The Pleasantville High School football team returned to the locker room a few minutes before their season-opening kickoff against Haddonfield.
Players adjusted their pads and helmets.
There were few smiles.
Head coach Chris Sacco stepped in front of a whiteboard to address the team. What happened next is one of the most important but mostly unseen parts of high school football.
The pregame speech and life in the locker room is about more than wins and losses. It’s about creating bonds and friendships with teammates. The excitement of wins and the disappointment of losses fade with time. The friendships high school football creates can last a lifetime.
On opening night, Sacco quickly got the Greyhounds’ attention.
“Listen up,” he said. “We’ve got four or five minutes before we go out.”
Some of the players sat on benches. Others stood in the rows between the maroon lockers.
“I should not have to say much,” Sacco said. “You guys are built for this. You’ve been working your butts off for three-plus years to get to this point. We’re here. What are you going to do with it?”
Sacco emphasized handling adversity that was bound to occur during the game. His voice got louder as he neared the end of his talk.
“This program is filled with great people,” he said. “From the coaches to the players to the community, let’s go.”
The Greyhounds burst into applause and surged toward the locker room door.
Pleasantville senior wide receiver and defensive back Elijah Glover said the moments in the locker room before the opening kickoff are a time to get focused. It’s also the time to get emotionally ready for the game.
“We just try to get locked in,” he said. “We listen to what Coach Sacco says to get us turned up, and we head out.”
Sacco’s pregame speeches often cap a theme that has developed in the practices leading up to game day. It could be about how Pleasantville is the underdog in the game or the favorite.
“It brings everything together,” Sacco said. “I always try to have some sort of life lesson that (the players) can really feel before the game. It’s to get them excited, get them thinking and get them ready to go.”
But the locker room is about more than pregame pep talks. High school football teams spend almost as many hours in the locker room as they do on the field.
“We talk about the game, life, school,” Glover said.
Players hang out before and after practice.
“The tighter a team is, the more they’re willing to play for each other,” Ocean City coach Kevin Smith said.
Ocean City has a room in its locker room where the plays hang their equipment on metal racks to dry after practice. Smith affectionately describes the room as “disgusting.” Ocean City wide receiver Brandon Lashley said it smells like a team practiced in the rain and mud every day and left the equipment in the room soaking wet.
Only seniors sit in the room. They earn their spot through their four years of devotion to the program.
“It’s not the nicest, best-smelling place in the world, but we’re kind of used to it,” Lashley said. “That’s just our place.”
No matter how good the pregame speech, it doesn’t guarantee a victory. Pleasantville lost its opener to Haddonfield 20-7.
On Thanksgiving, most seniors will hear the last pregame speech of their athletic careers.
“We’ll talk about going out there as a family for the last time,” Smith said. “We tell them everything will be different from this time forward because you’ll never have ‘this’ again.”