ATLANTIC CITY -- Let's get one thing straight from the start ... Friday night's high school football game between host Atlantic City and Absegami was a Big Event, and the capital letters are included on purpose for the sake of emphasis. For the record, A.C. won 20-6, moving to 3-0 and dropping 'Gami to 1-2.
We read so much about what these sort of scholastic games mean in places like Texas, and I witnessed quite a few Friday night spectacles in northeastern Pennsylvania (that's Berwick High School country, among other big schools) before my family moved to Ocean City when I was 13.
The radio broadcasters who called the game (in dulcet tones, I might add) for a local FM station kept remarking how sparse the crowd was at the beginning of the game, but by halftime they had to modify their hasty depiction of the community's interest in this match-up.
A late-arriving throng eventually numbered in the multiple thousands, and ... with the strong-but-warm wind and the home team's good form ... it was like Mardi Gras on the back bays, only with venerable Atlantic City High School athletic director Frank Campo serving as your parade grand marhsal (riding around in the super-sized golf cart, I might add) instead of some acting has-been like Christian Slater.
You know what was really cool? Walking into the stadium, there were kids everywhere. Oh, don't get me wrong ... the crowd certainly had its fair share of silver-haired alumni. But the fact that so many youngsters were interested in the fate of their hometown Vikings just literally lifts your spirits.
I met two of these young gentlemen near the "strong man" kiosk. Proudly wearing their Atlantic City Dolphins youth football jerseys, Sa'eed Nelson and La'quay Reynolds, a pair of 12-year-olds, were doing what young kids are meant to do ... basically, being loud, unapologetic and generally making a nuiscance of themselves. But I mean that in a good way. There's nothing worse than encountering kids with no zip, life or pep whatsover.
Call it what you like, but it's the preserve of Boring Old Men such as myself (notice the capitals again) to bring a downer to these kinds of proceedings ... and, according to my colleague Mike McGarry, my choice of a "lavender" dress shirt (his words, not mine; I prefer the forgiving term "soft purple") for a football game exposed me as a man out of touch with what's hot on the street.
The game itself was very, very interesting. Atlantic City's 6-foot-3, 193-pound junior wideout/defensive end Ishmail Naji literally took the game over with his athleticism, as demonstarted by his 5 catches for 128 yards. Other than 6-foot-1, 181-pound sophomore quarterback Rashad Kinlaw on Friday night (senior running back Ben Martin was injured), Absegami didn't have a player like Naji, who can influence almost every down.
But what impressed me most about Atlantic City was two-fold: 1) How the Vikings defensive line and linebackers took over the game in the second half, allowing the defensive backs to gamble a bit more and make plays, and 2) how head coach Thomas Kelly has an honest-to-God plan in place.
I'm a youth soccer coach for eight years now, and one of my favorite sayings is "it's a marathon, not a sprint." Even though the Vikings are 3-0. Kelly was desperate to keep some perspective on the whole affair. After the game, he warned his players about overconfidence. However, you could see the gleam in his eye. He mentioned to one of his assistants, "We're 3-0 and we've got a bye week."
This is a man who says the Vikings "plan for and expect" to win every game. In his first year, Kelly is certainly a man in a hurry. On the other side, Absegami running back Trevon Chance, a 5-foot-11, 192-pound senior, was a bit shell-shocked. As he was walking to the school bus that would take him and his teammates back to their school, I asked him if the Braves could recover and set their season straight.
"We have to believe that," he said. "We just have to."