ASHLAND - On Friday, the faithful, about 1,000 in all, sat on the stadium’s stainless steel bleachers, and others flowed over to the ones made of rotting wood.
Dressed in school colors for the Southern Boone Eagles’ first football homecoming, many wore black caps, red sweatshirts, black-and-red beads and face paint. A few upperclassmen known around school as “the cowboys” wore no shirts.
Ashland isn’t a town that appreciates change. People like things the way they are. Families who leave Ashland tend to return. Parents send their kids to the school where many of them also went. Some attended college and graduated; others did not; a few never went.
People work in service, government and university jobs. They live outside of town on their land under the stars in the big, open sky that’s good for dreaming. Nearly everyone is white, though diversity isn’t something most people think about. People think about God and sports. Weekends are devoted to worshipping the two. It’s that simple.
Outside, the October night was flatly cool. Chilly winds shook autumn leaves from their branches and reddened noses of the fans. The crowd teemed with excitement, even though the Eagles were playing against the St. James Tigers on their way to a disheartening 41-0 loss.
“Some people didn’t want football,” said Eric Pence, the school’s booster club president. “They said, ‘This is a basketball town.’ They didn’t want football to hurt other sports, but it’s the only sport we have that’s brought together the community and kids like this.”
Whoever said Ashland is a basketball town is fast becoming a silent minority. The community, with nearly half of the town’s population coming out to the games, is captivated by the glare of the Friday night lights. They’re buying tickets, hamburgers and black-and-red Southern Boone Eagles gear.
Pence said the booster club, which gives its net gross after expenses back to the school, has raised $7,000 on the football program so far. By the end of the season, it is hoping to hit $10,000 — that’s more than double what it raised last year at the junior varsity games.
Southern Boone’s inaugural varsity football season has brought many changes and new traditions to the sports program. But this is a change the community
doesn’t seem to mind. After all, some fathers have waited for football to come to Ashland for nearly three decades. Now, they live the sport vicariously through their children.
Last year, homecoming was a basketball tradition. Students such as senior Shawn Sapp said basketball homecoming just didn’t compare with Friday night football. People did not get nearly as excited, and everyone was required to keep his shirt on. This year, everything changed.
Borrowing a custom he had seen at MU football games, Sapp took off his shirt and painted his chest with a black letter E. His friends soon followed, and for the next three hours, they huddled together bare-chested, torsos spelling out E-A-G-L-E-S, as the temperature dipped to 40.
“We realized we were going to be cold, but not this cold,” Sapp said. “To support the team, we do whatever we can.”
Nearly all the students came out to support the team, including some who don’t usually attend sporting events. They chatted about the homecoming parade earlier that afternoon and the dance to take place Saturday night.
Earlier that afternoon, the first homecoming parade, an elaborate procession involving fire trucks, sport car convertibles and homemade floats, proceeded down East Broadway, the town’s two-lane road. Students from all grades stood along the sidewalk to watch the parade. Business owners and townspeople stopped work to wave and cheer.
The senior football players peered down from the top of a county fire truck as the town anointed them glorified heroes, the first ones to play varsity football. The women who work in the school lunchroom, mostly parents and volunteers, also dressed up for the event in sashes. Wearing paper and plastic crowns and holding spatulas and spoons, they piled in the back of a red pickup truck.
The five senior girls elected to the homecoming court rode on the back of convertibles, which student council borrowed from a car dealership and private owners. Jessica Norton who sat atop a silver BMW, would later be elected the homecoming queen Saturday evening. To most students, this wasn’t a surprise as she, a softball player, was the only school athlete on the court.
At the game, Cody Branch, a senior, wore his costume from the school festivities. Dressed as a caped superfan with painted black-and-red face and hair, Branch awoke at 6 a.m. and spent 30 minutes putting on the costume before school.
Homecoming gives teenagers such as Branch and Sapp the excuse to live outside the rules of social expectations, to take off their shirts or dye their hair.
That’s what makes these traditions so memorable and keeps people excited about football, even if the team doesn’t score.