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Friday night football is still same in small town

Who says you can't go back? My wife and I went to a high school football game on a Friday night recently. The Gowanda Panthers were home against the Cleveland Hill Eagles.

It was a lovely, warm September evening much like the ones I remembered from my playing days at Gowanda Central from 1957 to 1960. The field, however, has gone through some drastic renovations. There has been a complete makeover: new track, seating, concession stand and a new scoreboard. The lights are new also.

I remember my first-grade teacher taking us to see the original lights installed in 1950. That was a major milestone then. This place just sparkles. It is a first-class facility, worthy of any high school in Western New York.

The field is dedicated to Howard Hillis, the longtime coach and athletic director of Gowanda Central. In one corner of the field is a marker with his likeness on it, fronted by bricks that people bought to support the makeover. The names on those bricks bring back memories of families past and present who played on that field in years gone by.

The traditional geographic rivals are gone. When I played, schools like Dunkirk, Fredonia, Southwestern, Salamanca and Falconer were our rivals. Only Falconer still remains on the schedule. We were in our own little corner of the sports world -- Cattaraugus and Chautauqua counties.

Now, schools like Wilson, Roy-Hart and Cleveland Hill provide the opposition. The Buffalo News rarely reported on us then. It was left to the likes of the Gowanda News, the Jamestown Post-Journal and the Dunkirk Observer, although the Courier Express provided some coverage.

The stands were nearly full last month, although there always seemed to be room to squeeze in a late arrival. Make no mistake: this was a family affair. We noticed families: parents with young children, parents of players, grandparents and grandparents with young children and people who just wanted to see the game.

People were always coming and going and talking with their neighbors or saying "hi" to somebody going by. There were trips to the concession stand by fathers and grandfathers for popcorn, pizza and pop for the children and grandchildren. There were trips to the restrooms by parents and grandparents with little ones.

At each end of the grandstand there were the "standees" along the fence. These were mostly people who would rather socialize than sit, but still wanted to see the game and be a part of the event.

Then there were the youngsters. Kids ranging in age from 7 to 13 were playing their own football games in the corners of the area, perhaps looking forward to being under the big lights someday.

There was no booing, no jeering, no inappropriate conduct, just cheering when the home team did something well. People all seemed to enjoy themselves. It was a social event that happens three or four times every fall, and people like to get out meeting and greeting others they may not see again until next football season.

This is a small town and a small school. Community interest in the kids and their school has not changed much in the last 50 years. The uniforms may be better, and the lights may be brighter, but yes, one can go back to a kinder, gentler era on a small town Friday night in Gowanda.

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