Long Beach Poly Vets Stadium

HOME AWAY. A packed crowd gathers at Veterans Stadium to watch Long Beach Poly play football.

I spend all year waiting for this week.

The leaves are turning brown and falling off the trees, but a new year is in bloom. Moms and kids are packing the aisles at Target looking for school supplies, teachers are getting their classrooms prepared for a new wave of students, and coaches are starting to get pre-game jitters as the first Friday night lights approach.

There’s nothing like the start of fall.

Yes, I know football is waning in popularity nationwide. Participation in the sport was down 3% in California last year, once again. Personally, the new information about CTE and other after-effects of playing football released this summer are very troubling. I’ve tried to make sure as a writer that I’m not using words like “warrior” or “gladiator” the last few years, or lauding kids who play through injuries.

Still, despite the very real concerns, football remains king in the hearts of most of our readers and most sports fans across the country. While participation in California may have dropped 3% last year, there were still more than 99,000 prep athletes playing, making it far and away the biggest sport numbers-wise (the next closest for boys is track and field, with 56,000 participants).

We certainly celebrate autumn differently across the country — for example, I know I have friends in New England who would scoff at my “leaves turning brown” line, surrounded as they are by the radiant colors of reds and oranges in the forests that ring their communities.

But whether you’re looking forward to crisp New England nights or moderate Southern California ones, you’re probably also looking forward to football. Last week, the National Federation of State High School Associations released participation numbers even more dramatic than the ones that the CIF State office put out.

Across the country, football took a modest dip just as in California — but nationwide there are still more than 1,057,000 football players at the high school level. That’s more than 400,000 kids more than the second-closest sport. It’s also more than boys’ basketball (550k) and baseball (490k) combined, with a few thousand to spare.

With each passing fall, we see the world around us change. Our values, our concerns, our politics have never looked the same from one year to the next — and they never will. But, for me at least, the feeling I get at the end of August is the same year to year: excitement, a little nervousness. I think about the teams I’ll cover across all sports, and the athletes I know will have big years. I wonder about which stories will catch me by surprise — an administrative move, a coach’s firing, a kid I’d never heard of who becomes an All-American by the time graduation rolls around.

That anticipation, the breath before the plunge, is part of why this is my favorite time of year. After weeks of going to football practices, we get to start covering games. After some time off in the summer to recharge our batteries, we get to start hustling again, bouncing from school to school and sport to sport.

As long as kids are out there playing football, we want to be there to cover it. We want to be there to cover water polo and volleyball too, but there’s something special about football, and there’s something special about Fall.

Cheers to a new year — we’ll see you on the sidelines.

Sports Guy Mike Guardabascio has been writing professionally for a decade, with his work published in dozens of Southern California magazines and newspapers. He's won numerous awards and is the author of the historical book "Football in Long Beach."

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