Vilseck Falcons light up the night
September 12, 2011
GRAFENWOEHR, Germany -- It was a remarkable turn of events. A simple running track was transformed into a football field, seemingly overnight, and the ominous skies delivered a blessing, instead of a deluge. One group of athletes challenged the favored team, and won. On Sept. 2, at the Grafenwoehr Fitness Center sports field, here, the lights burned bright on a spectacle that should not have happened but did. And it was a mighty sight.
In a nod to the American television show of the same name, "Friday Night Lights" fashioned nostalgic hometown football -- under blazing stadium lights -- out of what should have been an ordinary scrimmage.
The Vilseck High School Falcons football team was originally scheduled to play another American team, but the game fell through. The setback allowed the Falcons to challenge a different kind of foe -- the Oberpfalz Spartans, a German team comprised of young players from Neumarkt, Regensburg and Grafenwoehr.
Two hours before kick-off, darkening clouds threatened to delay or cancel the game. Instead, a light sprinkle gave way to twin rainbows, perhaps promising great things to come. Back on the ground, great things had already arrived. New goal posts reached for the clearing skies, towering over an expertly-painted field. The game's announcers looked sharp, perched above the spectators in their freshly constructed field box. The field was built, and the fans came. The players soon followed.
The visiting team exploited the pop-culture association of their name. Their team mascot, in full "300" dress -- complete with red cape -- welcomed a screaming horde of Spartans onto the field. The Falcons retorted, bursting through their banner to the roar of over 500 supporters. The Spartans won the coin toss and elected to receive the ball, finally leading to the key question of the night.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, are you ready for some football?" asked Staff Sgt. Frank Brown of the American Forces Network Bavaria. The crowd responded with a respectable level of cheering.
"We don't believe you," he continued. "Are you ready for some football?!" he said emphatically. The stands came alive.
On the first possession, the Falcons denied the Spartans a chance to score, forcing them to punt. On the return, Vilseck senior Tyler Lewis ran 73 yards for the first touchdown of the night. However, any lingering Falcon euphoria crashed soon into the second quarter, when Vilseck quarterback Miles Smiley was sacked and permanently sidelined with a leg injury. Despite the loss, the Falcons continued to throw numbers on the board, leading the Spartans 24-0 at halftime.
The big lead did nothing to allay Vilseck coach Jim Hall's frustration with his varsity line.
"The first six minutes were the best part of the ball game," said Hall.
After rebuking his team for a weak offensive line, Hall had a stern ultimatum for the second half -- start playing like a team, or prepare to watch the junior varsity line take over. Concern instantly replaced irritation when Hall asked a player about his injury and offered encouragement.
The window of reassurance quickly closed, and the Falcons coach talked about the need for less lollygagging and more hustle. The second half called. The Falcons heeded coach Hall's directive and scored two more touchdowns, with one two-point conversion. Vilseck senior Daniel Arroyo filled in for Miles Smiley and led his team to a final, crushing victory over the Spartans, 38-0.
Even in the absence of victory the Spartans kept their good cheer, continuing the chain of improbable events the night had revealed. Spartans coach Dave Darnall reflected on his team's attitude.
"These kids are awesome," said Darnall. "When we go home on the bus tonight, they won't be sad. They're just so excited that they get to play football."
Once the Spartan youth turn 19, they must pursue careers or find jobs. There is no college football or NFL draft in their future, making every second on the field, victory or no victory, precious. Coach Darnall did point out, though, that the Spartans had recently become league champions. Although it had a disappointing outcome, Friday's game was still a good cap on a winning season.
Meanwhile, Hall and his Vilseck squad were anticipating the season to come, and he had pointed criticism for the Falcons' performance.
"Tonight's game is a 'C- plus,'" said Hall, "but it's a start and tonight, hopefully, we ironed out the kinks."
Before the night was over there was hopeful talk of another Friday Night Lights for the following year. Somehow two different football teams, with two distinct styles of playing, even two sets of motivation -- one ending a season, one only just beginning -- brought a community together.
They gave it all, under the big lights, for nothing bigger than the love of the game. With any luck, it will happen again.