It’s 5 p.m. on a football Friday in Big Stone Gap.
For much of the afternoon, dozens of animated fans from Union High School have been watching the scoreboard clock tick away at historic Bullitt Park.
Seconds after the countdown ends, the gates open, and folks scramble to secure a seat.
Nearly two hours later, the grand show begins.
Just as game officials and opposing coaches are beginning to worry about a delayed kickoff, the Union Bears arrive behind a firetruck escort and the school marching band.
Union fans then rise as the Bears march down the center of the field to the familiar strains of “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC.
During this life-in-limbo period of COVID-19, residents throughout far Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee have been longing for the touchstone that is high school football.
Athletes and coaches are worried that their endless hours of practice, film study and weight training will not be rewarded. Administrators are fretting over the potential loss of gate revenue that fuels the entire athletic program and provides income for the town.
And fans are simply desperate for a return to normalcy.
From 7-on-7 drills in the summer heat to game-day strategy, preparation and planning are essential to football programs. But until there is a vaccine for the new coronavirus, it’s impossible to predict what football will look like this fall.
In the television-driven worlds of NASCAR and Major League Baseball, the current plan is to hold events without spectators.
For various reasons, that science fiction-like scenario is not feasible at the high school level, where football games showcase the most vibrant parts of small-town life.
Along with committed athletes and student groups, the spectacle includes marching bands, cheerleaders and signs of support in store windows.
Each school has a ritual.
In Abingdon, players walk down the steps of Falcon Stadium to the Metallica anthem of “Enter Sandman.” There are fireworks at Ridgeview, a spectacular scoreboard in Richlands and all manner of mascots.
After a stressful week at the office or on the factory floor, folks can relax in timeless settings such as the mountain vista at Holston, the cliff at Hurley or the tree-shaded downtown vibe of Rural Retreat.
Any decent documentary on far Southwest Virginia must begin and end with football. From the coalfields to the Interstate 81 corridor, it’s the thread that binds the embattled region.
Through state championship runs, political strife and economic downturns, the high school game provides an injection of pride and hope.
More than ever, we need a return of those magical Friday night revivals.
Can you just imagine the sense of excitement at Bullitt Park this fall? Here’s a prediction: Those loyal supporters of the Union Bears will begin lining up early Friday morning.
For now, all we can do is embrace our traditions and hope for more chapters.