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HIGH SCHOOLS TRY TO PLAY ROLE IN HEALING PROCESS

During the first half of a Harvard Cup football game Friday afternoon at War Memorial Stadium, fans looking beyond the field could see a fire truck, with lights flashing and sirens blaring, speeding up Jefferson Avenue.

Friday was a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance, and the sight of a fire truck surely turned some thoughts to firefighters, New York City and a terrifying week. For a moment, you wondered why anyone would be at a high school football game.

But a few minutes later, Grover Cleveland's Howard Vanever took an inside handoff on his own half of the field on the last play of the half. He didn't look like he had much room, but then the slippery 5-foot-7 junior escaped one Kensington tackler, danced out of the grasp of another, spinned and bounced off five more Knights and broke away for the end zone before coming up 5 yards short of a touchdown.

In that instant, you realize why everyone is at a high school football game.

The Grover Cleveland sideline is pogo-sticking up and down, chest-bumping and woofing and slapping Vanever's helmet as the Presidents head for their halftime huddle. Wide-eyed fans turn to one another and say, "Did you see that?"

For excruciatingly obvious reasons, there were no major sporting events this past week. But the high school games went on. On a weekend where people gathered at candlelight vigils and prayer groups, communities filled bleachers for football games, too. Here are snapshots from four of them:

Grover Cleveland's 28-8 win over Kensington was the first football game of the weekend and the first game of the Harvard Cup season. The Presidents took the field with American flag decals on the front of their helmets.

The game's ceremonies began with everyone facing a flag at half-staff and reciting a child's first exposure to patriotism: The Pledge of Allegiance.

Despite less than a day's notice, the Grover Cleveland Junior ROTC color guard was on hand for the pregame ceremonies.

"It's special every day," Grover sophomore Angelo Gelster said of presenting the colors. "But since this happened it's even more special."

Under Friday night lights at Foyle-Kling Field, Lancaster's Redskins hosted Jamestown's Red Raiders in a stadium with plenty of red, white and blue. The marching band's flag team spray-painted their own versions of American flags as the chorus led the crowd in the national anthem and "God Bless America."

For the Lancaster chorus, this was not an ordinary performance.

"It really touched me in a personal way because I have friends who have lost family members in New York City," said senior Maria Grear. "It means a lot to me to go out and sing my national anthem knowing I'm part of this great nation."

"My aunt is in the Pentagon, and we still don't know if she's OK yet," said sophomore Nicole Nichter. "It's really something you can sing from your heart and really mean it."

"It's a night that you know you're not going to forget," said senior Jeremy Andrzejewski.

At halftime, there was no prompting from the public address announcer as a candlelight vigil was held by fans on both sides of the field.

"I think it shows how everyone feels about America and how this whole thing is bringing everyone together," Jamestown junior cheerleader Kim Maloney said, standing near an American flag banner hanging from the bleachers. "We're united in the United States."

When a jet flew overhead in the second half of the 13-7 Lancaster win, more than a few fans craned their necks toward the night sky.

"It's tough to feel good about a win like this after what's been going on this week," said Lancaster coach Len Jankiewicz. "It was a gathering for the community -- it's a small-town community kind of magnet, and we're glad to be a part of it.

"Kids need to be with kids. They have to vent, they have to talk to each other. They're teenage boys. They don't choose mom and dad to talk to -- they'd probably chew glass before they talk to mom and dad. . . . Certainly a lot of this stuff was on their minds, and I think this was a healthy atmosphere."

Kenmore East players held small U.S. flags in their hands as the national anthem played before their Saturday afternoon game against Williamsville North at Parker Field in the Town of Tonawanda. The Bulldog cheerleaders, with red, white and blue ribbons in their hair and on their uniforms, collected donations for the American Red Cross. Starred-and-striped ballons adorned the fence where the usual "Go Bulldogs!" banners hang. The Ken East band made a tribute to the U.S. Armed Forces.

During a first half in which Williamsville North took a 14-0 lead, Kenmore East senior Paul DeSantis was open on consecutive passes that would have been first downs. One bounced off his shoulder pads. Another somehow slipped through his grasp.

The despondent DeSantis hung his head, shrugged off a coach's encouragement and sat down on the bench.

"My confidence was a little low in the first half, dropping those two balls," said DeSantis. "I went into halftime and I just said that with everything that's going on right now, compared to it, this football game is nothing. I was hanging my head, but I was just thinking the victims' families have it 200 times worse than dropping two balls."

With 16 seconds left and East trailing by one at the Williamsville North 5-yard line, defenders surrounded quarterback Mark Bly, but he somehow got a pass off from a space smaller than a telephone booth. DeSantis leaped, caught the ball and held on as he fell into the end zone. Final score: Kenmore East, 26-21.

Father John J. Mattimore, the Canisius High School principal, said a prayer prior to the Crusaders' matchup with Victor on Saturday night at Canisius College. The Victor team held an American flag during the national anthem, and the Crusaders took the field with a flag decal on the back of each helmet.

"We had it on our minds a lot of the time, and we put the American flag on our helmets because we're proud to be American," said senior Adam Grupka, who was glad to have been able to play, despite losing, 34-15. "Instead of having to think about all the depressing information, it was good to forget about it and play some football."

The kids on the field weren't the only ones happy the games were going on. All evening, the sound in the background was the clique-ing of social circles grouped along the sideline fence -- just like any other big high school game at the Demske Complex.

"I told the players after the game that it's just a football game," said coach Kraig Kurzanski, "and they know that."

As professional and college games restart this week, there will be many mentions of how the sports world will play its part to help our nation's healing process.

Anyone that was at a high school football game this past weekend will tell you that it already has.

e-mail: kmcshea@buffnews.com

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