As the late summer heat bleeds into the early days of fall, a ritual begins before the sun breaks over the horizon. It’s one well known to the residents of small towns all over Arkansas, from the principal who organizes the pep rally to the mother who makes sure her son has had plenty to eat before he climbs into his pickup and heads to pregame warm-ups. A community-wide devotion takes hold both in the banners draped across lockers and the handwritten signs plastered to the windows of storefronts, their prevalence dictated by the track record of the team and the likelihood of a win.
And then, as the day begins to wane, the sky goes golden and the lights go on.
From all across town, the population condenses, converging on the stadium as the rivals’ buses and cars arrive, everyone trickling through the gates and queuing up for concessions. The bleachers fill, and the pressure begins to build as the air grows cool.
It’s the sort of scene that could be true of any Friday-night game anywhere across the state—the sort that I saw as I trekked near and far to watch these games play out on the home turf this past fall—but in this case, it’s the scene that I find on a cool night in Hector. On this night, mist settles into the valley, and a loudspeaker sends the ominous sound of AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells” pinging off the surrounding hills. The Wildcats, almost 50-strong, charge through the tunnel, bursting through the poster paper and past the line of fans, spilling out as the crowd is whipped into a frenzy. Chills run down my spine as I feel the electricity in the air, imagining what it must be like looking out from their visors, the weight of shoulder pads and the expectation of the masses heavy on their shoulders. Or perhaps to be strapped into the cleats of the Decatur Bulldogs, their backs to a nearly empty fan section, and the odds stacked against them.
As the play-by-play man announces “another Wildcat FIRST DOWN!” I absorb the atmosphere from the bleachers. I’m transported back to my youth in a small town much like this one. Back then, I didn’t care as much about what happened on the field below. I was more interested in what was happening around me—horsing around with my friends, flirting with the girl from the flute section or eating nachos drenched in greasy chili and primary-yellow cheese product. As was the case when I was a boy, the cheerleaders and band members, the business owners and the church pastors are all here. Then, as now, in the thousand-watt glow casting long shadows under the bleachers, friends and families gather to cheer on their native sons, who suffer bruises and broken hearts with nothing to gain but bragging rights.
And then, just as now, there wasn’t much in the way of options, but we had this, and it was enough.