Cincinnati’s most popular religion, practiced on Friday nights

Contrary to demographic studies, Catholicism is not the predominant religion in Cincinnati. Friday night football is.

I think I attended one football game during my high school years: the annual infamous Mount St. Michael/Cardinal Spellman matchup. I don’t remember sitting in the bleachers.  I do remember standing under them smoking with other friends who considered football to be bourgeois (in all of our 16-year-old sophistication).

Given my indifference to basketball and football, the midwest was not a logical place to settle down and raise kids. Indiana, where our eldest child was born, lived and breathed basketball. The movie “Hoosiers” depicts it all too well. And Cincinnati, well, the Friday night lights shine bright in large high school stadiums where  as many as four generations gather to watch epic rivalries. If your dad and grandfather went to Elder and played in the famous “Pit,” you are also likely to “bleed purple.” If they went to St. X, you wear the royal blue to the office on Fridays during football season, and if they were LaSalle Lancers, you wear red and the “L” you make with your right hand stands for “LaSalle,” (not “loser,” as it does in much of the country).

Grandmothers and grandfathers hobble in to high school stadia with walkers and canes — and their padded stadium seats under their arms. Two-week-old babies fuss amidst the noise. Marching bands still play. Everyone seems to know the names of the GCL’s top quarterbacks. The four local news stations all reserve 10 or more minutes in Friday night broadcasts for high school game reporting, and one of the cable companies even carries some of the biggest rivalries. Traffic reports on Fridays make note of the games that will most likely disrupt traffic patterns . . . and on it goes. Rain, snow, intense heat? Who cares. Not Cincinnatians.

Enter the Bronx girl.

Luckily, the kids weren’t involved too much in grade school sports, so we missed the fanaticism of some parents who are trying to relive their glory days through their 9-year-olds. Youngest child dabbled in intramural basketball, where we watched parents and coaches being ejected from games for their behavior. We also learned that there were parents who didn’t want our son on their son’s team because he wasn’t talented enough to help take them to city championships. At the age of 11.

So I was happy when both kids played musical instruments and opted to participate in this Friday night religion as members of marching band. For 7 years I attended the occasional football game to check out the band’s halftime show, and thanked my lucky stars I wasn’t one of those women sitting in the stands wearing her son’s football jersey and yelling at the referees.

God has a really interesting sense of humor, doesn’t he?

As senior year of high school approached, youngest child decided that four years of watching football from the band section was enough. He wanted to don the jersey and cleats and see how the turf felt under his feet when he wasn’t counting measures and drumbeats and trying to avoid getting clipped in the head by  color guard rifles or flags.

Can you hear God laughing? I can. Daily.

At 6’3 and 180 lbs., youngest child has a natural athleticism. It served him well in martial arts, track, and even in marching band, where he lugged a 30-lb drum around the field in a 15-minute show. Now, however, he is standing shoulder-to-shoulder with boys who are equally tall, usually heavier, and most have 10 years of football experience under their girdles. And like their fathers and grandfathers, they are pretty zealous about their pigskin.

So I try not to cringe. I try not to pray that the first-string cornerback stays healthy so that youngest child spends the season warming the bench. I’m torn between wanting him to have that exhilarating experience under the Friday night lights and wanting him to stay safe, physically and emotionally. The kids who fumble the balls at football games here on the west side can take a real verbal beating. . .

“Is this defense or offense?” “What does that flag mean?” Why is that player kneeling while the clock is running, if he’s not Tim Tebow?” I pepper my patient husband with questions. He doesn’t want to be there any more than I do — maybe even less. As a guy, he knows exactly how cruel it all can get.

But we love our kids. We’re proud of our son for attempting something that very few kids in the GCL have tried — varsity football at a state championship school, in one’s senior year for the first time. He told us he didn’t want to turn around in 10 years and always wonder what it would have been like to play. So he’s got a lot more guts  than either my husband or I ever did. I would have always sat on the sidelines, too afraid to step out of my comfort zone and to take the chance of not being good.

My son, however, is just enjoying every minute of being part of this team and a game he really likes playing. He is the one who always has a kind word and a pat on the back for the player who fumbled, as well as a high five for the kids being scouted by colleges. I watch him on the sidelines encouraging and respecting every one of his teammates. And my heart swells more in pride over that than over any game-winning play.

Maybe I can learn something from him this year — if I can last under the Friday night lights. It’s SO not a Bronx thing.

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