In the Digital Age, It's Still an American Autumn Ritual

DeMatha Coach Bill McGregor, left, and Good Counsel Coach Bob Milloy were the center of attention before their teams met in Thursday night's nationally televised game.
DeMatha Coach Bill McGregor, left, and Good Counsel Coach Bob Milloy were the center of attention before their teams met in Thursday night's nationally televised game. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
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By George Solomon
Sunday, October 5, 2008

The great sportswriter, Dan Jenkins, once strode the field with TCU coach Abe Martin before a huge football game in the 1950s. With the stands filling and the bands playing, Martin excitedly turned to Jenkins and in his folksy way said, "We're gonna have us a spellin' bee today."

That's how it felt Thursday night at Kline Stadium on the Good Counsel High School campus in Olney, with the No. 10 DeMatha Stags and No. 2 Falcons warming up, the band playing, the hamburgers on the grill, the ESPN2 and local TV crews in place and more than 4,500 fans filling the bleachers and surrounding grassy slopes.

On the field, two veteran coaches -- DeMatha's Bill McGregor (38 years at the school, 27 as head coach) and Good Counsel's Bob Milloy (38 years at four different Montgomery County schools) -- surveyed the scene. They saw an American ritual that in some ways has changed dramatically over the years. Yet in other ways, it remains the same.

"I grew up playing high school ball in Mount Lebanon [Pa.] for South Hills Catholic in front of good crowds but no TV or much newspaper coverage," McGregor recalled. "But now with ESPN and other coverage on cable, it's evolved into entertainment as well as sports. This is the way it's going to be."

Milloy, 65, has adapted to the new world while trying to maintain old-school values. "It's a big deal for me and great experience for these kids," he said. "You still have to play the game right -- make the big plays on offense and defense."

Milloy's 5-0 Falcons, who never have won the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championship, clearly were the better team, registering a 42-21 victory over a 3-2 DeMatha squad that has won five straight league titles, beating Good Counsel in the championship game in each of the past four seasons.

"You try to sell the kids that this is just another game, but they know it's not," McGregor said. "They know they're playing on national television, and for most of them something like this will never happen again."

Maryland's Ralph Friedgen, another old-school coach who said he was "trying to work in the 21st century," stood on the sidelines with several staff members. Friedgen has an oral commitment from Good Counsel's star running back, Caleb Porzel (124 yards on 16 carries and three touchdowns), and like many other coaches would love to have Falcons linebacker-running back Jelani Jenkins.

"High school football is a different game," Friedgen said. "The NFL has filtered down to this level. The game is more wide open and the kids are bigger, faster, stronger and getting better coaching."

But Friedgen had a caveat, perhaps thinking about his father, who was a high school coach. "I'll still take a kid with character over one with talent," he said.

When the game ended, Good Counsel's players and coaches mingled with parents, reporters and friends, some of them not quite comprehending that this shining moment will be one they'll always remember. "I love football," said Jenkins, not aware how many people hang on his every word.

Leaving the stadium, I passed ESPN's remote truck and thought about Miami Beach High School football coach Milt Feinstein, who 52 years ago suggested I had a better future as a journalist than a pulling guard. What would Feinstein think about high school football in HDTV, rights fees, Internet sites, sold-out stadiums, the games covered by media hordes?

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