There is a slight whiff of chill in the air tonight that wasn't there this weekend. The leaves are turning quickly, threatening to slide straight from green to the ground.
Another sign of the season.
Today is Monday, which for most people is back to work. But I'm typing this in the evening in the autumn, which for many Americans means one thing: Monday Night Football. It's on at our house right now. CJ is a Bears fan; it is a product of a decade lived in the rarefied air of Chicago. He's not optimistic about their chances against the Cowboys in Texas. This does not make him a fair-weather fan - it makes him a Bears fan. But this post isn't about the Bears. Or football really. Not professional football, that is.
This past Friday the local high school celebrated its homecoming. One of the big events was the annual football game. (Our town's team won.) It brings back memories of fifteen years ago, when I was in high school. A lot of things have changed from then - the kids now have cell phones that do everything, instant information via the internet, YouTube, etc. But some things haven't changed.
Before school starts in August, the boys are out practicing. Two times a day, multiple times a week, in sometimes murderously hot weather. Running, tackling, blocking, passing, rushing, figuring out the plays. Coaches slapping heads, yelling, blowing the whistle. Soft encouragement sometimes is needed too. A pull to the side. You can do this.
The football players are not alone. The soccer players, boys and girls, are running and playing too. At my high school, girls' tennis was a fall sport. And cross country. My sport.
I was crazy.
You have to be some kind of crazy, or at the very least not thinking very much, to run cross country. Running five kilometers in nearly all conditions, jostling elbows, lungs screaming, sweat streaming into my eyes, why-the-hell-am-I-doing-this, slogging through the pain to the finish line, girls in purple jackets yelling and cheering. Stop. Pant. Walk. Pant. Pant. Put hands on head. Pant. Pant. Pant. Coach's voice in my head: Don't let them see you hurt. Who wants to see me hurt? The other team? That voice in my head that says you can't do this? Someone hands me water. Pant. Sip. Pant. Spit. The air is coming slower now. The heart beats less frenetically. Deep breath. Done.
The worst part for me was never the finish. It was the start. The buildup, the anticipation. The open races were so crowded that there was little room to even put a foot forward.
Everyone would be doing the last moment stretches, jogs in place, quiet chatter to friends. The approach to the line. Deep breath, it's almost time. Find a spot wedged in between teammates. Good-natured elbow nudges. Look down at the ground, see the couple inches of grass or dirt visible beneath all the shoes. Set.
The hanging moment waiting for the gun. It's hot/humid/freezing/raining/sleeting, the Buckeyes are playing and I'm missing the game (again), man I coulda slept in this morning, oh listen to the birds in the distance (insert blackberry joke here), where is Mom standing, why am I doing this again!?!?!?
Bumping, clawing, stretching out the stride, careful around the first corner, get some space, find my rhythm.
And do it again the next Saturday.
I miss it.
They are out there now, this season in this year. Innumerable girls and boys running against the clock. Against a rival. Against themselves. Kenny Chesney didn't sing this song for us, or for them.
"When I feel that chill, smell that fresh-cut grass..."
It comes back to me. But I don't think it ever left.