Friday Night in Sunset
By: S. Daniel Smith
A Sunset Short
You could smell the popcorn from our car, and that was saying a lot. I say that because “The Sunsetter” concession stands were competing with a couple hundred cigarettes smoldering like chimneys all along the path from one of the several parking lots to the sports complex. A 4A school in a town of roughly 8,500 residents, counting the local farmers and closed down communities, Sunset nonetheless boasted one of the nicer stadiums in the state. We called it, “The Sunsetter.” You know…because we set the sun on other teams…hey, we try!
The grandstand, first built in the 1970s and updated after our Kansas State championship run in the late ‘90s, rose like a rock mountain out of the southeast corner of town, across “F” street from the high school. Our colors, black and yellow, decorated the stadium stanchions that rose from the base up to the press box on the very top. At the base of the left and right stanchions were entrance gates to the stadium complex that ran into the middle of the grandstand itself. I couldn’t quite see them from where we were in the parking lot, but I knew from countless visits that several old locals, mostly boosters who had been someone back when they played, or had sons playing now, would be waiting to take our money.
As Marcy and me…yes, I made my 13-year-old daughter come with me…made our way to the entry gate, I pulled out a ten-dollar bill. The nice thing about small town football in Kansas was that it never cost all that much to get into a game. Basketball was a couple bucks and track and field was free.
A lot of our townsfolk were humble farmers or tradesmen. They didn’t bring a lot to the table and no one wanted a parent turned away because the cost was too much. Bill had once told me that, if someone approached and really couldn’t afford the cost, that they were to be allowed in anyway. I was just a humble retired Navy man, but my pension allowed me enough to not test the ticket takers.
We joined the growing throng of people headed toward the sports complex and finally the smell of popcorn lost out to the smell of the cigarettes. You couldn’t smoke in the grandstand thanks to a rule passed a few years back, so everyone was getting their last one in until halftime. Then they’d all rush the corners of the stadium to one of the several smoking pits to get their nicotine fix before the second half.
I put my right arm around Marcy’s shoulders. She quickly shuddered it off. In recent years, she had wanted less physical contact. I knew it was bound to happen, but it made me sad. I guess I used physical touch as a game now in order to keep from admitting that my diamond was growing up and didn’t want me as much anymore. Someday some punk would be the one touching her. I tossed that thought from my mind and tried to remember why I was there…to enjoy a good game with my daughter.
I playfully shoved her left shoulder and she lost her balance. “Grrr!” she said in a very girly way. She was suppressing a smile though, so I counted it a victory.
We approached the gate and I saw that Bill Summers was in the crowd ahead of me. Next to him and slightly behind was his wife Tiffany. None of their other kids were there, so I assumed they’d stayed with his folks that night. Every couple should be able to enjoy some time together. Their son Johnny, a standout sophomore, was starting his first game at weak side linebacker. Bill gave some money to Diane Wilson. Her son had played several years back and now coached at a small Southeast Kansas school. Bill and Tiffany took a couple of compliments from Diane about how well Johnny seemed to be doing.
“Well, now he’s starting, so we’ll see if he can keep it together,” I heard Bill say in false humility.
“He’s done great with every opportunity so far,” Diane said. “I’m sure he’ll do fine.” Then, to the next person in line, she said, “How many? Three? One kid? That’ll be twelve dollars. Yes, I have change.”
Bill and I took our families to the same small church on 3rdStreet in Sunset, so I’d known them since I retired from the Navy and moved to Sunset. We’d grown up in the same town, Bill and I, Tiffany too, but I hadn’t known them in my school years before the Navy. In my heart, I hoped that their son Johnny would become a force on the team, both as a player and as a Christian. Maybe even as an option for Marcy someday. I quickly rejected that thought though; way too early to think about her future like that. I did hope, however, that he could at least protect her as she entered high school next fall. My little diamond may be growing up, but I was in no hurry to see her do so and the idea of some high school bandit ushering her into adulthood made me sick inside.
Finally, it was our turn at the gate. I gave Diane a ten-dollar bill. She smiled, handed us a couple of tickets, and welcomed us to the game. Marcy and I headed up the small inclined cement tunnel to the seats.
As soon as we cleared the ramp, my senses were immediately inundated with the smell of fresh turf. Unlike some of the bigger and richer towns, which had gone to artificial turf, we kept our dirt as black as the good Kansas farmland that surrounded our town. The grass was lush, green, and perfectly groomed for homecoming night. I closed my eyes momentarily and remembered what it was like to come out of the locker room so many years ago and onto that same green field.
“Come on, dad!” shouted Marcy as she turned left and ran off to find friends. Opening my eyes, I smiled and followed her, finding a seat not far from Bill and Tiffany Summers. At least Marcy’s friends didn’t sit in an area that put me near total strangers.
As it was homecoming night, we got a taste of the frenzy which was small town pageantry. Four sleek convertibles, tops down, representing four different dealerships in town and driven by high school seniors, paraded into the stadium. The lead car turned slightly onto the track and drove counter-clockwise toward the home crowd. The freshman girl, barely older than Marcy, was announced over the loudspeakers as she was paraded past us to the far end of the stadium.
I looked at Marcy to gauge her interest. Not overly, but I noticed a spark. That spark grew into a small flame as each girl was introduced and culminated in a look of awe spreading across her face when the senior was announced. The crowd was as enamored with the girl as Marcy…more so if the shouts and screams were any indication. I’d read about the four candidates that morning in the paper.
“She’s pretty,” I said to Marcy.
Blushing, she said, “Yeah…guess so. Not my thing though.”
“You don’t want to be homecoming queen someday?” I asked.
“Shut up, dad. It’s not something dads and daughters talk about.”
“Oh, I see.”
I read in the paper that the homecoming queen was applying for the University of Kansas and Harvard. Pretty different schools. I wondered how her parents would afford either. More dad worries…
The cars drove off with the girls smiling and waving to the crowd as they left.
Then the loudspeakers crackled to life as the convertibles drove out of the stadium. The steady thump of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Iron Man” began to reverberate throughout the stands. The 2018 Sunset Buffaloes erupted out of the locker room and trotted confidently to the field as the Ozzy sang, “Has…he…lost his mind…Can he see or is he blind?” The sound quality was as expected. It was loud, a little tinny, and oh my heavens so amazing.
Out the boys trotted with whoops and hollers in their all black home uniforms with yellow trim and yellow “Buffaloes” above the yellow numbers. I felt my heart slam against my sternum in anticipation.
“Dad,” said Marcy, suddenly next to me.
I couldn’t hide the smile if I wanted to. I was like a kid again. “Yeah?”
“Can I have some money? We’re going to get candy and pop.”
Yes, my diamond, you can have some money.“Get me a coffee and popcorn too,” I told her as I handed her a twenty-dollar bill. That’s where they get you of course. Doesn’t cost too much to get into the game, but wow does it cost you a lot to stay there!
“Ugh, Dad…fine. I’ll be back.”
“Don’t forget the sugar and cream!” I called after her. She hollered something back, but I didn’t catch it.
Tiffany Summers must have heard me because she turned around, smiled sweetly, and gave a little wave. Then Bill turned slightly and yelled, “Hey, Tom!”
“Hey!” I shouted back. “Nice night for his first start!”
Bill got up and climbed over a few stands and then shuffled over to me, taking a seat next to me. He said, “Not sure why the football gods thought that our homecoming needed the Pittsburg Purple Dragons, but yeah, it’s a great night for the game.”
As if on cue, we both turned our attention to see the Purple Dragons, in their white traveling uniforms with purple numbers and stripes enter the stadium to cheers from their faithful boosters and family members across the field in the visitor’s stands.
“Didn’t go so well for us a few years ago,” I remarked.
“They’re tough,” he said in agreement.
Pittsburg was a 4A school in Southeast Kansas that regularly beat up smaller towns, but also regularly had trouble with larger schools like Carl Junction in Missouri and Paola up near Kansas City. Sunset hadn’t provided anything close to competition when we last met a few years ago. The Purple Dragons destroyed us in Pittsburg 56 to 10 in that meeting.
Warm-ups were done, however, and the captains met at the center of the field as Marcy returned with my popcorn and coffee. Guess we were about to find out if we were better competition now.
Bill bid me adieu and rejoined his very nervous wife. I could see Tiffany’s legs bouncing with anticipation. I’m sure she’d already gone through all possible ways for Johnny to get hurt in this game in her head and Pittsburg’s size probably grounded that idea in further.
“Just sugar, dad,” Marcy reported dutifully.
“Ok,” I said. I noticed she didn’t seem eager to give me back my change, but I let it go. “Where are you going to sit?”
“With you,” she said.
“Not your friends?”
“Meghan might come over in a little bit,” she said.
I nodded my understanding as the referee said, “The home team has won the toss and elects to defer to the second half. The visiting team has elected to receive and will defend the east end zone.” The players sided up, with the Pittsburg captains standing on the east side of the 50-yard line and our Buffaloes standing on the west. Our kickoff team trotted onto the field. I hoped they weren’t as intimidated by Pittsburg as I was in my heart.
We stood for the anthem. Once complete, the Sunset Buffaloes High School Band played a steady march on the drums until the kicker, a junior from the poorer south side of town near the high school, hopped, skipped, and booted the football down the center right of the field, over the first two layers of Pittsburg defenses into the waiting hands of their star returner.
The Purple Dragons set up a perfect return down the far side of the field. Rushing by their stands of cheering fans, the returner raced, weaved, and danced through the bodies to our end zone. Just like that, and it was Pittsburg 6, Sunset 0. Add one point to Pittsburg’s total with the Point After Touchdown (PAT). Bill Summers and I shared a mutual shrug. The good news was that it couldn’t be Johnny’s fault we lost if he never got in the game.
We got the ball back and started near our 30-yard line. Three plays later and eight yards closer to their end zone, we had to punt. Pittsburg scored again on a long drive. I was getting nervous, and I had no vested interest in the game. I couldn’t imagine what Bill and Tiffany were thinking at the time.
Halftime came, thankfully, giving our very beat up defense a break. Offense managed to get the ball far enough down the field for a field goal with about five minutes left in the half, but that was it. We went into the locker room down 17 to 3. That Pittsburg had only scored 17 points, despite completely manhandling our boys, was a testament to the defense bending but not completely breaking. I managed to catch a glimpse of Johnny as he and DeShaun Taylor, the all-conference junior strong-side linebacker, ran off the field. Johnny was visibly beat up. I think he had a tackle to his credit in the first half…not what you want from a starting linebacker.
During halftime, Marcy convinced me to give up some more money in exchange for more coffee. I accepted, and then stood up to stretch my legs as the band played a marching theme in between the 30-yard lines.
I nodded to Bill and he grimaced. I shrugged my shoulders in return and made my way to where he and Tiffany were standing at their seats.
“Well,” I said, “I think they had us down almost twice this much the last time we played. That has to count for something.”
“I just don’t like how they’ve given up,” Bill remarked. “Johnny is whipped. I don’t like seeing that in my son.”
“Well, it’s his first start,” I said.
“But not his first playing time,” Bill argued. “He’s replacing a senior who should be starting tonight by rights. If someone’s getting benched, it had better be for a good reason. Right now, it’s not a good reason.”
I thought about that for a moment. Bill was right in a way. Johnny had replaced a senior named Paul Wilson, not related to the ticket taker. He had a broken right pinky from our first game against Shawnee Mission East, a blowout victory for them, but I was pretty sure the coaching staff used that injury as an excuse to pull him. Otherwise, it was difficult to explain why they had kept him playing taped up the two previous games. Seemed that they did that to let Johnny get some experience before making the move for good.
“Guess you’re right,” I finally said. “Well, we play two halves for a reason. Let’s hope for a better second half.”
The band began to march off the field as the two teams started trotting back out for post-half-time warm-up. Marcy, with her friend Meghan now in tow, rejoined me as the mass of home team supporters took their seats. I sipped my coffee and thought about when to leave if things got too bad. Maybe two more scores by Pittsburg, and I’d collect Marcy and head home.
The Buffaloes surprised me, though. Our isolation game began to pick up a little and slowly, but surely, we matriculated the ball down the field, to use the words of the revered Hank Stramm. Score: 17-10.
Pittsburg tried everything, but we managed to keep them in check. Paul Wilson was back at weak side linebacker now, while Johnny bounced on the balls of his feet on the sidelines. Paul quickly gathered up three or four tackles and successfully defended a short out route. Why Johnny had ever replaced him was beyond me.
And then I realized why. While Paul was clearly a gifted linebacker, he wasn’t that big. When the Purple Dragons fullback literally steamrolled him, he didn’t get up. Play stopped while our medical team rushed out onto the field. Coach Bronson paced nervously while Johnny Summers trotted out to the field to retake his starting position.
Paul got up slowly with the help of some student trainers but stumbled again on the way to the sidelines. Obviously concussed, he was done for the night. In my day, they would have given him some water, a Motrin for the headache, and sent him out in the next series. Glad that wasn’t the case anymore.
The same Purple Dragon ran over Johnny on the next play. Thankfully, he got up, but I saw Tiffany and Marcy respond exactly the same way from their respective seats. While waiting on him to get up, both had their hands covering their mouths in a mix between disbelief and worry. This did not sit well with me, but in a way, I was also pleased. Being a father is rough when one’s daughter is blooming.
Johnny got up, and even got a tackle on the next play. Unfortunately, their recent success with running the ball sucked us in and the quarterback ran a sweet play-action deception and tossed the ball deep down our sideline…into the waiting hands of a white and purple wide receiver who was at least ten yards ahead of his very burned black and yellow defensive back. Score: 24-10. I was close to leaving. In fact, if it weren’t for Marcy’s previous response to Johnny’s situation, I probably would have.
Throughout most of the remainder of quarter three, we held them in check and even put up another touchdown, bringing us back to a touchdown away from tying them. Score: 24-17. Ok, I was sold…we were staying for the whole game.
We tacked on another field goal half way through the last quarter, but Pittsburg was getting the ball again and only needed to run out the clock to win and send our boys to a very disappointing homecoming dance. Score with just over five minutes remaining: 24-20.
Pittsburg got the ball at the 24-yard line after a pretty good kickoff. Before taking the field, Coach Bronson yanked on Johnny’s left shoulder pad and hollered for DeShaun Taylor. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but it was very heated. I think Johnny grew up a lot just then.
Pittsburg was running the ball, obviously, and that allowed us to put eight in the box with a 4-4-defense offset to the strong side. They tried a few isolation plays and then got a first down by running a strong side option read that got their senior running back six yards before Johnny sideswiped him. Less than three minutes now and Pittsburg was clearly content to run the clock out. Coach Bronson called timeout after Pittsburg failed to get more than a few yards on the next play. He talked to his two inside linebackers again while the rest of the team got a breather.
Rather, I should say, he talked at his two inside backers.
Another play, this time a sweep the outside, stopped by a combination of our defensive end and corner. Another timeout. Just over two minutes left on the clock. It was 3rdand seven to go. They’d have to throw it.
Coach Bronson gambled and sent the farm. Johnny followed the right defensive tackle through the gap he created and chased the quarterback as he rolled out after faking an isolation play to the strong side. Then I got to see how big and fast Johnny was. He quickly outran the defensive lineman, who got swallowed up by the fullback. The QB, still on the move, pulled the ball down and decided to run, hoping to sweep outside of Johnny’s grasp and get to the sideline to make a run for it.
Johnny Summers was having nothing of it. He caught the quarterback and jerked him around, throwing him off balance into the waiting arms of DeShaun Taylor. The QB crumpled under the strong side backer’s power and…
…Dropped the ball!
Johnny picked it up and took off down the sideline. Most of Pittsburg’s offense was stuck in the mess our boys had created in the middle. He only had to beat the wide receiver coming from the opposite side of the field.
“Go!” I heard Bill shout as he started jumping. Tiffany and Marcy and Meghan and even I started bouncing on my toes. The entire grandstands erupted into one big shout that reverberated through the whole town as we urged Johnny on while the seconds ticked away on the scoreboard.
Johnny was fast, but not faster than a wide receiver in dead sprint. The Purple Dragon caught him at the 22-yard line. A field goal wouldn’t win the game anyway, but thankfully, he’d gotten us close enough to give our offense something to work with in the 95 seconds remaining.
Something about that last defensive stand both broke the Purple Dragons and ignited a fire in the Sunset offense. The lack of timeouts meant nothing. The next two plays were quick passes to the short side of the field, one of which stopped the clock when the receiver stepped out of bounds. We were 40 seconds away from the end of the game and sitting on Pittsburg’s 11-yard line. The next play was a pass that connected with our wideout running a drag route. Pittsburg’s free safety came up for what should have been a solid hit, but he whiffed. The receiver scored by walking into the end zone with 28 seconds to play.
Coach Bronson went for two, and we failed, but that was just to keep Pittsburg from tying with a field goal. Score: 24 to 26 in our favor!
Our kicker got a burst of wind from his back and booted the ball down to the five-yard line. Pittsburg’s star returner managed to get it back to the 18 before being tackled. So far, so good. They had 24 seconds. For almost all of them, my diamond was locked on to the form of Johnny Summers as he held down the weak side of the defense.
A few plays later, with 12 seconds remaining, Pittsburg at their 41-yard line, the QB found a tight end open over the middle. Without any other options, he dumped it off to his comrade only to have Johnny crush the boy with a jarring hit to the back shoulder. The ball came out of the kid’s hands and skittered across the ground. The refs officially ruled it an incomplete pass, but clock stoppage was coming anyway while the other team’s trainers peeled their tight end off of our grass. Johnny found his dad in the crowd and beamed through his facemask. Bill looked on in quiet, proud admiration.
That hit ended Pittsburg’s attempt at winning the game. The remainder of the time ran down on the next two plays, both incomplete deep passes. It was almost anti-climactic in a way. Marcy, however, didn’t see it like that. She was jumping up and down with Meghan and hollering to her church friend Johnny.
We made our way down to the field with the rest of the crowd as time expired. I gathered Marcy and we walked behind Bill and Tiffany. I knew Marcy wanted to see Johnny, and so did I since he was the only player I knew personally.
“Good game, son!” shouted Bill as he pounded on Johnny’s shoulder pads. Johnny leaned down and his mom gave him a big kiss on the cheek. Marcy was suddenly frozen in place.
I stepped forward, dragging her gently by the arm, and stuck out my right hand. “Nice game, Johnny. You handled it really well.”
“Thanks,” he said. “Mr. Reynolds.”
Bill had brought his boy up right as far as I could see. Maybe there was something there. Maybe not. The future would tell. But I was happy that day for Johnny and for Bill and Tiffany. I doubted I’d ever have that level of notoriety in Sunset, but I was content to let them have it.
As we turned to leave, I heard Johnny say, “Marcy!”
Marcy turned her body and smiled. “Hi.” Her face was beet red.
“Thanks for coming.”
Inauspicious beginning I suppose. I saw Johnny wink, and then that sick feeling came back again.
Don’t miss another Sunset update! Sign up HERE to get the monthly newsletter!
To learn more about the characters of the story, visit the following links: