Players from Northeast Jones and Newton County gathered together to pray after a Cougar was taken from the field on a stretcher. (File photo by Mark Thornton)

Players from Northeast Jones and Newton County gathered together to pray after a Cougar was taken from the field on a stretcher.

(File photo by Mark Thornton)

This column was first published in The Vicksburg Post in 2000 in response to the Supreme Court’s decision to ban prayer at public school events. With apologies to the late Willie Morris, who penned a beautiful prayer for the opening of Little League Baseball season, here’s a prayer for the opening of the high school football season.

Dear Lord,

Be with the young warriors as they strap on their tools of protection and destruction to begin their transformation from boyhood to manhood on the green fields You created and the coaches cultivated. Let them play with unbridled spirit, but proper sportsmanship, and let them absorb not only the week’s game plan, but also the more enduring lessons football can teach them about preparation and teamwork.

Be with the quarterbacks, for they are the most vulnerable targets — for opponents and unruly fans. May all of their passes be true and their handoffs clean. Let them always remember the snap count and find the open man, and help them see the blind-side rush.

Give receivers the courage to go up in double coverage and the speed to beat their man deep. Make their hands like steel traps, and their minds too, so they remember their routes.

Help the running backs hang on to the ball as they look for the block or the seam, and to keep those legs pumping as they go toward the end zone. Give them the wisdom to know when to go out of bounds and when to fight for more yardage, and let them see that first-down marker when they need to stretch another inch. Also, help them remember to give credit to their offensive line after a good game. But let the linemen stay anonymous to those in the stands, for the fans only seem to notice them when they mess up. Just give them the strength and will to do the hardest, most gloryless job on the field for four quarters and the restraint to keep from hold- ing their man — at least where the referee can see.

Watch over the defense as it does its thankless job. Give the linebackers the speed to drop back in pass coverage and the strength to get by a 300-pound lineman and tackle a hard-charging fullback and the quickness to catch a fleet-footed scatback.

Keep the cornerbacks from getting beat in one-on-one coverage and help the safeties remember to watch the ballcarrier’s hips, lest they get beat for a touchdown in front of thousands of merciless fans.

Help the big defensive linemen in their pursuit of those shifty little backs. Don’t let them look foolish in front of their friends.

Let all of the coaches remember that it’s just a game, but help the players and parents remember to never say that in front of their coaches.

Keep all of the players free from serious injuries and scorn, and give them the fortitude to bounce back from both. Let them understand and retain their instructions.

Grant patience and perseverance to the players who show up for practice every day but never get into a game. Remind them that their jobs — helping the starters get ready — are just as important as any on the field.

Keep a special watch over those little gladiators under 150 pounds, whose grit outweighs their girth exponentially.

Bless the referees and chain gangs with quick reflexes. Give the officials 20/20 vision and Teflon skin and make their decisions fair and fast.

During timeouts, help the waterboys notice the break in action so they can be on the way to their parched, breathless heroes before the coach has to yell at them to pay attention, and let the excitable boys arrive with most of the water they started with.

Help the bands stay in step — especially that one tuba player — and make formations and music that are identifiable.

Be with the cheerleaders, too. May their kicks be high, their pyramids sturdy and their smiles bright — even if their team is losing.

Let the fans cheer for their team, not against the other team. Help them remember that those players in the other uniforms are someone’s son, too.

Help the P.A. announcers pronounce those hard names right. Give them the vision to credit the correct players who make runs, catches and tackles, and the judgment to know when not to talk.

Help the managers remember their assignments and equipment, and use Your hand to help the trainers tape those ankles tight. Give them the courage to make the right decisions about a player’s ability to continue, with no influence from a misguided, overzealous coach.

Grant coaches the wisdom to know when to praise a player and when to scold him. Help them remember that it’s only a game, without ever saying that to their players. Keep them humble. Let them remember that they are entrusted by dozens of parents to help mold their boys, so grant them patience when parents voice concerns.

Help the well-meaning fathers and mothers remember to keep bad opinions of the coaches and referees to themselves, even if their son has been wronged. Those comments serve only to make the young ones lose respect for authority figures, which will be counterproductive for him on the field and off.

Keep the bus drivers’ senses alert as they transport so many precious lives through precarious backroads and highways in the middle of the night. Let them always return safely.

And the people who pray before the game, let them return soon, too. We need them now more than ever.

Amen.

Mark Thornton is chief of the Leader-Call. Email him at editor@ leader-call.com.

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