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Madden: Magic starts again on Friday night

Saturday, August 24, 2002

Not too long ago, the time slot for my sports talk show got changed. It used to be 4-8 p.m. Now it's 3-7 p.m. There is one major benefit from that.

I get to go watch high school football on Friday nights. Kickoff is 7:30 at most places.

For those who understand, no explanation is necessary. For those who don't, no explanation could suffice.

But most of Western Pennsylvania understands. In Western Pennsylvania, high school football ranks only below the Steelers in terms of affection and obsession.

All those jam-packed stadiums on Friday nights can't be wrong.

High school football in these parts is absolute magic.

The lights, the band, the cheerleaders, the purity of the competition ... it's nothing short of awesome. If a cynic like me still loves it, then you should be able to appreciate exactly what sort of grip it has.

They don't go on strike in high school football.

They don't whine to the press about playing time, either.

Some kids might play high school football with an eye toward eventually getting a scholarship or paycheck. But most play for the love of the game.

Sure, most athletes say that. But high school football players aren't lying.

Some of my fondest journalistic memories were compiled while covering high school football for the Post-Gazette.

The world found out about the "LaVar leap" when LaVar Arrington became a star at Penn State.

I saw Arrington execute that most violent form of ballet when he played for North Hills High School. But only about 10 times. If Arrington made high school football look easy, it's only because for him, it was.

Marc Bulger surprised some when he became a star quarterback at West Virginia University after starting only one season at Central Catholic High School.

Not me.

The first time I saw him fire a dart from his earlobe, I knew that major-college excellence was the least Bulger would attain.

I'll never forget the first high school game I covered. It was 1978, and North Allegheny High School had a late lead against Central Catholic. But Central -- which had mostly run the ball to that point -- effortlessly passed the ball down the field to grab the victory.

It made you wonder why the coach didn't let that Marino kid throw from the get-go.

Arrington and Bulger immediately come to mind because they're in the NFL, with Washington and St. Louis. And you may remember some of Dan Marino's exploits at Pitt and with the Miami Dolphins.

But other players and moments remain indelibly etched in my mind, too:

dot.gif Lee Hendrick and Mike Weaver crying uncontrollably in the locker room after North Allegheny won the 1990 PIAA Class AAAA title. All good things must come to an end, and these two were bawling because they had realized that.

dot.gif Running back Brian Davis of Washington High School absolutely ripping apart an opposing team in a game I covered in the early '80s. When I went to compare my statistics with those kept by quasi-legendary high school stats geek Deuce Skurcenski, I had 216 yards for Davis. Deuce had 132. I was totally puzzled until Deuce said, "Wait a minute. ... I forgot to write down this 84-yard touchdown."

I'm not sure how you forget to write down an 84-yard touchdown, but I'm sure I'll never forget Davis. He was, by far, the best high school back I ever saw. Power and speed personified. Too bad he washed out academically at Pitt.

dot.gif North Hills and Gateway tying, 0-0, in the 1985 WPIAL Class AAAA championship when a field goal try by North Hills' T.J. Osman hit the upright. The goal posts at Three Rivers Stadium that day were NFL width, not high school width. Osman's kick would have been good using high school goal posts. The ensuing controversy kept talk-show telephone lines lit up for days.

dot.gif North Hills beating Central Bucks West, 15-14, in the 1993 PIAA Class AAAA championship on a fourth-down touchdown pass by Eric Kasperowicz. Among the targets he bypassed on that play: A freshman back named Arrington.

dot.gif The coaches who have made Western Pennsylvania football great, men such as Pete Antimarino, Art Bernardi, Lindy Lauro, Jack McCurry, Guy Montecalvo, Jim Render, Art Walker and Don Yannessa.

High school football provides unforgettable memories for players, coaches, fans and writers.

Provided the parents remember to shut up, high school football is the last joyous, unfettered, pure athletic endeavor that most male athletes experience.

It starts again this coming Friday.

Believe me, there is nothing better.

Mark Madden is the host of a sport talk show 3-7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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