As a species, we love games. Organized, unorganized. Think of how many games are played with a round ball, large or small. Or with an odd shaped ball. In fact we have taken games and so seamlessly embedded them in our culture (all cultures, really) that we give their unequivocal pursuit little thought.

Kids grow up playing endless games, and, of course, watching athletes on the field of play, and dream of the day when they too might stand field or court center and turn and gaze upon hundreds, perhaps thousands of people up on their feet, cheering. What other endeavor in our culture compares? We worship and celebrate those who play the games of childhood with ability and grace, and recall for decades moments that transcend all explanation. Magic can happen on the field of play.

Each fall, as the leaves begin to turn, the wind edged with winter, in large towns and small, boys suit up in helmets and pads and knobby shoes and charge out onto a grass-covered field. It's that time, again. Time to play football.

On one such night, several weeks ago, Ashland's Grizzlies played the Klamath Pelicans. The home team crowd was out in force, the stadium filled with red and white sweaters and jackets, a small town's affirmation that their team &

youngsters all, their faces obscured by oversized white helmets, their bodies swollen and lumpy from pads &

was supported.

Across the way, in the visitors' seats, a sprinkle of people sat huddled together. The sun had long ago set, the air penetratingly cold. It had rained earlier, and pools of water reflected the bright lights, stark and powerful, which shone down on the field and stands.

The Grizzly coaches, in red jackets, paced the sidelines. The team now stood shoulder to shoulder, just behind the white chalk line. Off to one side, near the stadium seats, under a low canopy, the high school band waited restlessly, a repertoire of fight songs at the ready, brass horns reflecting the light. Even the abbreviated stands in the end zone were filled, dotted with red and white.

Men in black and white stripes, whistles in hand, conferred on the 50-yard line, and team captains from both sides walked out onto the field for the coin toss.

Then everyone stood, facing the large American flag waving gently high on a distant pole, and with hats off, hands over hearts, all sang in ragged unison the "Star Spangled Banner" followed by cheers and whistles. It was time. Let the game begin.

But clearly, this is far more than a game. Considered in the aggregate, it is a community event, a ritual, as familiar and predictable as a June graduation ceremony or a late spring prom. All of it is remarkable, and unremarkable, and deeply American. There is nothing anywhere which compares. The energy, the chill in the night air, the smell of cooking hamburgers and hot-dogs, the electricity of expectations and celebration, while whistles are blown, yards and feet and inches carefully calibrated as two teams tackle and run and throw and kick a small, oddly shaped ball back and forth.

What game played anywhere commands the focused attention of high school football &

the planning, the resources, the commitment by players and school staff and parents? If viewed from afar, it can seem strange, though indisputably part of our culture's DNA, rarely questioned and certainly embraced. A high school football game is the nexus, the emotional crucible, a rolling contest that stretches for weeks. It's the reason for fall pep rallies, huge poster paint signs in the school hallways. It's the rich mulch that nurtures school spirit and endless ceremony, some nuanced, some overtly crass and always wonderful.

In what game can a young player, all of 16, stand field center and look up at the stadium and hear and feel the collective approbation of the crowd, waving and cheering blended with brassy music, all of it swirling up and over him. It's a moment that is imprinted forever in memory, a standard by which so much of life in the future will be measured. Some &

perhaps more than a few &

will search for its equivalent for the rest of their lives, wishing, hoping to find even an hour that gripped the heart and embraced the spirit as did those few nights spent on the field of play, playing a game called football.