No Friday Night Lights: Warren players feel the void
That first beat of the drum, the bright shine of the lights.
It gets Tommy Matheson and Malachai McNeal every time.
"As soon as you hear that first beat of the drum from the band, as you're walking out onto the field, there's no more talking," McNeal said. "You look up at the lights, you see everyone in the stands, you know it's time to put on a show. That's how you really get going."
Matheson and McNeal are senior football players at Warren. Matheson is a two-year starter on the defensive line, and McNeal is a three-year starter at linebacker. They say that football Fridays and Friday Night Lights are responsible for some of their best high school memories.
"There's nothing better than first seeing those lights," Matheson said. "It's the moment that really hits you."
It's a moment that will have to wait for Matheson, McNeal, their teammates and the rest of high school football players all throughout the state of Illinois.
This should have been the opening weekend of the 2020 IHSA high school football season. But the entire season was postponed due to concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic and the IHSA has planned, if conditions improve, for football to be played in the spring.
Spring football or not, many coaches and players are still having a tough time moving past the void they feel without football getting started this week.
"It is strange," Warren coach Bryan McNulty said. "When you're a football coach or player, your internal clock is geared for this time of year. It's a cool time of year, when school is getting going, high school football helps to kick off the school year. You can feel a buzz around the whole school.
"It's weird that we're not having that."
For Warren, the cancellation of the fall season has been particularly tough to swallow. The Blue Devils advanced to the Class 8A state championship game. They were anxious to build on that momentum this fall, and possibly finish the job.
"It's disappointing," McNulty said. "People knew how good our senior class from last year was. But I'm not sure that people know how good our class of 2021 is. We will be a different team this year, but we will still be pretty good and the seniors this year are anxious to show everyone that this is what we do and how hard we work and they want to leave their mark."
For now, workouts at school have been suspended due to facility restrictions. But the Blue Devils are still doing what they can to keep working hard together.
They are using football facilities such as EFT Sports Performance and WIN Performance in Highland Park as well as DIPT in Mundelein.
"We all go in there and lift weights and do drills together," McNeal said. "I feel very good about what I'm seeing when we're in the gym. We've got a lot of really talented guys and a lot of new pieces and we're all working hard."
Matheson says that he and his teammates are having to do their hard work on faith.
Although the Blue Devils are optimistic for a spring season, there is no certainty that it will happen. Yet, the work continues.
"There is an uncertainly with everything in life," Matheson said. "We've just got to treat this like everything else. We've got to have a blind ambition about football. I'm actually writing my college essays about that.
"We don't know if a spring season will happen, but we've got to have ambition for it anyway, ambition for something that's not guaranteed."
So, the Blue Devils carry on, and dream about the spring of 2021. McNulty is planning for Friday night practices when the team is allowed contact days later this fall because, "that might bring the kids a sense of normalcy, and they deserve that," he said.
And who knows? Maybe in six to seven months from now, Friday Night Lights (Springtime Edition) won't be so bad.
"We always say we will play in a parking lot if we have to," Matheson said with a laugh. "Spring could actually be pretty special. No one else has ever had spring football. But for the seniors, in the second semester, I think that could be a pretty good send off. I think there could be a lot of school spirit for that."