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Bill Lynch: Friday night lights in Sonoma

It’s a fall Friday in the Valley of the Moon – when the scent of crushed wine grapes floats on the evening breeze, wafting over the Plaza. With it, you’d expect the sound of violins, or perhaps an Italian tenor singing “Nessun Dorma.”

Instead, reverberating off Schocken Hill and echoing around the town you hear “touchdown Dragons!” followed by the distant roar of a crowd.

There’s nothing more reminiscent of the small town life of my youth than the Sonoma Valley High School Dragons’ Friday night football games at Arnold Field.

Even in grade school I went to every home game, primarily because my dad, who was editor and publisher of the Sonoma Index-Tribune, was also the photographer and sports writer.

Even local residents who had no kids on the team or in school attended the games. It was what Sonomans did on a Friday night.

Football was by far my favorite sport.

Before the varsity game and between halves, I’d join kids closer to my age playing a wild, no-pads-or-helmets game of tackle football behind the visitor’s stands.

The most important accomplishment to me when I entered my freshman year at Sonoma High was I made the junior varsity football team.

Howard Costello, who also was my math teacher, was the coach. Clarence “Ed” Edsall coached the varsity.

I was small even in an era when big guys rarely topped 200 pounds. I was also short, which meant my nose was even with most opponents’ elbows. Jayvee players wore the old leather, Knute Rockne era helmets without facemasks.

By my junior and senior years on the varsity, we had plastic helmets with one bar across to protect our faces. They were better than nothing, but they were also the reason why we were taught that contact (blocking and tackling) was supposed to be done with our shoulders, never with our heads.

I remember those Friday nights playing for the Dragons under the lights of Arnold Field as among the very best of my high school years.

I played right guard and linebacker. I wasn’t a star and it was never about the glory. I just loved playing the game. My classmate, Bob Nicholas, played center. Jim Bundschu played right tackle.

The November of 1959 Friday night of my senior year, when I realized it was my last game ever, I hounded Coach Edsall to let me play every down, offense and defense. For the most part, I did.

Too small to play football in college, my gridiron career ended that night.

Fast-forward to September 1981: college, Vietnam and more than a decade of news writing for the Index-Tribune were behind me.

Dragon varsity coach, Mick O’Meara, and Mike Mulas, his assistant, sent a news release to the I-T, inviting former Dragons to play in an all-alumni football game to raise money for the sports program.

Although I had just turned 40, I decided Mick’s call was a great opportunity to do a George Plimpton style, first-person report.

More than 30 alumni signed up to play.

As I stood among the gathered former Dragons, I noticed, as usual, that I was the smallest (not to mention the oldest) there. Some of the guys were in their 30s, including, Dave Viviani. But I was, by far, the geezer of the group. Most were in their early to late 20s. It should have occurred to me then that maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.

We divided up into two squads and practiced, no contact, without pads or helmets, for a couple of weeks. I was in pretty good shape in those days, so the workouts were relatively easy.

The actual alumni game was to be held on a Saturday night at Arnold Field.

The day before the game, Mick and Mike issued us our uniforms, pads and helmets included. They seemed bulkier than I remembered. The helmet, complete with a grid-like facemask, was so heavy I felt like a life-sized bobble-head figure.

Nevertheless, jogging onto Arnold Field for that game brought back such a rush of good feelings that for a little while that helmet and my head stayed straight on my shoulders – until the first play from scrimmage.

I started at right offensive guard, a position that I last played more than 22 years before.

It was a pass play. All I had to do was block the guy in front of me. The ball was hiked and then a very large truck ran over me.

The guy opposite me on defense, like most of the other players, was bigger, faster, stronger and younger. I was knocked on my butt virtually every play. On defense my arms were almost ripped out of their sockets every time I tried to make a tackle. And, minute-by-minute, the helmet kept getting heavier.

Although I was overpowered, battered and bruised, I played most of the game. For two years thereafter I had a hard time raising my right arm above my shoulder.

The other alumni team won, and it doesn’t really matter that I spent most of my field time getting knocked around like a pinball. I still loved playing.

It was a bittersweet reminder of what was and would never be again.

My head was still on my shoulders, and I had been a Dragon one last time. That was good enough.