the school and the town, as well as their own personal standing within those places. To not commit in the fullest way would indeed be a bad thing.

The band, maybe forty strong and not big in the context of Texas high school football teams, come on for their role in the halftime show. It’s time for their big idea. My host drops a hint.

“They have been waking me up every morning at 5.55am all summer with their rehearsal of ‘Kashmir’ by Led Zeppelin. It’s pretty damn sweet.”

What follows is deeper and wider than ‘Kashmir’ though, because it is actually a mashup of ‘Kashmir’ and the music of Benjamin Britten. It is truly imaginative, clever and entertaining. This is what I mean when I say it is competitive on every level. Even the band have got serious game. They’re not just here to give the kids who can’t run a chance to be included. They kill it with some outrageous sizzle. Weeks and weeks of motivating sixteen year old kids to rise in the summer dawn and go out on to a barely cooled patch of redundant car park tarmac to go through the mad idea of a faraway, dead English composer mixed in with a long defunct English rock band, over and over again. For the excellence of the group, so they can be better than the other lot, who in this case haven’t even brought a band with them. Us and them, over and over again. This is not just about winning on the field. This is about self, self regard, the group, motivation, pride, relationships, reliability, honour, work and just being really, really good at the thing they’ve chosen.

Year in, year out, a place like this, a scene like this is where America renews itself. This is what’s happening here.

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© Chris Floyd 2013