Ryan McFarland remembers his first day of football practice. He was nervous. He was excited. • A freshman at the time, his parents never allowed him to play Little League football, only basketball. McFarland would attend his older brother's Largo High practices and games and long for the day when he too could step foot on the gridiron. • Jameel Griffin also remembers that day. He too was a freshman and ready for high school football. Griffin remembers all the other rising ninth- and 10th-graders there on the first day. But then on the second day, the numbers got smaller. The third, the numbers were even smaller. • "A couple of my friends had to quit," Griffin, 17, said. "They had to get jobs to help their families." • McFarland and Griffin are oddities on the 2008 Largo High School football team. • Of the 13 seniors listed on this year's roster, they are the only two to have played Packer football all four years.
"It's hard," offensive lineman McFarland, 17, said. "It's a commitment you have to make. It's like getting a job."
"It feels good," said Griffin, a lineman. "I made it through all four years of playing. It was hard but I stuck to it."
Friday night football brings the body-painted students to the stands. There's the band and doting mothers, fathers, uncles and cousins, cheering in support. There's the gathering at the concession stand to gossip. There's the final score.
But the work put in before the lights are lit is often forgotten.
There are the daily summer workouts in the weight room and the running of suicide sprints. There's standing outside a local Publix to raise money for practice shorts and T-shirts.
"There's a lot that we do that people have no idea about," said McFarland. "They just know we play football."
The padded and helmeted students bring in the most money to athletic programs, with $433,057 made in the Pinellas school system last season. Football brings most of the exposure, the most scholarships.
Pinellas athletic director Nick Grasso said the money football generates supports many of the other athletic programs. But he said it's the lessons the students take away from the game that makes it great.
"It's about goal setting and the sacrifices it takes to meet the goal," Grasso said. "You have a collective blend of our society from all different backgrounds that kids bring with them, from race to financial backgrounds. You reduce the amount of barriers for tolerance for one another when you work together for a common goal. You're a team."
And at Largo, the goals and expectations are high.
The Packers had their first undefeated regular season since 1977 last year, with a final record of 13-1 after losing in the state semifinal. They've won three consecutive district championships and have lost just three games in the last three seasons. Winning is expected.
Griffin and McFarland know the pressure is on and they are ready for it. But they say they are dealing with other pressures as well.
"People see us and they just think we are all about football," said McFarland, who also works as a server on the weekends at a retirement home. "But it's my senior year and I'm thinking about college. I'm taking the SAT in September. I want to be a police officer."
Griffin, who also is preparing for the SAT and looking at colleges, agreed.
"In order to play football, you have to keep your grades up," he said. "You have to know how to act and behave in school. Anything you do off the field can stop you from playing on Friday nights."
That's the lesson Largo coach Rick Rodriguez wants the players to take with them. He said he wants them to understand commitment and that in life, you don't quit and that hard work is rewarded, whether it's on or off field.
The two seniors who stuck to the game on the field and made sure they did the right things off the field take those lessons with them into their senior year.
"It's been hard work but it's taught me that you never quit," Griffin said. "Whether you are on the field or off the field, you don't quit."
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or firstname.lastname@example.org