Growing up in the smaller town of Russellville, Friday Night Football was exactly as big a deal as you think it was. I didn’t like a lot about high school. (Did anyone who eventually became a writer like high school?) But football games were genuinely great. The community I felt on game days are some of my favorite memories.
We live in Little Rock, and while there’s no doubt my son has a strong community surrounding him, there’s not a singular high school on which to focus the town’s energy. The community’s loyalty is fractured, sometimes painfully so. I just assumed that Friday Night Football was not going to be the same for him.
This fall my son entered his freshman year at Hall STEAM Magnet High School. He badly wanted to play football, so he began workouts with the team over the summer. Much to my surprise and delight, he took practice quite seriously. This child of mine who typically needs dynamite to get him out of bed woke up on his own all summer for practice. We live just blocks from the school, so he left on foot far too early to be sure he was never late. After months of isolation and virtual learning, he was finally vaccinated and deeply immersed in contact, both human and sport. For him, it was like getting shot out of a cannon back into a life outside the four walls of our home.
For me, it was a shot in the arm almost as hopeful as my own vaccine. Finally, after so many months of wretchedness in the world: sickness, unrest, impossible parental decisions, where everything felt like a no-win situation, something good was happening in my little family. My son was happy.
I threw myself into the spirit of things. The dominant school color is orange. The Internet offered bold sartorial choices. I made them all. I even found an orange sequin skirt, which has the effect of making me look like what one mom called a “cussing disco ball coming atcha!” after I lost my temper over a bad call. (What do you want from me? I’m a girl from Russellville. Bad calls are met with bad words.)
In short, I became in my pocket of Little Rock the self-appointed, totally unofficial hypeman for Hall High.
In some ways, Hall High could use a hypeman. There was a time it was a premier high school in Little Rock. For reasons that are political and decisions too old and complicated to rehash, the school fell from its former glory. It’s been the punching bag for everyone who wanted to make a cheap point about public schools in this city for several years. Some of those problems are serious and needed to be addressed. And also, all that time, amazing things were happening inside that building. But that rarely made it into rants about hell and handbaskets.
Over the past three years, big changes have come to Hall. Much of that culminated in the spring, when the district’s first elected school board in more than six years voted to create what is essentially a STEM academy within the district, making Forest Heights STEM Elementary and Middle School the feeder schools for Hall High STEAM High School. My son’s class will be the first to go all four years of high school in the new system. The plans are in place for such positive things going forward.
But more than the school needed a hypeman, I needed something to cheer for. It’s been hard the past 10 years to see our neighborhood school treated like a stepchild in the district. The shenanigans at Arkansas State Board of Education refusing to release our district from state control in a timely manner were beyond infuriating. And the stress of living under the fog of global pandemic took the same anxious toll on me that it did everyone else.
I needed something to root for. And I found it this fall in a scrappy group of players, coached by experienced football leaders.
In a quiet room at the front of the school building staffed by two Hall High alumni from the 1960s, there are three spiral bound notebooks, each about 4 inches thick, with the stats of every Hall High football team since the 1950s. In them are photos and newspaper clippings detailing the rise and fall of the Hall High Warrior football team. The last winning season was 1993. That’s a lot of disappointment and frustration packed into an underfunded program, starved from neglect over nearly three decades.
Then this year. These coaches. These players. These parents.
Head Coach Jim Withrow decided to try something different. With the change in school structure, coupled with the opening of a new high school in the southwest part of the city, enrollment dropped. And what could have seemed like a fatal blow was the opening for the idea: 8-man football. A smaller team, with dedicated players, and these guys would learn a culture of winning.
This is one of those ideas that after it’s over seems genius, but when you first say it out loud, it sounds a little like admitting defeat to some people. There’s a gamble on the road less traveled. This one paid off.
First thing the Warriors did was win five games in a row. When I say folks were losing their minds, they were so happy, I mean the football mamas. We were screaming our fool heads off, cheering and hollering for this team. In the stands, each Friday night, our family found a little community of football families. Most of them parents of upperclassmen, dedicated to this team, this school and what is being built here. Every one of them are as proud of their sons as you are of yours, for all the same righteous reasons. All of them having heard every rant politicians and pundits have made at the school’s expense.
Let me tell you, there’s a special joy in watching play after play come together, just like it was drawn up and practiced. Especially after years of things never quite breaking your way. As the wins kept coming, so did some more members of the community: school board members, neighbors, alumni came to see the mighty Warriors do what no one had for far too long.
We’re one of the new families. We’ve got a freshman athlete, an overly excitable mom high on the fumes of winning season and a dad trying to keep her from rotating off her axis. We were treated like old friends. They accepted us into their football family. Other mamas gave my son rides home from practice. Don’t try to tell them he has perfectly healthy legs and can walk the short distance, they don’t listen. They love that kid more than I had any right to expect.
As a freshman, my son mostly played junior varsity, so our family can’t really take credit for all these victories. But he did make it into four plays in varsity games, earning one tackle. I intend to talk about that tackle until next August, so you should probably avoid me at the grocery store.
Eventually, the winning streak came to an end. Injuries pilled up. And unless you’re the champ, your last game ends in a loss. And the Hall High Warriors ended their season in the semi-finals.
The 6-3 record for the year is the first winning one in 28 years. And now these players. These coaches. This school is in positive yardage for the first time in a long time. The plan, as enrollment increases, is to move back to 11-man ball, to build on this foundation.
I was worried that raising my son in Little Rock would mean he wouldn’t have the same community I did. And he doesn’t. His is different. In many ways, it’s better. People aren’t here because it’s the only game in town. Everyone in that locker room, on the field and in the stands made the choice to be there. They decided this is place they want their kids to learn, grow and play. This is where they will learn how to win and lose together as a team.
I badly wanted just a couple of more wins this year. I wanted rings for those players and coaches. I wanted them to be the ones everyone called state champs for the next year. That wasn’t in the cards this year. But it will be at some point. I’d put money on it.
I take it as an omen that after previous failed attempts, just last week, the voters of the Little Rock School District passed an extension on the millage for public schools. The funds will go to schools across the district. Part of it will go to Hall for engineering labs.
It takes all of us to build a community: loyalists, grinders, gamblers, playmakers and hypemen. Everybody here at Hall has a role to play. We’ve got one for you too.
Sequins are not required.
Editor’s note: Kerri Jackson Case is a freelance journalist who lives in Little Rock with here husband, son, and two bratty dogs. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.