When the Mascoutah Indians take the field for their homecoming football game against Triad on Friday night, they’ll do so shoulder-to-shoulder with state, county and city police officers, EMS workers and firefighters.
Together, they’ll stand and face the American flag for the playing of the national anthem.
Given the tense national divide highlighted in the feud between the White House and NFL, and the clash between police and civil justice movements, the Indians’ planned gesture is both timely and relevant.
None of that was a consideration during its planning, which started back in the first week of the school year. The team simply wanted to thank local first responders for their service to the community.
If there’s another message that can be derived from the pregame ceremony, however, it’s one of unity, says senior Nick Thurston.
“In high school we play for each other. It’s not about the individuals or whose opinion is bigger,” he said. “We all respect each other and recognize that everyone comes from a different perspective and have different opinions. That’s all OK.
“At the end of the day, we have each others’ back and we play for each other.”
Asked if that, in itself, was a political statement, he said it was just a reflection of the culture at Mascoutah High School and its football program.
Because of it’s proximity to Scott Air Force Base and its designation as a Department of Defense school district, Mascoutah Community Unit District 19 caters to a diverse enrollment. Roughly a third of the high school’s students falls into a racial category other than Caucasian.
We all respect each other and recognize that everyone comes from a different perspective and have different opinions. That's all OK. At the end of the day, we have each others’ back and we play for each other.
Nick Thurston, senior football player
The diversity brings with it a wide swath of religious and cultural traditions to the suburban district, said second-year head football coach Josh Lee.
“There is a lot of diversity at our school and on this football team, and it’s cool how well everybody gets along,” said Lee. “I see what these kids want to do and how excited they are about it, and I think they illustrate what unity really means.
“They are a model for rest of society.”
Friday’s pregame ceremony involving the first responders originated with Athletic Director Scott Battas, back in the first week of the school year.
It was conceived well before demonstrators took to the streets in protest of the Jason Stockley verdict and before President Donald Trump drew the ire of the NFL by saying its players should be fired for kneeling during the national anthem.
Given those developments, however, Battas wanted to be sure the student-athletes were OK with Friday’s planned pregame ceremony.
“This really has nothing to do with what’s been going on, but with the all the tensions, I didn’t want anybody to feel like they were being forced into doing something,” Battas said.
So he called on four senior leaders — Thurston, Darius Cooley, Dylan Ross and Treshaun Buckingham — to test the idea to the rest of the locker room. There was no question at all how the team wanted to proceed.
I told them when they put on a uniform they represent their whole team, their high school, and their community ... But I think they already know that.
Scott Waldrup, Mascoutah Police Chief
“That other stuff doesn’t matter. We came together collectively as a team, put whatever differences of opinion there may be aside, and decided we wanted to come together and do this for our homecoming game,” said Cooley, a running back whose father is in service with the Navy in Washington, D.C.
“Coach Lee, since he started here last year, has emphasized family, team and being a part of something that’s bigger than yourself. We all stand behind each others’ beliefs and try to stay unified. Whatever we decided to do we were going to decide together.”
Battas invited local police officers to meet with the players after a practice last week.
“I told them when they put on a uniform they represent their whole team, their high school, and their community,” said Mascoutah Police Chief Scott Waldrup said. “Whatever they do, positive or negative, is going to reflect back on anyone who wears the same uniform.
“But I think they already know that.”
The Mascoutah football players have adopted a tradition of shaking the hands of their coaches after each practice and game. Waldrup said that after he spoke, Cooley asked if they could suspend that tradition for a day and shake hands with the visiting officers instead.
“It was really one of the highlights of my career,” Waldrup said. “Certainly, these kids come from good families and are being raised well, but that gesture reflects the character that the coaching staff also has worked to instill in those young men.”
Friday’s game against the Knights is scheduled for a 7 p.m. kickoff. Pregame ceremonies should begin at about 6:30 p.m. Members of the Mascoutah police and volunteer fire department will be present on the field, as will representatives of the Illinois State Police, St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department and participants of the Veterans Assistance Program.