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Steve Cameron: Lights here shining on a better game

Steve Cameron

Friday night lights.

Every fan knows the phrase, and what it means -- high school football.

Perhaps you've seen the movie with that very same name, or maybe even read H.G. Bissinger's book, "Friday Night Lights."

Bissinger spent an entire season following the exploits of Permian High in Odessa, Texas -- a perennial powerhouse in a football-crazy state.

When the book was published, citizens of Odessa were thrilled at their notoriety, which was ironic because once you got past the pep talks, the rallies, the touchdown passes and a trip to the state title game, Bissinger actually was writing about everything wrong with football in a truly obsessed community.

Readers learned about racism in the town -- a place where a kid of color could be a hero while running for a thousand yards but then ignored as just another black loser when he blew out his knee.

There were tales of boosters -- including the mayor -- with outrageous power, men so blinded by the single pursuit of winning that they felt the best way to motivate the coach was giving him the ultimatum of winning state or being fired.

And when Permian lost a regular-season game, lunatic fans threatened the coach and vandalized his house.

For losing a single game.

We're just a day away from the 2008 football season here in the Central Valley -- and the excitement is enough to make players, coaches and supporters all tingle with anticipation.

What a wonderful thing, though, that our version of Friday night lights is about kids playing football and enjoying themselves -- light-years removed from the mania that infects so many other areas.

It isn't just Bissinger's central Texas or western Pennsylvania, either.

There's craziness all around us.

Football in Stockton, for example, seems to toss up one scandal after another.

An influential booster at Lincoln High actually managed to push his complaints about the coach's offensive strategy all the way to a debate in front of the school board.

Imagine a school board debating Xs and Os.

Across town at Franklin, the administration carefully looked away as players were recruited illegally from islands in the South Pacific.

Down in Fresno, meanwhile, powerful supporters of the program at Clovis West bulldozed the school principal into firing a coach after just one season -- despite the fact that he came just a field goal away from winning the section title.

Common sense tells you this sort of thing is just plain wrong, that all perspective on kids playing a game has been lost.

Somehow, though, despite plenty of successful programs and plenty of loud fan support, that screaming, wild-eyed, win-at-all-costs mentality doesn't seem to affect the schools and cities in our little corner of the world.

And that's a wonderful thing.

It makes me feel proud.

"I think there are just a lot of good people in this part of the Valley, and they realize that the game is not bigger than those involved in it," said Merced coach Rob Scheidt -- who stepped aside as a finalist for that vacant Clovis West job during this past off season.

If anyone might feel heat from overzealous fans, you'd think it would be Scheidt, who presides over a program that has gone 31-5 the past three years but hasn't quite managed to win a section championship.

But Rob insists he's never felt undue pressure from outside.

"I feel like I'm in a situation where our administration shields me if there are any naysayers," Scheidt said.

"I believe it helps that I have an open-door policy with our parents and supporters. I'm not perfect and I'm not above making mistakes. I try to listen to everyone respectfully, but I'm still the guy in charge of the program and our people seem to respect that.

"I'm not inside the other teams and schools in this area, obviously, but I know the coaches and people, and I don't think you see any of that crazy stuff here."

Scheidt has played and coached close by for a long time, and can remember only a few isolated incidents of unpleasantness at any of the schools in or around Merced County.

"Times when you'd feel something was over the top have been few and far between," he said.

"I remember when my dad (Tom) was coaching at Dos Palos, there was one guy who'd come out with his truck and a bullhorn, and he'd holler, 'Fire Scheidt!'

"But he was just one guy, an isolated case. When you look around this area, you just don't see the kind of things where you feel people have lost all good judgment and created problems."

In fact, things seem just the opposite here.

I remember the build-up to the Merced-Golden Valley game two years ago when both teams were really good, and I assumed that the city would be split in half.

But at the game itself, played before a standing-room-only mob at Don Odishoo Field, fans from both schools mingled in the parking lot, around the concession stands, all over the property.

And they got along so well I was stunned.

"These are good folks who understand that it's just a high school football game," said James Todd, father of former Merced stars Logan and Carter Todd. "Sure, everybody wants to win, but when it's over they know it was just a game played by kids who are having fun."

What an amazing concept.

Competition without the bullies who want to make your won-lost record bigger than everyday life.

The attitude toward prep football here makes it easy to get excited about a new season.

And I am.

This isn't Odessa -- or even Stockton -- and thank heavens for that.

So once again we can look forward to our glorious Friday nights.

Flip on those lights.

Steve Cameron is sports editor of the Sun-Star. He can be reached at scameron@mercedsunstar.com.

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