Last Friday night unintentionally turned out to be an almost-perfect high school football evening. I say “almost perfect” because the results were not what I had hoped for when I set out for Taft, but come the end of the night, the results weren’t my biggest takeaway.
As our community, our country and our world continue to shift, for better or for worse, there are always things that will remain to keep us grounded, to keep us centered on what is important, on how things once were and how they certainly can continue to be. There’s no better example of that than high school football.
This Friday it was two teams, each representing a town, not a random school in an alphabet game of public schools in one city, not parochial schools named after saints and funded by someone’s latest financial windfall. No, these were two towns, Taft and Tehachapi, one school, one team, one town — matchups we rarely enjoy anymore.
I guess it made it all the more special that apart from a short stint on Highway 58 from Keene to the Highway 223 turn-off, my route to Taft was exclusively two-lane country roads. I guess that played into the romanticism of the evening, traveling through farmland, driving by dairies, corn fields and of course that western Kern County oil patch. Driving west I chased the sunset; it was almost the perfect opening for an episode of "Friday Night Lights." One could swear they were in West Texas headed to some highly-anticipated matchup if it weren’t for our mountain ranges in the distance. My personal experiences in West Texas always included a disbelief of how flat the region was.
Taft itself remains a rather small town, not growing as much as Tehachapi with some of their economic challenges and reliance on the oil industry, but certainly not the small town it once was either. We all seem to be changing a little, but just like Tehachapi, Taft has some of the greatest salt-of-the-Earth people you’ll ever meet. I have the pleasure of knowing some of them personally and I’ve always believed that a community is made up of its people. While landscapes may change and numbers increase, it’s the attitude and mindset of the citizens that continues to keep us rural Americans just a little bit different, for good reason.
While I’ve visited the town plenty over the years, I hadn’t been to the football stadium in more than 20 years. I fared much better there in my playing days than this year’s Warriors squad did, but again, the football on the field from my perspective was secondary. Hats off to the Taft Union High School ground maintenance crew for an impeccable stadium and amazing on-field graphics. It happened to be military appreciation night and the crew did an amazing job with the red, white and blue and some other military-themed paintings on the field.
Taft Mayor Dave Noerr gave an awesome welcome that wasn’t about the teams on the field, but the teams of military individuals and branches of service that help create and maintain our nation today. Fans cheered in unison for each branch of the service. It wasn’t an “us and them” moment; we were all appreciative Americans. I like to think that when Taft decided to have this night, they specifically scheduled it against Tehachapi, knowing several like-minded folks would be traveling across the county and would appreciate the military salute. If so, they hit that nail right on the head.
When the game was over and I headed back to my rig for the long drive home, a stranger said to me, “thanks for coming, be careful on those roads on the way home,” obviously familiar with our unique trek back to Tehachapi. I thanked him, we exchanged “good game” pleasantries and wished one another luck the rest of the season. Just two random fans sharing a uniquely American moment.
Even the drive home after a loss served as a reflection, of a great game, a couple of great communities and why things like high school football serve a much higher purpose than the product on the field. We’re lucky in this regard; while neither Taft nor Tehachapi will ever be a “nationally-ranked” football program playing on ESPN U touting the next big thing at quarterback, that’s OK. I believe we’re all perfectly satisfied with a drive through the countryside to see two small towns battle it out. I know this particular Friday night, I certainly was.
Corey Costelloe has covered NCAA, professional and local sports for more than 20 years as a reporter and broadcaster. A THS graduate, he now resides in Tehachapi. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed are his own.