High school football creates an environment and an experience that, for most players, is completely unique. Although it has become one of pop culture’s most mythic social constructs, wherein young men are transformed into idyllic symbols of prime masculinity and virility, the attraction of this experience likely stems more from the emotional intimacy that it provides and less from the fact that it offers a venue for the demonstration of physical strength.
The glory matters, of course. High school football undoubtedly endows its participants with elevated status and increased social power. On a deeper level, however, it gives its participants the opportunity to be deeply, intimately connected to other men.
As one part of a 30, 40 or 50-plus man, single minded organism, the high school football player works beside his peers towards a simple, clearly defined goal from within a closed environment that consumes the full energy and attention of its participants.
Practices take up hours per day, and are lead by a well-defined, seemingly all-powerful authority figure who pushes players to (and sometimes beyond) the brink of exhaustion. As a member of a high school football team, I’ve seen strong young men cry, heard them scream in pain, seen their teammates carry them off of the field when injured, seen them throw up on themselves—and on each other.
Sharing in those experiences forges a strong bond, and fills an emotional need that is hard for young men to find elsewhere in society—many men will never experience it again, although I suspect that this type of brotherhood is one of the most attractive properties of the military.
As men, we’re told to be strong and fiercely independent. But we still crave to be loved and cared for, and to have the social freedom to show the we are capable of loving and caring. In most cases, that would be considered weakness; on the football field, it’s wholly the opposite. We’re expected to care for our teammates, to sacrifice our sweat and our blood and our body for them.
Kenny Chesney’s latest single, “The Boys of Fall” attempts to pay tribute to that emotional intimacy. Written by Casey Beathard and Dave Turnball, the song paints a generally accurate portrait of the unity that is created when young men band together on the football field.
But that accuracy doesn’t translate to emotional connectedness, and the song works better in theory than it does in practice.
“The Boys of Fall” takes such a general approach to communicating its main points that its ends up sounding disappointingly sentimental, essentially nothing more than a rote reminiscence on days gone by. The song steps away from its most powerful elements when it focuses on descriptions of what being a high school football player literally means rather than elaborating on the relationships that make the experience worth remembering, and loses its way completely when it rambles in to a little cafe to briefly show how the game is still on the minds of the old men who sit and drink coffee while they gossip about the glory days that have passed them by.
Unfortunately, the bulk of the song’s lyrics are constructed from those surface-level descriptions; we’re shown players walking down the hall of their school in jerseys, and then a series of game-day scenes including players lining up for “The National Anthem” and bumping helmets with each other. What’s the emotional pull of that? The images draw us in as we remember being there in those moments, but there’s no real gravity woven into the fabric of the story. The effect ends after the moment of reminiscence fades.
Rounded out by a dreary arrangement and a typically dull performance by Chesney—actually, an especially dull performance on which he sounds downright dejected—”The Boys of Fall” is an underachieving effort that just doesn’t muster much yardage.