It only happens on Friday night. People hop in their cars and head for the lights. These aren’t used-car-lot searchlights or saloon neons. These are the Friday night lights that spotlight every high school gridiron in the country. And in North Carolina, they shine like nowhere else.
At Randleman High School, the lights sit back behind the baseball field, surrounding two sets of bleachers, two press boxes — one small and blue with “Tigers” on it; one stretching almost the length of the bleachers, boasting “Charles R. Gregory Stadium” — and, of course, a green field with a tiger painted on the 50-yard line. There are no turnstiles or ticket scanners. Booster Club members sit at a small card table, taking $5 for admission.
The smell of popcorn and hot dogs with chili — yes, the chili’s homemade — greet fans as they file through a small tunnel under the larger press box. Kids from the elementary school hopped up on Pepsi and M&Ms buzz through the throng.
For some families, it’s suppertime. They stop for a sweet tea and a dog, juggling their grub with seat cushions, blankets, and programs while diehards head straight for the metal bleachers and their usual Friday night seat, some at the 50-yard line in the front row, others close to the scoreboard, a few up top in the back row. There isn’t a bad seat in the house, but their seat is best — under the lights, surrounded by friends and neighbors, the best show in town on a Friday night about to begin.
The team is already on the field for warm-ups, coaches weaving their way through blue-and-orange clad boys (because, really, they are still boys on paper). First stretches, then breaking into groups for more individual work, then back into the locker room before the big entrance.
From above the lights comes Tommy McDonald’s distinct baritone: “Fans, tonight is middle school night.” His voice is the cue to wrap up bragging about grandkids and perusing the “Go team!” ads in the program:
Compliments of Deep River Dyeing Company, Inc. — Go Tigers!
Randleman Drug — Go Tigers!
Guilford Orthopedic and Sports Medical Center proudly
supports the Randleman Tigers.
The opening chords of “Eye of the Tiger” fill the stadium. Smoke swirls across the field behind a huge banner held by the cheerleaders. The team bulldozes out of the tunnel and tears through the sign.
“Ladies and gentleman, your Randleman Tigers!”
Football players transform when they step onto their home turf. Something about digging their cleats into soft grass. They are no longer just high school kids. They are warriors, stars. All eyes are on them under those lights.
Tommy McDonald (the same Tommy McDonald who now directs Tigers fans to “Form two lines” at the concession stand) didn’t step on home turf until he was a senior in high school in 1966 — the first year Randleman High School had a football field to call its own. After three years of borrowing and playing at Sumner and Trinity for home games, the Tigers got their own patch of grass, their own dressing rooms.
That was before they had a PA announcer, or music blaring during player introductions, or the herd stampeding through a sign. It didn’t matter if there was one fan or 1,000. Players warmed up in the end zone, trotted to the sideline, and went to work. Boys with flattops said “yes, sir” and “no, ma’am.” Typical of a team coached by the stadium’s namesake, Coach Gregory.
“It’s the way we grew up in a small community, knowing everyone,” Tommy says.
He played both ways — quarterback on offense, linebacker on defense.
“When you’re the quarterback, you’re in the middle of everything, but it was more fun to hit than get hit,” he says.
Back in the 1960s, the lights weren’t bright banks of stadium bulbs ringing the field. Those lights were stuck up on telephone poles. They did the job on Friday night.
The game was a break from the mill work and the farm — no repetition, no predictable outcome.
“It was the only game in town on Friday night,” Tommy says. “Everything shut down. On Saturday, every man at the mill wanted to know what happened in the game Friday night.”
Not all the action took place on the field, however.
After graduating, Tommy attended a sloppy, rain-soaked game at East Davidson High School. Following the game, Tommy needed a ride home. He asked Bill Baggett for a ride back to Randleman. It was a long, wet drive home, but at least Tommy had company — Baggett’s teenage daughter, Ann.
“She gave me the impression that she was a big-time female jock. That she played this and that,” Tommy says. “She couldn’t drive a nail into a bucket of water. She strung me along. Thank goodness she did.”
When they reached Randleman, he asked her out. Next year will be the McDonalds’ 45th anniversary.
Along the sidelines of almost every Friday night football game, the cheerleaders have the best views of the action in the stadium. Sometimes jumping. Sometimes tumbling. Always cheering on the edge of the brightly lit field.
“Let’s! Go! Ti-gers!”
The crowd joins in, the chant builds, and The Wave starts at one end of the bleachers, or maybe in the middle.
“Let’s! Go! Ti-gers!”
When the cheerleaders aren’t facing the crowd, they stand akimbo, smiling faces toward the field. When the Tigers score, they jump, yell, clap their pom-poms together, then they drop to the turf and do pushups — one for each point on the scoreboard.
All the while, they keep tabs on what’s going on around them. When the crowd grows quiet. When the other team gains momentum. When the preschooler in pigtails and miniature cheerleading outfit wants to come down on the field to be a part of the big girls’ squad.
Tommy and Ann watched all three of their children, all daughters — Meredith, Karen, and Ellen — cheer on the boys.
“I thought I’d have a son and teach him to play quarterback and take him fishing,” Tommy says. “We still went fishing and went to ball games.”
Tommy admits that he never really noticed the cheerleaders — until he had daughters on the sideline and his fatherly pride kicked in.
“It’s like they’re Serena Williams and I’m the dad,” he says.
The McDonald girls, dressed in matching orange-and-blue skirts and tennis shoes, took their jobs on the sideline as seriously as the boys in their helmets
“We felt we were supporting them,” says Meredith, who cheered for Randleman in the late 1980s. “We represented the school spirit and showed how much we believed in them.”
The ritual hasn’t changed much over the years.
Before games, the girls decorated the lockers and cars of the players. On the way to the game, they lined the streets, holding up signs. When the team barged onto the field, the burly players ripped the huge “Go Tigers!” sign to shreds. The girls believed ripping that sign might mean the difference between a win and a loss.
“Everyone has to play their part and do their part,” Meredith says. “If one person isn’t doing their job, you see it. The benefits and fruits of that labor are incredible.”
Careers under the lights only last four years, though. Football players and cheerleaders grow up and have little football players and cheerleaders of their own.
Meredith and her husband, Scott Worley, had four children: three boys — Caleb, Seth, and Josh — and one daughter, KaraBeth. And, yes, all three boys play football, and their daughter is a cheerleader. This puts Meredith in the stands rather than on the sidelines — a bit farther out of the lights.
“I get even more nervous for my own sons,” she says. “I know how much sweat they put into it. It comes to fruition on Friday night.”
Even football players in small towns get noticed by scouts. Maybe it’s the lights.
Caleb Worley was the McDonalds’ first grandson. Even as a baby, it was obvious he had inherited his grandfather’s size. Having athlete’s genes meant he would probably play something when he got older.
He grew up throwing the football with Grandpa Tommy. When Caleb was 6, he played football for the Oreos. The team wore shirts with big cookies on the front. His dad let him stay up late to watch football. Once, he got to go to a Carolina Panthers game. He was hooked — hooked and big.
In fourth grade, he was too tall and too heavy to play with his classmates, so he played on the fifth- and sixth-grade team. But he was destined for Friday night.
He played defense until his freshman season at Davidson County’s West Davidson High School. At his first practice, he started to trot over to the defensive side of the ball, and his coach asked him where he was going.
“I’m going to play defensive line,” Caleb said.
His coach disagreed.
“You’re going to be a left tackle.”
And that’s where he stayed.
“When I started varsity, the lights were a lot brighter than I expected,” Caleb says. “The first thing I remember is running out and looking up to see if my grandpa was in the stands.”
Worley found him in the stands, and his grandfather gave No. 72 a thumbs-up.
“All right, Pawpaw,” Caleb thought. Now he could play.
The gesture became a tradition, and his grandfather hasn’t missed many Friday night games since.
“I’m like 99 percent of the males in the stands who’ve ever played,” Tommy says. “Your time was always the best. ‘Why don’t they just do the same old-school thing we did?’ ”
But Tommy admits that while the game is pretty much the same, there are some significant differences between players now and players when he played. “They’re bigger, faster, and smarter now.”
By his junior year, Caleb was 6-foot-4 and 305 pounds with a full beard. He transferred to Lexington High School for his senior year and was preseason all-state. He was getting plenty of attention for his play, but then knee injuries and illness sidelined him for the first six games of the season.
After four years of varsity, Caleb grew accustomed to the lights. Then he discovered that bright lights cast dark shadows.
Caleb was running with a bad crowd, and made some bad choices. Finally, Caleb said he wanted to change, and did.
“By the grace of God, he got his life turned around,” Tommy says.
Healthy again, and with his sights set on his future, Caleb — No. 72 — returned to the gridiron.
“Senior Night was crazy emotional,” Caleb says. “To still be doing what I love doing meant a lot. There’s something about high school football. It’s where you meet all your friends your freshman year; you’ve played that long together.”
Last year, with his Lexington Vikings teammates by his side, Caleb took his last walk past the state championship trophies and headed out into the lights.
Caleb will be playing on Saturdays this fall at Bethany College in Kansas. Afternoon games. He’ll have to say goodbye to the lights, for now.
There will be another No. 72 taking his place at Lexington High School. There always is. He might be bigger, faster, smarter. He might get injured. He might have troubles off the field. The lights may be too bright.
Maybe someone, or something, will keep him focused. A mom or a Pawpaw. Maybe one of those cheerleaders he never noticed as a player. Or maybe a community he can never leave, or always comes back to.
“It’s that sense of brotherhood,” Meredith says. “It brings out qualities you didn’t see you had. It’s about perseverance and having the courage to go up against someone. If you push through that, you’re proud of yourself.
“There’s another side of that, too. How do you gracefully lose? How do you gracefully win? It’s a sense of rallying behind one another and the community gets involved. It excites the fans, and I know the guys feed off of that. When Caleb sees and hears the crowd, he thinks, ‘I want to perform for these folks who want our team to win.’ ”
There are plenty of bigger schools, in cities like Charlotte and Raleigh, that play on artificial turf under brighter lights. But there are many more communities where the high school stadium is the brightest place in the county on a Friday night. Where finding the game still means hopping in the car and driving toward the lights. Where the players say “sir” and “ma’am,” the chili’s homemade, and it’s still a great night to be a Tiger, or a Viking, or …
This story appeared in print as “The Only Game In Town.”