Friday Night Lights: Football, Pride, and Tradition in Riverside

Photo: Douglas McCulloh

The baby cheerleaders stood gazing up at the big cheerleaders who'd draped gleaming blue and gold beads around their necks, the girls who shepherded them around the infield on a fall night of high school football. The players standing along the sidelines towered over them, and the parents of seniors burst through an arch of balloons with their sons. Other parents sold tacos and hot dogs and bracelets that read "Husky Pride in Riverside."

When my oldest daughter Gaila moved to Texas, she made us watch the popular TV series "Friday Night Lights" because, as she told her father and me, "I realized you guys are exactly the same in Riverside. Everyone still goes to the football games, twenty years after they've graduated! It's crazy."

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Denzel Foster, getting yardage. | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

She was right. I sat in the stands with him, and all around us were the men who've taught us everything about pride. "We haven't missed a game in twenty years," said Glenn King, who taught Dwayne and his brother Derrick in elementary school, and Pete Anderson, who was the assistant principal then. "Well, I missed two," said Marshall Anderson, sitting beside us, ducking his head shyly. (Can I say how difficult it is not to insert "Mr." before these names? Very hard.) We went to school with his sons, who used to play football on that same field lit up below us. The stands were filled with hundreds of people whose children and grandchildren were once down there on the infield.

Mr. Pete Anderson, Mr. Marshall Anderson, Mr. Glenn King, and Dwayne Sims.| Photo: Douglas McCulloh

This was the historic cross-town rivalry between JW North and Riverside Polytechnic, the kind of rivalry played out in every city and town in America during the fall football season. They were playing on neutral territory -- the field at Riverside Community College, where the classic quad on the hill behind the field was built in 1924, when this was Riverside High School. My mother-in-law graduated from Riverside Poly in 1958, after walking these same steps and paths that led us here tonight. Her son and I went to North, and her grandchildren have gone to both schools.

It's a classic Southern California night in late October, the Santa Ana winds softened to breeze that ruffles the fronds of the century-old palms leading up to Cheap Hill, where spectators who want to watch from up high, for free, line the curbside. (We've been up there many times for college games.) The stadium sits in Tequesquite Arroyo, a beautiful bowl of old buildings and bougainvillea spilling over walls and eucalyptus shivering like silver feathers in the night air.

Marcus Baugh, Ohio-State bound. | Photo: Douglas McCullohNorth and Poly have both sent generations of athletes to college and professional sports. Bobby Bonds went to Poly, Alvin Davis went to North. On the sidelines, there are always Calhoun players and graduates, and tonight is no exception -- James Calhoun played for North, then Riverside Community College, and he now helps coach the freshman team. (He stands with Tatyana Calhoun, featured in an earlier story.) Down on the field, the Baugh family celebrates wide receiver Marcus, headed to Ohio State next fall on a full scholarship. (One of the current stars for Texas Tech, Sedale Foster, played for North, then RCC. His brother Denzil is a Husky running back now. The Hale brothers, Greg and Roy, played for Poly last year, and for RCC now. Many generations of Poly and North athletes have gone on to college or pros.)

But football is not just the game. It's the whole American tradition of spectacle and community out here. Also on the sidelines: Chuck Beaty, who was our principal, along with Dale Kinnear, former principal. Sue Rainey, former Superintendent of Schools for Riverside. Basketball Coach for decades, Mike Bartee, who is married to Rebecca Porter, now Director of Student Activities, but when she was in the Class of '77, a year ahead of me, a cheerleader.

Tatyana, Resha and James Calhoun. | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

Charles Beaty, Susan Rainey, Mike Bartee, Dale Kinnear. | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

Bobby Magby, Class of '78. | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

Tonight Porter is everywhere, helping the mini-cheerleaders get ready for their half-time performance with the big cheerleaders. Behind her, running around the track whenever the Huskies score a touchdown, Bobby Magby (Class of '78) wields a huge flag and a CIF championship ring. Though his kids are graduated, the same year as mine, he doesn't miss a game, either. And he was in that same elementary school class with Mr. King, who laughs about that when I sit beside him in the stands.

The Avatongo Family, including 2012 Homecoming Queen Finau Avatongo at far left. | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

No one leaves, no matter the score. At the beginning of the fourth quarter, Magby leads the traditional cheer ("Fourth Quarter, North Quarter!") and hoists the flag again. At game's end, everyone's still visiting. The Avatongo family gathers on the sidelines -- their daughter was Homecoming Queen two weeks ago, wearing traditional Tongan dress along with her father.

Some places in America may appear to be re-separating into distinct communities, dividing by race and religion and class, but no one could be here in this arroyo and believe that. Where my mother-in-law, a black woman with many white friends, walked on these cement paths, my own daughters have friends on both sides of the field -- North and Poly. Where Pete Anderson sits gazing down, after recalling that when he first arrived in Riverside, after being stationed at March Air Force Base like so many other men of his generation, California was very segregated. He was born in Richmond, Virginia. He recalls not being able to buy a house where he wanted to, back in 1953, nor children being able to swim in a city pool. Marshall Anderson was born in Riverside, to parents who'd come from Texas.

These men watch the children of now, laughing with each other, tackling each other, cheering with each other, and marrying each other. We all sit in the autumn wind here in this place carved out by rushing water over thousands of years, sending our children to North High and Poly High to be Huskies and Bears who learn how to survive in the rest of the larger world. College, professional life, and maybe they'll go far away. But we know that like us, many of them will come here for the next twenty years. We hope so. We hope they'll only miss two games, if any, and that they'll hold onto their pride forever.

Photo: Douglas McCulloh

Her new novel "Between Heaven and Here" was published September 12 by McSweeney's Books. Her novel "Highwire Moon" is about a California-born daughter searching for her Mexican-born mother. Doug McCulloh's photographs have been exhibited across the U.S. and in Mexico, Europe, and China. His fourth book "Dream Street" chronicles the builders, workers, and homebuyers of a subdivision in Southern California. Read more of their stories here.

About the Author

Susan Straight was born in Riverside, where she still lives. Her latest novel is "Between Heaven and Here." She teaches at UCRiverside and works with photographer Douglas McCulloh to document the Inland Empire.
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