MIKE BURKE

Allegany Radio Corporation Sports

Yes, fall high school sports practices in the state of Maryland have begun. My newsman’s instinct told me this on Wednesday when I saw the Fort Hill football team practicing. Hey, I’ve still got it.

West Virginia schools have already been practicing. August 1st, is that still right? I used to have to know all of these dates so we could begin the work on the football previews – setting up interviews and scheduling photos, which was the single greatest pain in the arse for the sports staff, the photographers and the head coaches, but somehow we prevailed.

For those of us who grew up in Maryland some time ago, the red-letter day was always August 15th, come hell or high water, as that was the earliest summer football practice could begin. And while there’s no need to speculate on how old any of us are here today, all you need to know is the Cumberland schools did not have soccer then, although I am happy to say the automobile had been invented.

So for us, even all of these years later, August 15th remains the date, to paraphrase the great George Carlin, that curves our spine, grows hair on our hands, and serves as official notice that summer is officially and completely over.

On August 14th, football players had but one choice, and that was to go to the neighborhood public swimming pool for the final summer fling. August 14th would be their summer swan song and they would play it to the hilt, rough-housing in the pool and, most importantly, checking out all the girls they were about to leave behind; for less than 24 hours away, hell awaited — three weeks of three-a-day drills, as in those days school did not start until the day after Labor Day.

What a concept it was to have your entire summer off, as though we knew any better anyway, but particularly when you were less than a day from sacrificing the final three weeks of it. Of course, by the time school started, football players were relieved because over half of the season’s practices were already behind them. For the rest of the way, it would be just one practice a day with a light pre-game the day before the game.

So on August 14th, the pool seemed to be a smaller place because high school athletes then, particularly the football players, always seemed to be physically larger than life to those of us whose prized possession remained an autographed Turkey Day Game program. And in the recesses of our memories, those guys still seem physically larger than any high school football players have been since, even though that’s not even close to being true. It’s just that we were little kids then, so everybody seemed bigger to us then and it remains that way in our memories.

Actually, the guys we went to school with were every bit as large, if not larger than their predecessors were, because in the 1970s, thanks to something called the Universal Gym, summer team weight training was just beginning to take hold. Heights on the rosters may have remained about the same, but weights began to creep upward. Players no longer showed up on August 15th to get into shape for the season. If they weren’t in shape by August 15th, they wouldn’t be around for the season.

It’s even more extreme now deep into the free weights era, as recently, while sharing Greenway Avenue Stadium with a number of incoming high school football players, I couldn’t escape the notion that I had somehow taken a wrong turn into a teamsters meeting. Some of these kids are just huge, which provides visual proof of how much of a year-round venture it has all become.

There were very few days this summer, including Sundays, that the field and the track at Greenway were not dotted with groups of kids working out, staying in shape, or just having some fun, whether they were running or playing football or soccer; attending football and soccer camps, or being on the upper field throwing the discus. It’s been gratifying to see.

As for the coming fall sports season, things are beginning to gear up, as the Fort Hill Band Parents have been selling stadium pizza on selected Monday evenings and Board of Education staff has been working diligently to get Greenway ready and even more beautiful than it already is.

With West Virginia schools already in their second week of practice, Maryland practice has now resumed, and with it, just as the swallows return to Capistrano, old and new generations of railbirds, fence-leaners and completely non-neutral observers return as well.

Football practice is probably the single most boring activity in the world to take part in, and even more boring to watch. But it’s high school football, and with the season still over three weeks away, regardless of how small we have become or how large we believe we are, it still has its grip on us.

Which is nice.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT