ASHLAND — The road to Southern Boone’s football field runs through town, past the American Legion and community swimming pool, next to the high school, then into a parking lot with enough asphalt for a few hundred cars.
On Friday night, about 1,000 spectators, nearly half of Ashland’s population, rushed to Southern Boone County High School’s first varsity home game.
Traffic overflowed to gravel lots and neighborhoods, and some fans walked from home to see the Eagles’ first victory, 25-6 against Missouri Military Academy. Country music played over speakers, and before the game young boys rollicked in a pickup game of touch football in a nearby grassy clearing.
In many small American towns, and Ashland is no exception, football becomes a civic religion. It becomes the ultimate symbol of democracy and capitalism. The sport teaches individualism, teamwork, a strong work ethic and character building. Players might not come from families with great means, but excelling in tackling and throwing can bring college scholarships and pro football salaries.
“It’s an American tradition, football,” said Audrey Bill, 16, who wore a red-and-black trucker hat with “SBC,” the school’s initials, inscribed in marker across the front.
Jolted by caffeine, Bill and friends formed an impromptu cheering squad near the sidelines, where they screamed “Come on, Eagles!” and waved spirit sticks with extended arms.
American football is known for its grand scale, and the small town of Ashland showed a huge effort when it comes to its high school football. The town raised more than $300,000 for bleachers, goal posts, a press box, concession stand, scoreboards, uniforms, helmets, padding and training equipment.
Southern Boone also has a newly formed cheerleading squad and marching band. The cheerleaders, wearing new uniforms, shouted and kicked throughout the game. The marching band, decked in white-feathered plume hats and glittery red capes, played the national anthem and performed at halftime.
As Southern Boone grows, more students are getting involved in athletics, said Principal Johnny Thompson. Of the 400 students who attend the school, about half play sports. To accommodate the demand, the school has added several sports in the past few years, including soccer, cross country and volleyball.
None, though, has received the attention, fund-raising and community support of varsity football.
About 100 feet from the game field, a lonely soccer ball rested in the dirt. Its forgotten status on this historic night says a great deal. In Ashland, as across the United States, American football is “real football.”
Bill, one of several soccer players at the game, said soccer doesn’t come close to receiving the parental support and fund-raising efforts football does.
“Football is more fun to watch because there’s a lot more scoring,” said Ben Geller, 17, who plays defense on the school’s soccer team. “Whereas, in soccer, there is a lot more playing and a couple of scores. We don’t get to cheer as much.”
Eagle fans know the rules of football better than other sports. They like the tackles and the hands-on contact with the ball. At the game, they tailgated in the back of their pickup trucks and SUVs, on which they painted large-lettered cheers. And they bought hamburgers, cooked by hard-working volunteers, at the concession stand.
But for many students at Southern Boone, Friday night football means something to do. Before this season, their weekend social lives took place in gas station parking lots, Columbia fast-food restaurants and movie theaters and at other high schools’ sporting events, such as Rock Bridge.
Others followed Southern Boone’s fall baseball team, which played against schools without football teams. With the start of football, fall baseball has folded.
The tremendous community support, despite the players’ lack of experience, is even more telling of the importance of football as an American institution.
Likewise, for the players, inexperience hasn’t thwarted dreams of fame and fortune.
“Sometimes I picture myself catching a touchdown pass in college or the NFL,” said Jeremy Whiteside, 15, a wide receiver and defensive back who recently sprained his right anterior cruciate ligament during practice.
Based on the community’s large turnout for the first home game and the size of its donations, it’s clear Ashland too dreams of watching the Southern Boone Eagles play in the football big leagues.
And, for players such as Whiteside, that’s how football paves the way for American dreams.