By MICHAEL GOODWIN
NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
High school football is all the rage. Teams are ranked nationally like college and professional ones. ESPN and Fox Sports Net are televising games across the country and more teams are traveling for out-of-state games. McDonald's and Nike are among the corporate sponsors. Then there's "Friday Night Lights," an NBC prime-time show about a Texas team that spins out of the book and film of the same name.
At the risk of being the skunk at the garden party, I say the rage is madness. This explosion of big-time interest is pure exploitation and it is not a good thing for the players and the schools -- unless you think it's progress when 17-year-olds are signing autographs and need security escorts! The outsized attention is robbing the cradle to feed our culture's craving for the next new young thing.
The seedy glorification is turning a character-building ritual into another disposable commodity. And it is bringing out the worst in some adults.
An MTV show called "Two-A-Days" follows a real high school football team in Hoover, Ala. As one report described it, the coach, in a pep talk before a televised game, said, "I got my one shot, my one shot in life, to be on ESPN."
Give me a break, and count me out. But not because of a lack of interest. Exactly the opposite. I played high school football and enjoyed its greatest benefits. That's why I don't want this treasure to fall victim to the greedy side of amateur sports and ambitious coaches.
My experience was pristine by comparison. Forty years ago, I was part of a championship team in little Lewistown, Pa. Our success and my play as center helped lead to a scholarship to Columbia University, and my education there set me on course for my career. So I am grateful for that experience and a firm believer in the cliche that football teaches lessons for life.
Last week I learned I was not alone. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of our championship, members of our team gathered on a chilly Friday night at the site of our glory days, a modest, 80-year-old field in central Pennsylvania. Our '66 team walked onto the field, where we were introduced and our victories recounted. I was particularly proud because I can still fit into my championship jacket!
But the real thrills came later when our team gathered in a hotel room and, over snacks and drinks, relived the glory days. We laughed about the brutal practices -- probably child abuse by today's standards -- and swapped anecdotes. But this was more than jock talk. Our head coach, Robert Bohn, a former Marine who had gone on to get a doctorate and become school superintendent, set the tone by talking about those who had become doctors, dentists, teachers and just plain good citizens. "Education comes first" was his mantra then and now. He kept calling us "you boys," a compliment to us graybeards and mystifying to our wives.
The point was clear. We achieved success because we were dedicated and worked hard. We were temporary big shots in a small town, but that meant nothing when we went to college or the job market. All we had then was what we had inside. As one teammate put it, "The values we learned are what I remember most."
Values. A happy life requires good ones and high school football can help forge them. But turning that experience into gaudy entertainment and teenagers into celebrities ruins everything. That's what big business and television are doing to high school football.
Michael Goodwin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Daily News. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.