Moments before Hernando High kicked off its preseason football game against rival Pasco last August, a white hearse pulled in across from the stadium.
Missy Bland had died that week from cancer, at age 44. She was a football fan and a Leopards booster.
Traffic was stopped, and the announcer directed the attention of the crowd, many holding gold balloons in her memory, to the hearse on Howell Street.
Bland would watch her beloved Leopards kick off one final time.
For all of the problems facing high school sports — the shrinking budgets, marginalization by clubs and unrealistic expectations from over-involved parents and entitled players — they still have an unmatched ability to bind schools with their communities.
Here are seven other things we really love about high school sports:
Friday night lights
I enjoy a high school basketball gym as much as the next reporter, especially the air conditioning, but there’s something about the buzz in a football stadium the night of a big game.
The smoke rising from the concession stand, the sound of pads crunching, the crowd — the community — filing through with their seat cushions while others line up along the fence, the band, the cheerleaders and the sideline. There’s a reason it made for such a great book, movie and television series. “Clear eyes, full hearts …” Well, you get my point.
A family affair
The parking lot mom who lets you in for free but only if you promise to write something good about her daughter’s team.
The burger-flipping dad who promises, good-naturedly I presume, not to poison your food as long as you write something good about his son’s team.
The grandpa who wants to tell you about that touchdown he ran for in 1953 out of the single wing, back before all this fancy equipment was introduced.
The sister taking pictures of you interviewing her brother who just hit the game winner, so she can post it on Twitter later to prove what a stud he is — and how out of shape the reporter covering him was.
All of that.
The good-bye game
The moment it occurs to athletes that they played their final high school game.
The seniors hugging each other, tears spilling out, eyes rubbed red.
The sophomores hugging the seniors, sad for their big brothers and sisters, and knowing in two years, “Hey, this will be me.”
Parents with heartbreak in their eyes, waiting to pull their children in and tell them it will be all right.
The coach and player, often the best and tightest relationship a kid will have in high school, and the long embrace to just keep it going a little …bit …longer.
That moment, and the hundreds that preceded it, will live on forever. Five, 10, 20 years later, many of you will pop your head in your coach’s office, say thanks, and rehash it all over.
Except the crying and the hugging. You’ll probably just sheepishly skip over that.
Brittnay Estes from her East Lake volleyball days. Ranging from determined to joyous, Estes wore her emotions on her sleeve and allowed us a peek into the competitive nature, and the ups and downs of a prep athlete.
And when she competed at state with a face so swollen from an allergic reaction that it was hard to look at her (sorry, Britt) — because she had to win a championship for her dad and coach — I realized, dang, this might be the dustiest gym I’ve ever interviewed anyone in.
In the prep world, we — players, coaches, fans, reporters — all live for these moments.
If not Estes, then James Wilder Jr. flexing or Lance McCullers Jr. pumping his fist or Janarion Grant smiling after a return from injury.
The list is thousands of names long. No wonder so many of us enjoy high school sports moments, capture them on camera, video and in our stories, to share and preserve.
Because they’re worth it.
We don’t pay enough attention to these. We don’t pay academics enough attention. But every year, it’s amazing to see what Tampa Bay’s athletes accomplish off the field: astounding grade-point averages, college classes, volunteer hours and public service.
And we wonder: Where do they find time for all that and athletics?
The point is, though, they find the time.
The Blue Crew, the Blue Tide, the Blue Bonnets, the Green Hornets, the Yellow Umbrellas and all y’all. Your enthusiasm and hijinks are timeless, because let’s face it, even us old folks can remember painting big letters on our bodies (when it only required one can of paint, and not two) and getting crunk — is that a still a word? — at pre-game pep parties.
Sure, you mosey up to that line of good taste, and like the rebellious little teenagers you are, you like to step across it on occasion. But for the most part, you are funny, creative, original and the life blood of a lot of games that would be pretty quiet affairs if you weren’t being obnoxious.
Golf claps? No thanks.
Thanks for keeping the traditions alive, kids. And for all you schools without a fan group, go buy some T-shirts and face paint, and get with it.
Lakewood’s basketball gym, which isn’t fancy but played to a standing-room only crowd in 2002 when the Spartans beat Lakeland Kathleen in one of those unforgettable games that still gives you goose bumps.
Or Ridgewood’s baseball field, for years always the most pristine of fields thanks to the dutiful eyes and riding mower of longtime coach Larry Beets, because he wanted a beautiful, special place for his players to enjoy the game.
Or Dads Stadium, maybe the best place to watch a high school football game. Can you beat the “Plant, Plant, Plant” chant?
Annoying, isn’t it? And yet …can’t …stop …myself.
But there’s a lot encapsulated in that chant.
Rivalry. Spirit. Pride. On-field excellence. Off-field loyalty.
That’s a lot to like.
Let’s keep it going.
John C. Cotey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JohnnyHomeTeam.
Photo: East Lake volleyball player Brittnay Estes was one of the more expressive athetes we've every covered.
Catch up on earlier parts of the series here.