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Red, white and pigskin

10/28/2004
    "The team left the dressing room and gathered behind a huge banner that had been painstakingly made by the cheerleaders. ... The fans couldn't see the players yet, but they could hear them bellowing behind the banner and they could see their arms and knees and helmets push against it and make it stretch. The buildup was infectious, making one's heart beat faster and faster. Suddenly, like a gigantic present coming unwrapped, the players burst through the sign, ripping it to shreds, little pieces of it floating into the air. They poured out in a steady stream, and the crowd rose to its feet.

    "The stillness was ruptured by a thousand different sounds smashing into each other in wonderful chaos - deep-throated yells, violent exhortations, giddy screams, hoarse whoops. The people in the stands lost all sight of who they were and what they were supposed to be like, all dignity and restraint thrown aside because of these … boys in front of them, their boys, their heroes, upon whom they rested all their vicarious thrills, all their dreams."

    -- Author H.G. Bissinger, describing the Permian High School Panthers taking the field in "Friday Night Lights."

By Pat Forde
ESPN.com

Fourteen years before Billy Bob Thornton became Hollywood's coach of the Panthers, Buzz Bissinger wrote his transcendent book about a small town in West Texas and its obsessive embrace of the local high-school football team. The point of the book was that the setting could be, as Bissinger wrote, "anywhere in this vast land where, on a Friday night, a set of spindly stadium lights rises to the heavens to so powerfully, and so briefly, ignite the darkness."

So, too, could that scene be a metaphor for the entire sport of football - bursting through the banner every autumn weekend to America's cacophonous, joyous welcome. Those are our boys, playing our sport, and carrying our vicarious thrills and dreams with them. We're divided into tribes by geography and jersey color, but this nation loves football the way Odessa loves the Permian Panthers.

We love the gladiatorial violence that puts such a premium on the bravery of the combatants. We love the traditions that give football a century-plus of history that is rivaled only by baseball, its predecessor as the national pastime. We love the very plots of land where the games are played. Old college football stadiums are much more often refurbished where they stand than torn down, whereas Kentucky or North Carolina can leave old basketball cathedrals behind without major protest. And we love the laundry (heaven help the heretic who significantly alters the uniforms of the Packers, the Bears, Michigan or Alabama).

We love the game's urgency in the South, where the air is thick and the drawls are thicker, and the only things hotter than the tailgate barbecue sauce are the rivalries themselves. We love the speed and the passing and the always-green grass on the West Coast (the classic cheerleader sweaters at USC and UCLA are pretty cool, too). We love the cold-weather November games in the Midwest, where linemen crouched in three-point stances blow clouds of steaming breath at each other across a frozen scrimmage line.

Yet beyond the regional archetypes that help give the sport continuity, we also love football for its ability to adapt and modernize, nimbly keeping obsolescence at bay. The title of Bissinger's book still applies to high-school football, but like the Permian players breaking through the banner, the game has broken through the traditional constraints of the calendar. It has outgrown its weekend ritual.

By every indication, America has sufficient appetite for ingesting its favorite sport in ever-larger quantities. This is the land of conspicuous consumption, and that extends to football.

It has long been clear that a couple of hours at the stadium had become insufficient for the serious fan. Tailgating, fairly unique to football, evolved as a way to stretch the game-day experience from dawn until dusk. Then RVs arrived, making a three-hour game just part of a three-day stadium experience. Football met bacchanal and mated.

Meanwhile, the sport was becoming too big to be confined to Friday-Saturday-Sunday. Along came "Monday Night Football" to extend the weekend party, becoming a cultural institution along the way. Then colleges discovered Thursday nights, giving football carnivores a meaty alternative to the brie-and-chablis network offerings like "Friends" and "ER."

And now, in the last couple of years, the game has spilled out all over the week. The ultimate television sport has fulfilled the medium's bottomless need for programming, while giving national exposure to college programs that couldn't crack the Saturday broadcast schedule.

Like that, "Friday Night Lights" has become "Every Night Lights."

That will literally be true over the next 19 days.

Starting today in Atlanta, where Georgia Tech hosts Virginia Tech, and ending Nov. 15, when the Philadelphia Eagles visit the Dallas Cowboys, ABC and ESPN will combine to administer a daily feeding to the nation's gridiron monster: 13 days of college ball, six days of NFL games.

On Halloween night, on Election Night, football will be played. Whenever the sun sets between now and mid-November, stadium lights will be igniting the darkness somewhere in America.

Thus it appears that Hank Jr.'s, longstanding Monday proposition to the nation is in need of an upgrade. The question is not, "Are you ready for some football?" Today it is, "Are you ready for 19 straight days of football?"

We are at ESPN.com. Join us for our Football in America Tour.

From the blue turf of Boise to the great indoors of Indianapolis, from Fresno to Foxboro, we'll be there for every snap. Fellow ESPN.com writer Wayne Drehs and I will tag-team the games for 19 nights - not just to tell you who won and who lost, but to bring you snapshots of a sport that has become so tightly interwoven with our national culture.

We'll take notes from the sensory feast that is a football game, from coin flips to corn chips, then tell you what we saw, heard, smelled, touched and tasted. We'll hit the pregame tailgates, the halftime shows and the postgame press conferences. We'll tell you how each stadium experience is different and how they're alike, from the luxury suites to the cheap seats.

And hopefully we'll tell you how, when strung together, these games connect us to the sport from coast to coast in a sparkling continuum, one set of stadium lights at a time.

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