Five years ago, I completed a writing project that still affects me. About this time every year, when football season starts up, the memories come flooding back.
In 2011, before I had this site, before I was on Twitter, before Homeschool Sex Machine, I decided to write about high school football. I didn’t want a typical story arc, though, so I embedded with a high school team that was facing a very difficult year. I researched the school’s history, talked to former players, went to practices and games, listened in on locker room speeches, sat with parents in the bleachers, and stood on the sidelines. I wrote several articles per week, which the statewide news site carried. Eventually the articles became a book that was sold locally, Ghosts in the Hills.
Even now, five years later, I struggle to describe how that season affected me. It was sobering, haunting, inspiring, and exhausting to watch. When I showed the book’s first draft to my father, who had no connection to anyone at the school, he cried.
I’m including some of my pictures from the season and an excerpt below. It’s not typical content for this site, but it’s what has been on my mind lately, so I wanted to share. The entire book is too long to post, but the Kindle version is only three bucks if you want to read the whole thing.
October 29th, 2004
Curry Yellow Jackets at Brewer Patriots
The sun had set behind the jagged hills. The entire valley had grown dark, except for the little strip of gridiron under the lights, where a small miracle was taking place.
The Brewer Patriots filed into the locker room. As was customary for halftime, the players arranged themselves into a horseshoe pattern, lining the benches and waiting for the coaches to follow them in and give the speech. It was game nine, and the season had been a long one. Brewer had been pummeled, routed off the field in every single contest. They had even scheduled down, using their three allotted non-region dates to line up games against teams one classification lower. But even the 4A teams beat them. The season’s numbers were cringe-inducing: Shutout losses to region foes Hartselle and Athens by 42 and 49, respectively. A 61-27 mauling at Muscle Shoals, which was coached by former SEC head coach Curley Hallman. Some of the losses could have been even worse, had the opposing coaches not taken their foot off the gas.
The Brewer coaches burst through the locker room door. They were bouncing and brimming with energy. Ecstatic. Outside, the bleachers were electric. Fans were on edge, standing in their rows. It had been four years since the Patriots had won a home game. In that span, Brewer was 1-37, including the current run of 21 straight losses that stretched all the way back to 2002. When the coaches swept into that room, burning with pride and flush with visions of glory, they couldn’t have imagined what would be waiting for them. The next few seconds must have played out like an eternity.
Sadness. Thick, covering the players, hanging on them like a layer of doom.
The coaches were baffled.
“What’s wrong with you guys?” the head coach barked.
Then the coaches saw it. Some of the players were crying. Seniors. The 18-year old veterans who had seen the most. The boys who had made the most road trips, faced the best teams and endured the most humiliating losses.
The coaches simply could not interpret this reaction in any way. The scoreboard on the other side of the locker room door said that the game was in reach. For once, for once, Brewer had a shot to win. In just a few moments the Patriots were going to pour out of the field house and run back on the battlefield, in front of their mothers and fathers and four years’ worth of ghosts. This was their chance. And here sat the troops, weeping.
“What’s wrong?” the head coach wondered aloud. “We’ve got a chance to go out there and win!”
Finally one of the seniors spoke. To this very day, in the hushed retellings of Brewer football history, his simple words are repeated like canon.
“We’ve never been in a close game before.” The boy said softly.
Silence. Utter, complete silence, save for the muffled sniffs of the overcome.
There were players in the locker room who had played their entire high school careers and never known anything but the twisting sickness of defeat. Perhaps some of them had already conceded, so late into their senior season, that they would never know what it felt like to win. Perhaps some of them had never conceded, and had stubbornly clung to the hope that a miracle would unfold.
And then for some, perhaps the tears were something different. Not sadness, and not joy, but a kind of release. Perhaps some of them were just pouring out the poison that had been beaten into them from so many defeats.
Brewer went on to win that night, 21-12. Then in the following week, the final game of the 2004 season, they won an overtime thriller against Fairview, 42-41. It seemed as though the long nightmare might be over. Surely this was momentum that would carry over into the next season. Maybe the Patriots wouldn’t be looked at as losers anymore. Maybe the playoffs were in reach.
To get to Brewer High School you have to drive into what Alabama folks sometimes call “the sticks.” The roads take you deep into Morgan County, past cars on cinder blocks and chickens pecking in gravel driveways. Past something called the Smokey Holler Café, which looks about the way it sounds.
Brewer High School is located at an intersection of country highways that do not appear to be going or coming from anywhere in particular. To the north are the mountains that separate the hill country from the outskirts of Huntsville. To the south and west are the rolling pastures and signless roads that eventually give way to Hartselle and Decatur and the more populated areas of the county. In the middle sits the school, a clustered compound of brick buildings. The campus is aging, corner worn and rusted in places, like the barns that keep watch over the neighboring fields.
The Brewer football complex is situated behind the campus, nestled in a nook between several small mountains. The field is forced into the space, with barely enough room for the visitor’s bleachers to sit on the hillside. The field gives the appearance that it was cut out of the mountain one yard at a time. Giant light structures rise high above the field and provide a glow that makes the games feel jarringly important.
People in the surrounding areas do not always regard the Patriots kindly. In my introductory research, more than a few local observers took their shots at the school. Some spoke of the Patriots as if the team was a black sheep, an embarrassment to the area. Best left alone in their mountain redoubt. Lost cause, people said. Dead end. Wasteland.
Making the playoffs in 5A, where Brewer has been classified for the last few years, is not terribly difficult. The top four teams in each of the eight-team regions are moved into the postseason bracket. In some cases, depending on how things fall, teams can sneak in without a winning record. In the cyclical movements of Alabama’s high school football landscape, random chance dictates that almost all of the teams will occasionally orbit into the postseason to get a taste of things. Brewer remains the sad exception. Going into 2011, the Patriots had never won a playoff game in their entire history. They had not been to the postseason at all in 13 years.
The students at Brewer like to joke that their football field is built on an Indian graveyard. It’s a joke, but then again it is not. A pall hangs over the football team. Home games frequently become quiet, the crowd lulled into a sort of collective depression. The school band plays songs that sound sad and lonesome. Few students come out on Friday nights to watch their own team. In a state that is football-crazed, where every child picks an allegiance to Alabama or Auburn, Brewer is a strange exception. It is a place where the football is sick.
In 2010 there was a chance. Patriot fans had waited for the 2010 team. They had watched as these boys grew together and took their lumps as they came up. The 2010 team was a once-in-a-long-time group, and the fans knew it. Top-heavy with seniors, the squad was a rare combination of talent and experience. Rare for these parts. The season started with promise, and in the quiet of the weekdays people started whispering about things like a 5-5 season and a playoff berth. Then the curse returned. As the season wore on, the games stayed close—tantalizingly close—but Brewer just could not break through. The spell of losing could not be undone. Another 2-8 year.
When the 2010 team fell back to earth it took something out of everyone. Assistant coaches and underclassmen quietly left the team at season’s end. Fans retreated further into their shells. Parents were angry, and some began to question the leadership of the team.
What remains on the 2011 roster does not look like much. There are only nine seniors on the team. Most of the 50 or so players are untested, and many are freshmen who will play primarily on the JV team. It is understood that what few good athletes who are left will have to play on both sides of the ball.
There are two veterans on the team who will serve as leaders, two seniors who have paid their dues over the years. The first is Josh Wilson, who is moving to quarterback this season. He is a quiet boy, lean and quick, who will also play running back and safety. The other is Mark Honeycutt. Mark is in most ways opposite: a stout, vocal boy whose deep voice steers the direction of the team. These two have weathered many campaigns at Brewer, and now it is their turn to lead the Patriots.
What follows is my adventure to share with you. It begins in August, on a practice field under the blistering Alabama heat, sweat running down the back of your neck and bees swarming around your ankles. It ends in October, on a bitterly cold night on a field in Priceville, your breath coming out like puffs of steam as the cruel black sky showers you with sleet. In the three months between, an underdog team from the middle of nowhere crisscrossed the state, trying to claw victory out of the red Alabama clay.
The story is not familiar. There is no commercial appeal, no recognizable plot arc that recalls the football movies we have seen. There are no Hollywood miracles, no third act with a mysterious loner who arrives to rescue the team. The Brewer Patriots’ 2011 season was about survival, about a shrinking circle of brothers who locked arms and held each other in place as the year wore on.
After three months embedded with the team, of getting lost on country highways and drinking Pepsi out of Mason jars in roadside diners, after two notebooks full of notes and 21 articles published, it came down to one tiny locker room. The long campaign was over, and behind the safety of closed doors, the boys from the hills sat in their grass-stained uniforms and wept together.