Game-night, and it's on

Jeff Stead/PrepsKC

By Dion Clisso PrepsKC Managing Editor
Posted: October 20, 2012 - 12:59 AM

When a player walks on to the field of a high school football game there is a certain energy. A feeling that helps them get ready for the next three hours of their life.
You see them start to harness that energy in the locker room. Then when they step out, there is usually music blaring to help feed that energy. Finally there are the fans who can send that energy level over the top where a player is ready for the game.
All of those factors are at every high school game across the Metro on Friday nights. Players get used to the feel and sound of a good crowd, whether cheering for them or against them. It becomes easy to overlook the fact that not all football is played in the great atmosphere of a high school stadium.
Chris Smith played at Blue Springs before graduating in 2008. He was a member of two district champion teams and is now finishing his college career at Avila University. The defensive lineman said he misses the atmosphere of high school football.
“The atmosphere, it gets to you because you know that all of those people are there to see you perform and do what you love to and they are going crazy for you,” Smith said.
The fire and passion on Friday nights sometimes doesn’t carry over to Saturday afternoons. Small colleges like Avila have a loyal following, but most games it plays are in small towns and the stands are filled with mostly family and alumni of those schools.
Smith said the college experience was different right from the start.
“It was definitely noticeable from when I was in high school,” Smith said. “Every defensive play was completely loud, and you couldn’t hear anything. Here sometimes you can hear a pin drop.”
Even in some of the smaller towns like Marshall, where Missouri Valley has one of the top NAIA programs in the country, the atmosphere is good but not as exciting as a Kansas City Metro high school game.
“I feel like most of the stadiums we play in aren’t nearly as big,” Smith said. “There are fans there, but the numbers aren’t the same, and the excitement level isn’t the same as it was in high school. Most of the college games are alumni, and they don’t scream as much. They are an older group, and they don’t scream as much. In high school it was scream as loud as you can, be as crazy as you can.”
Smith said the fans were a big part of the success his Blue Springs teams had while he was in school.
“I feel like it was really important,” Smith said. “It showed how much they cared about us and made us play harder knowing they were with us throughout everything win or lose.”
Interest and passion for high school football are at an all-time high. Year-round coverage of the sport like PrepsKC wasn’t even thought of 20 or 30 years ago. At the same time facilities like the giant Shawnee Mission South stadium were filled every Friday night, no matter who was playing.
Former head coach Harold Wambsgans has seen many things in his four decades in the sport. Wambsgans coached when Friday night football was the only game in town and everyone came out to see the action.
“Families in the ‘70s and ‘80s there weren’t nearly as many activities for the little brothers and sisters to be involved in,” Wambsgans said. “There weren’t as many pulls at a family. It was a family thing to go. Now brothers and sisters have soccer practice, baseball practice, and to the non-football people Friday night is not as important to a youth soccer coach.
“In the’ 70s we had youth football, but we didn’t have practice on Fridays because everyone went to the game.”
These days the sport’s interest level continues to grow, but how fans engage with their teams takes many forms. There are three games each week that are broadcast Metro-wide on television. Throw a dozen or so that are on the radio and many more that are either broadcast or webcast on the Internet, and there are several ways to see a game.
“In the last five years the amount of interest in football is still there, but I don’t think the attendance has kept up with the interest because of the distractions,” Wambsgans said.
Even with smaller numbers at some of the bigger schools, the intensity the fans bring affects both the home and visiting teams.
“I think there is any question that the fans have a positive impact on you,” Wambsgans said. “It’s an emotional thing. It has an effect on you.
“From an emotional standpoint there isn’t anything better than a home high school football game. I don’t know if it has an effect once the game starts, but the emotional impact is huge because every team has its traditions that they go through for Friday night home games. When you go on the road it’s hard to do those traditions and get ready especially when their fans outnumber you 10 to 1.”
Wambsgans was a head coach at different programs on both sides of the state line and said making sure the fans were engaged with his football team was a key part of the success of those programs.
“It has to be a priority of a head coach,” Wambsgans said. “You want those fans in the stands both home and away.”