Granite State of Mind, #139: The Lower Field, Exeter High School, Exeter
From the parking lot behind the old Exeter Junior High School (now the YMCA) or from the southeast end zone of the old Eustis Field, two unmarked dirt trails converge in the trees. Beyond a rusty metal and wooden footbridge over the Little River, the path leads to a wide open space that used to have ancient goalposts with flaking blue paint, concrete block houses full of museum-quality football equipment, and at the far end, embraced by encroaching forest, stood a forgotten and forlorn old scoreboard, a relic, a totem. This was the Lower Field, the practice field where generations of Blue Hawks (and Seahawks) learned and honed their game under the baleful gaze of coaches and the hungry leer of mosquitoes.
My first experiences there came the summer of 1988, when I joined the Exeter Seahawks just before 8th grade. We practiced there, in the scorching sun that turned the field into what we unironically and without affection dubbed the Dust Bowl. The first game I ever played in was on that field, when we beat Kittery 6-0 in overtime on a Eugene Pikul quarterback bootleg. (I never believed my grandparents when they told me that the older you get, the sharper the old memories become. I believe them now.) That Seahawk team was not a good one, but it was my first introduction to many friends and teammates I'd play alongside for years to come.
We were Blue Hawks in the Paleozoic Era, that class of 1993, when we made the transition from freshman to varsity along with Coach Ball (who would co-head coach along with Dick Eustis all three of our varsity seasons), when Exeter was still a Class L team. For all of those years we practiced down there, as the dust became mud became frost. Double-sessions in August, wind sprints, the stench of the Little River bog and the clouds of ravenous bugs constant companions. A million stories and memories, most of which involve some flavor of agony.
When I wrapped up my playing career in 1992, I never thought I'd see that field of screams again. Little did I know that I'd be back as soon as 2000, when I took the reins of the Exeter Seahawk youth football program. I wound up down on that field three or four nights a week, coaching young players and talking with their parents. We practiced there the entire time I was involved with the program, through 2007. I have fond memories of learning how to coach alongside my own personal whistle-Yoda, Terry Warlick, and all the other guys who gave so much time to those kids. It was still dusty and hot in August and cold and dark in October - some things never change. Even when coaching, I still felt a slight twinge when I crossed the bridge, like it was time to put my helmet on.
Some things do. When I first arrived, we played our games down there too, at least at our younger levels, on a field that was more dirt than grass, with only nominal chalk markings. By the time I left the program, we'd made arrangements with the Cooperative Middle School to host our games there, and everybody was happy. Except maybe the mosquitoes. I don't think anybody practices there any more, and that's a bittersweet thing. As foul and hard as it could be down there, it was a huge part of my life for a long time. After all, life is 99% practice.