Friday night lights.
More than a description of domes of luminescence piercing autumn evenings, those words describe the nostalgia, sense of community pride and raw amateurism displayed under those lamps at high school football fields across the land.
Under the lights, we are supposed to be out of reach from the perils of the real world, sheltered from the unrelenting realities that remind us of our own delicate mortality.
But on this Friday, the lights went out early in Clay County. For all in attendance, they may never burn as brightly again.
By all reports, the crowd at Clay County sat in stunned silence as medical workers worked vigorously to save the life of Roane County senior Alex Miller, who collapsed on the sideline at the end of the first quarter. Those were efforts that would ultimately be in vain.
The game was suspended until Saturday. On Saturday, it was suspended indefinitely.
The outpouring on Twitter and beyond from every corner of the state was immediate and sincere. We describe severe tragedies as unspeakable, yet they’re the ones we often speak on most.
Our words in these cases are chewing gum placed over holes in dam walls. But we offer them, because they’re all we have to give in situations that leave us helpless.
For those of us that didn’t know Miller personally, it’s that sense of helplessness that has left us most hollow. Those in the Roane County community have lost a classmate, a student … a son. For those outside of it, we have lost a sense of invulnerability, another sobering reminder that our next breath is not guaranteed, regardless of age, race or gender.
By all accounts, the silence that blanketed the stadium in Clay on Friday was intense, broken only by the whispers of prayers as paramedics worked to save Miller’s life.
Moments like that will likely fill high school stadiums around the state this Friday as we mourn the loss of a young man — of one of us. If anything, I hope we all gain perspective. I’d imagine that players all over the state will buckle their chinstraps on Friday night and give some thought to Miller and the fragility of life. Whether lacing up work boots, straightening Windsor knots or ironing a uniform this week, I hope you all do.
Roane County High School opened its doors on Saturday, welcoming in students, parents and those in the community. Counselors were on hand as the grieving process began in earnest.
The Raiders will wrap their arms around each other and the rest of us will wrap our arms around them in whatever way we can in the coming days, weeks and months. If any positive was to be taken from Friday, the overwhelming support shown across the board reiterates the unity sports can provide.
There’s a reason those Friday night lights bring us together long after our high school days are over. For those few hours, everyone in a school is pulling for the same cause, leaving behind a week’s worth of clique boundaries, academic challenges and the stresses of being a teenager. There’s beauty in that.
But it’s hard to find much beauty on this Saturday that’s a little darker than most.
Most weeks, those of us lucky enough to attend games every week talk about our takeaways, teams that surprised us, players that shone. This week, all that kind of talk seems hollow if not insignificant.
I knew in the wee hours of Saturday morning I wanted to say something, to offer my own perspective. Not knowing exactly what to say, I chose to sleep on it. It’s a luxury many in the Roane County community didn’t have Friday night.
Instead of trying to think of something that hasn’t already been said, however, I decided to retract something I said on Friday night. Covering a wild game between Huntington and George Washington, I tweeted that we’d seen it all as the Highlanders missed a potential game-tying extra point in the final minutes. Again, I was a prisoner of the moment and of my own hyperbole.
As news of Miller’s passing flooded social media after games ended Friday, I was reminded that I hadn’t seen it all. Not by a long shot.
Here’s to hoping I never do. Here’s to hoping we as a state never do … again.