Now game time was nearing, and the guilt was sawing away. "I don't know how I feel about playing this game," Ryan said. "Where I'd like to be right now is up there digging up the rubble. I think a lot of the guys haven't been sure how they felt about this. Then we decided yesterday, Let's win it for the people up there."
The buses rolled into the parking lot at Stratford High. Noah carried his ball as we followed the players out. From the opposite direction came the Stratford Knights, heading toward the field for calisthenics. The two squads passed each other in single file, inches apart. On the day of national unity, no two players exchanged a glance.
Me? I had my notions on the subject, but I hadn't said a word yet to Noah—I didn't want to stack the deck.
He'd never been in a football locker room. He'd never seen kids prowl and pace and pee before a game. Comp McCurry, the Green Wave's hard-muscled, hard-jawed young assistant coach, worked his way through the locker room, popping players with forearm shivers and chucks on the chin: "Woooooo! Ready to play a ball game! Ready to strap it on! Ready to bust some chops!" The boys strapped on their equipment and filed out in silent platoons—offense, defense, special teams—accompanied by McKissick's sergeants, steeling themselves one last time for what was about to come. I looked at Noah. No, 11 years old was too young. He couldn't be watching those kids and seeing what I was seeing, future soldiers being readied for an unimaginably treacherous war.
The stands were packed, 8,000 strong, wearing patriotic ribbons and waving flags. The bands from the two schools joined on the field and played God Bless America. Eyes filled with tears. Coach McKissick kept his team behind the stands, speaking softly to the players, fighting the tide. "Gonna do what we've done for 50 years," he said. "Nothing different. Get your mind on the football game."
The P.A. announcer began a tribute to those lost and those still searching for them. His voice crackled, then cracked, then choked with sobs. The flag was raised, and a minister said a prayer. I turned to Noah. "Have you prayed?" I asked as Stratford students sent balloons into the air.
"We had 15 minutes of silence at school today," he said.
"What happened during those 15 minutes?" I asked.
"I heard Sidra sniffling, so I think she was crying, and Laura Jett's mouth was moving, so I think she was praying."