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Fri Nov 16, 2012, 12:09 AM

Football Night in Arizona

On one October evening, four small-town high schools within about 20 miles play games at the same time

U.S. Highway 70 starts in North Carolina and runs west for a couple of thousand miles
along the southern part of the United States until it ends just outside of Globe, Ariz.
Not far from that terminus, on the east side of the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation
in Graham County, is a stretch of about 20 miles that, on balmy early-autumn nights, is
home to an American ritual that is both anachronistic and exhilarating.

Along that Highway 70 corridor are four high schools. The biggest one, Safford, is
relatively small as Arizona high schools go. Heading west and then north along the
highway, the following three—Thatcher, then Pima, and then Fort Thomas—are
progressively smaller still.

The four communities have stark differences: Safford is the county seat; contiguous
to Safford, Thatcher is a Mormon community built around Eastern Arizona College;
separated from Thatcher by 5 miles of cotton fields is the farming community of Pima;
and a few more miles up the road is Fort Thomas, which sits at the far southeast corner
of the sprawling San Carlos reservation. They're all quite different, but at least one night
a week every fall, they're remarkably similar, because Friday night is Football Night
in small-town Arizona.

Actually, Friday night is Football Night everywhere in Arizona, but in the metro areas,
it's not like it was in the old days. Thirty or 40 years ago, in Tucson and Phoenix, just
about every high school football game drew a crowd of 1,000 or more. Big games drew
several thousand, and the occasional Monster Game—a late-season affair pitting, by
grace of the schedule, two undefeated teams—would be played in Arizona Stadium and
draw close to 20,000 people. While a handful of Tucson-area teams (Ironwood Ridge
on the northwest side, Cienega in Vail, and Sunnyside on the southside) still draw relatively
large crowds, other schools in town might only pull in a few hundred fans, if they're lucky
—even with a winning team.


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