There's no better capstone to the high school football season that Championship Weekend in Stark County.
As a fan, it's the ultimate setting to close out the year.
As a player, it's the place you strive to get to and the end of the road that began 11 months earlier in the weight room.
Standing in Fawcett Stadium Saturday watching Bellevue's Division III state championship game against Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary, several thoughts ran through my mind. They ranged from thinking the SVSM marching band may have been the best I've seen this year, to wondering just how many of the 2011 District Track Championship T-shirts they actually sold.
But three specific thoughts stood out that sum up the Championship Weekend experience.
1. During the game, the Bellevue student section had a banner draped in front of them that said 'Living the dream.'
The words couldn't have been more appropriate as despite falling to the Irish 42-21, Bellevue literally has lived the dream.
It was a dream that thousands of players had when the season kicked off back in August. The Redmen got to play the final game of the season, in the shadow of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Even though they didn't get to lift the gold trophy, the memories of this season will live for ever in the minds of the players and fans. Dramatic playoff wins against Perkins and Dayton Thurgood Marshall will be talked about for years to come by Redmen faithful.
A few years back, I talked to a school's star athlete shortly after his school lost a state final game in which he was hurt in the second quarter.
Even though the outcome wasn't what he was hoping for, he called it the greatest quarter and a half of his life.
There will be a time, after the initial sting of the loss fades away, that Bellevue will realize how special its ride was, and all the great memories it has from the season.
2. The atmosphere around the games is incredible. From tailgaiting in the parking lot to everything going on inside the stadium, it's a perfect setting to wrap up the season. Fans from all corners of the state converge on Stark Country not just to cheer on their teams, but for a true celebration of football.
A guy from Wintersville will be standing next to a guy from Cincinnati discussing the play calls and sharing thoughts on the game.
Random people will be sharing stories about the greatest games they've seen during the season, or how their team would be playing in the finals if not for a holding call.
The staff has everything run to near perfection, from traffic and parking to ticket sales and concessions. Walking into the stadium you can already smell the burgers being cooked up on the grill at the home side concession stand.
Everything comes together to create the perfect atmosphere to watch a championship football game.
Which brings me to ...
3. Why the heck would anyone want to move the games? Central location, blah, blah, blah. Playing in the Horseshoe, blah, blah, blah. No. The games belong in Stark County.
Some argue it's too far for some people to get to Canton and Massillon. Ohio isn't Texas. No one has to take a connecting flight and a train to get to the games. It's a four-hour drive from the farthest-out parts of the state.
What about the thrill for the kids to play at Ohio State? If you tell a kid he's playing in a cow pasture, as long as it's for a state title, he'll be happy. Plus, the thrill of playing at the Pro Football Hall of Fame isn't too shabby, either. Many a kid has said there's no better place to play a game.
While Ohio Stadium creates a great atmosphere for a Saturday afternoon Buckeye game, what's the atmosphere going to be like with 10,000 people at the most, engulfed in a 102,000-seat facility? At Fawcett, and Paul Brown Tiger Stadium in Massillon, the stands are packed. The roar from the crowd echoes around the whole stadium and only adds to the drama taking place on the field. The same crowd at Ohio Stadium just doesn't promise to have the same impact.
The two stadiums in Stark County have been rated two of the best high school stadiums in the country. High school stadiums. For high school games. Like it should be.
Hopefully after the two-year Columbus experiment ends, the OHSAA wises up and decides that there's no better place to end the football year than Stark County.
Tony Maluso is a sports writer for The Advertiser-Tribune.
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