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The year Friday Nights Lights in the fall went dark

The football field of a defending state champion sits empty as sprinklers moisten a glistening grass surface. A harsh Las Vegas sun beats down on the place where dreams are both realized and shattered.

Beyond both sidelines are two towering light standards, under which Kenny Chesney sings, fans go crazy for the boys of fall.

“I love the energy of being in the locker room and seeing the kids and the sense of brotherhood,” Liberty High coach Rich Muraco said. “I love the atmosphere of the crowd and community. It’s such a special time. There is nothing like it.”

There will be this year.

Friday Night Lights in the fall have gone dark.

Liberty High School football coach Rich Muraco stands on the empty football field on Thursday, ...
Liberty High School football coach Rich Muraco stands on the empty football field on Thursday, July 23, 2020, in Las Vegas. Due to the COVID-19 rise the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association will move all high school sports to the spring semester. (L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Left_Eye_Images

Spring hopes eternal

The sights and sounds and smells of high school football haven’t been spared by COVID-19. Like all sports in regards to the coronavirus, football has straddled a line between health and safety and an insatiable desire to play.

Clark County football coaches suspended practices this week until schools received more guidance from the district and Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association. Not surprisingly, when prodded by such action, movement came quickly.

It was Thursday when the NIAA made major adjustments to its 2020-21 sports schedule, moving fall and winter athletics to the spring.

For football, that would mean beginning practice Feb. 13 for a shortened six-game season that would not extend beyond April 10. State championships are not expected to be held in any sport.

“We knew by looking at the data we were never going to start practice on time July 30 with helmets,” Muraco said. “Any reasonable person could see that.’”

A possible local impediment to the spring model: Schools begin full-time distance learning Aug. 24. Based on a decision by the Board of Control in June, Clark County can’t participate in spring sports unless it’s holding on-campus classes, which could include a hybrid combination of distance learning and on-campus classes.

“In that way,” Muraco said, “it’s still a waiting game for us.”

Nothing connects a school to itself or a town to a school like prep football. Nowhere are memories so effortlessly formed.

The band. The cheerleaders. The chill of a crisp autumn night.

Now, such pageantry has been pushed forward by months.

Call me crazy. The piping hot chocolate just won’t taste the same in March.

‘Boys of fall’

In the distance, where inviting lights draw so many from places big and small, Fridays as we have known them will fade into a gloomy existence for the time being. How one’s football team performs often defines if a high school prospers in a given year, how attached it becomes to emotions like spirit and pride.

Liberty High School football coach Rich Muraco at the goalpost on the empty football field on T ...
Liberty High School football coach Rich Muraco at the goalpost on the empty football field on Thursday, July 23, 2020, in Las Vegas. Due to the COVID-19 rise the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association will move all high school sports to the spring semester. (L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Left_Eye_Images

Liberty returns nine starters on offense from its state championship side, one that posted a historic regional final win by halting a 55-game win streak and 10 straight state titles by mighty Bishop Gorman.

But the beauty of Friday Night Lights reaches all levels of programs on all dots of a national map. Books have been written and movies made and television shows created to feature all that which defines the highs and lows of such a culture.

Muraco loves the Chesney song, “The Boys of Fall,” its video including New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton returning to his high school in Illinois and addressing the football team before its 2009 season opener.

All the while, lyrics play …

When I feel that chill, smell that fresh cut grass

I’m back in my helmet, cleats, and shoulder pads

Standing in the huddle, listening to the call

Fans going crazy for the boys of fall …

“Safety for everyone will always be the most important thing,” Muraco said. “I was never good enough to play in college. My memories as a player are those moments on Friday nights. You never forget them. Looking back, you appreciate them even more. If it turns out we play just six spring games, our kids will be fired up and ready. It would just be really sad if they can’t make any of those memories this year.

“I just can’t imagine seniors not getting the chance to run out of that tunnel a final time.”

So into the darkness they go for now, Friday Night Lights in the fall no match for a global pandemic.

Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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