We in Central Illinois love a good party and we prove it by showing up in waves anytime someone advertises music, food, drink and a reason to turn up the volume.
We’ll pour into the streets of downtown for Decatur Celebration or crowd around at weekend winery bashes at Willow Creek in Shelbyville or Arpeggio Winery, the sweet haven nestled between Assumption and Pana.
We can say it’s the music or the wine or the chance to kick back and sample a delicacy served from a truck, but it doesn’t seem to matter if the music is bluegrass or Jimmy Buffett. Really, it’s the social mingle that brings us there.
It’s a party, loud and lively. It’s a community reunion, a chance to remind ourselves that for the most part, we enjoy being around our neighbors and friends, even those we’re meeting for the first time.
Beginning this past Friday, we welcomed the start of another party season by filling our high school football stadiums.
Again, we can say it’s the football or the chance to support our children, but in Central Illinois the best high school football stadiums and basketball gymnasiums are alive because they become social gathering places where friends find their friends and celebrate a chance to raise a ruckus for a common cause.
It’s a difficult-to-explain dynamic that happens with our high school sports teams and, sure, winning helps fuel the attendance and the excitement. But it’s more than winning that makes us jam in hip-to-hip on aluminum bleachers or stand five-deep in the end zones behind a chain link fence.
For decade after decade a Friday night football game at St. Teresa has been the place to see and be seen. It’s primo people-watching because over the course of two hours, this is where the fun happens. It’s where you see that guy you like but barely know, and it might be the only place you see that guy all year.
It’s the buzz that brings them out at Maroa-Forsyth or Tuscola or Monticello. And over the course of a nine-week high school season plus the playoffs, we’ll show up whether it’s hot and sweaty or bone-biting cold.
We’re rarely deterred by rain or snow and, in fact, rain and snow seem to ratchet up the gritty determination to be there. Weather usually finishes second in a race against a good party. Or a rivalry high school football game.
How schools have chosen nicknames varies. Some schools vote on them — MacArthur students chose “Generals” by student vote in September 1957. Others, like the Sages and Arcola’s Purple Riders, had the name given to them by a newspaper.
Think about the annual spectacle that is the Decatur Turkey Tournament, the high school basketball gathering that has found a home at Stephen Decatur Middle School.
Of course part of the draw is a competitive collection of basketball teams that each November helps welcome in another season. But it’s just as much an excuse for high school students – current and long ago grads – to have a reunion, a place to come where they know they’ll bump into friends and faces they haven’t seen in a while.
The gym is full, but so is the lobby, where folks mingle around the concession stand and exchange stories that begin by saying, “Remember when …”
They were doing that Friday at football stadiums throughout Central Illinois and they’ll continue doing it on Friday nights and the occasional Saturday as the leaves turn bronze and burgundy.
When I used to cover high school football games at some of the distant outposts in our circulation area, it was a thrill to drive through the countryside and spot the distant glow of the stadium lights.
It might have been a small place, with only a few stretches of bleachers and lights that were low, dim and attached to tilted wooden poles.
But under the yellow warmth of those lights the citizens of a proud town gathered and showed a togetherness that is what holds our communities together.
Maybe you haven’t been to a high school football game in a long while. If you don’t have a child or a grandchild who participates, either as a player, a cheerleader or the member of a marching band, you may see no reason to go now.
But out there you’ll find the same camaraderie that many of us believe makes an event like the Decatur Celebration or the Arthur Fireworks or Clinton’s Apple and Pork Festival worth supporting.
Whether you know it or not, this is where your neighbors are. Choose a night and grab a seat. There’s a party going on. Football, too.