Norfolk pulls the plug on Friday night lights, moves high school football to Saturdays

Steve Earley/THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT - Fans were sparse as Lake Taylor players gathered before the opening kickoff for last Saturday’s game against Maury. Lake Taylor typically gets about 2,000 fans for Friday night games; the attendance last Saturday was about 300.

David White was smoking a cigarette when he arrived at the home of his friend Jamal Hamilton on the last Friday in September, looking for a ride to that night’s Lake Taylor High School football game. White was in his senior year at the Norfolk school, but he rarely went to watch Lake Taylor play football. On this night, however, he was in a rush to meet up with a girl at the Titans’ game at nearby Booker T. Washington.

Hamilton told White to get in the car and even gave his friend five dollars for a ticket and a gray Chicago White Sox snapback hat to wear, so he could arrive at the bleachers in style.

Hamilton dropped White off at the McDonald’s near Booker T. Washington’s stadium at around 7 o’clock, and before White got out of the 1999 Oldsmobile, Hamilton said to him, “Don’t do nothing stupid.”

A couple hours later, at about 9:15 p.m., White was dead, gunned down while walking home after the game. A 15-year-old acquaintance has been arrested and charged with murder.

The killing rocked Norfolk, and a few days later, the school district responded by moving all Friday night football games hosted by its five high schools to Saturday afternoons for the rest of the season. The city is wrestling with a difficult series of questions: How can schools keep students safe while preserving traditions enjoyed by players and fans alike? When Friday night lights move to Saturday afternoons, what is gained and what is lost?

At the news conference to announce the decision last week, the school district stood firm alongside the Norfolk police and sheriff, making it clear that daylight would be one of the city’s most important allies in preventing another death.

“We are not omnipresent 24 hours of each day,” said Norfolk Public Schools superintendent Dr. Samuel King, addressing reporters at the press conference. “We as citizens of Norfolk must all join together in a united front to help keep our streets and neighborhoods safe.”

High school football Fridays, an American symbol that attracts even casual fans like David White, didn’t kill the 19-year-old. But in Norfolk, it currently is associated with the dangers of night, and is a reminder of his death.

Sleepy place in light of day

A week after the shooting, White’s funeral and the first Saturday football game for Lake Taylor were both scheduled for the same afternoon.

Hundreds of mourners packed the Metropolitan Funeral Home on Berkeley Avenue in Norfolk on Oct. 6, escaping 90-degree heat outside. A three-piece band played in the corner, and ministers read aloud from the Bible.

Speakers denounced violence, and called for people in the crowd not to retaliate in the streets. Sympathy cards from principals at Booker T. Washington and Lake Taylor were sent and read aloud.

White was remembered as a boy who had grown into a man, and he was only one class shy of graduating from Lake Taylor. He was preparing for the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test to gain entrance into the Navy after high school, and one of his dreams was to travel the world. His teachers called him “King David” because of his reputed devotion to Sunday school at the Good Shepherd International Miracle Center, and his friends remembered him as “Deeboy,” a dude that could really sing.

As White’s casket was carried outside after the service, it was already the second quarter of Lake Taylor’s home game against Maury. About 300 people sat in the sleepy stadium, which usually holds around 2,000 fans on a rocking Friday night.

The student body was absent, and the Lake Taylor band wasn’t playing. The cheerleaders weren’t in attendance. With no neighborhoods surrounding the campus, Lake Taylor is considered a commuter school, where students often travel from long distances across town just to make classes, let alone Friday night football games.

On Saturday, many fans in the stands used umbrellas to shield the sun, and cheering was thin enough to hear the voices of the coaches, screaming at their players on the field. During halftime of the game, which Lake Taylor won 48-14, the announcers in the press box informed the crowd of the current scores at the other Norfolk high school games. Then they listed scores from around college football.

A Norfolk police officer with a hand-held metal detector was posted at each stadium entrance. While security has historically been a priority at Norfolk high school football games, the police department escalated its presence for the afternoon games across the area, which included 10 officers at the Lake Taylor game.

According to Norfolk police, White knew the 15-year-old who has been arrested and charged with his murder, but they don’t know to what extent. One of the things the department does know is that the gunman was able to disappear into the night after the shooting, and the first Saturday of games was an attempt to use the sun and more officers to prevent a similar incident.

‘Normally, you’re resting’

Everyone in the stadium noticed the subdued atmosphere to some degree. Lake Taylor’s blue-chip recruit Jalyn Holmes caught a touchdown pass in the game, but he wasn’t supposed to be there. He had a planned visit to Virginia Tech that Saturday and was left wondering when he would be able to get to Blacksburg to see a game this fall, or to any of the other 20 or so schools that are offering him scholarships.

“It was different,” Holmes said. “Normally, you’re resting on this day.”

Lake Taylor Coach Hank Sawyer was left wondering when college recruiters would come to Norfolk to see his younger players. Coaches from Virginia Tech, Richmond, North Carolina State and Hampton were in attendance at the Booker T. Washington game on Sept. 28, the last Friday night of the season. Friday night is the time for high school players to perform and fulfill their dreams; Saturdays are for college football.

Getting his team ready to play regularly on Saturdays was another issue. Sawyer said his players were losing a day of rest, and that not all of them may be able to play in the coming weeks if the schedule remained, because Saturday jobs are important for his players and their families in these hard economic times.

“I have kids on my team, they may have to choose between football and work. They work on Saturdays,” Sawyer said. “Sometimes you’re working for your family, sometimes you’re working for yourself, so that you can have some things.”

The financial impact extended to Lake Taylor’s athletic department. Athletic Director Bobby Pannenbacker said the school made around $2,000 less during the Maury game than it would have on a Friday night, and the losses are expected to rise this week, which is homecoming, an event that Pannenbacker said equals about $7,000 in revenue for the school each year.

“It’s a tough pill to swallow,” Pannenbacker said. “But nobody wants to have another child killed on or near a football game. It’s just not worth that. It’s just not worth that price.”

Pannenbacker was one of the last people at the stadium after Lake Taylor’s game last Saturday against Maury. Around 6 o’clock, he said goodbye to the last Norfolk police officer at the front gate, and told him that he would lock the stadium up when he left.

This could be how many of Pannenbacker’s Saturday afternoons are spent in the future, although a Norfolk Public School official said this week that no discussions of moving away from Friday night football after this season have been held.

Eventually Pannenbacker locked the stadium gate and left. Everyone was gone by the time the sun went down on David White’s alma mater, and soon it was night.

 
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