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Before they governed, they played under the Friday night lights

BOB LEWIS, AP Political Writer • Aug 25, 2013 at 2:03 PM

RICHMOND, Va. — In a few days, the seasonal magic and majesty of America's most venerated Friday night pursuit renews itself in arenas great and small — in gritty small towns like Richlands and Covington, in leafy suburbs like Alexandria and Virginia Beach.

It's violent. It's passionate. It's a marching band's imperfect rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner." It's a teenager's dream of what might be and an old man's remembrance of what once was.

It's high school football, a thread that ties together generations of old players and, to varying degrees, molds them as they become bankers, judges, builders, salesmen, teachers, governors and coaches. Last week, some of them recalled those schoolboy glory days in conversations with The Associated Press.

"I threw more touchdown passes than anybody in Virginia in my senior year, and I think it was a total of 11 or 12," C. Richard Cranwell said of his crowning season as quarterback and placekicker for the Richlands High Blue Tornadoes in 1960. These days, many high school quarterbacks surpass that mark by midseason.

Cranwell, now 71, was Virginia Tech's placekicker before becoming a lawyer and serving for 30 years in Virginia's General Assembly. He remembers the bloody noses and cleated shins as a price paid for the team's collective euphoria after seven victories that season. "It was milkshakes for the victors," he said.

Of the three losses, a 7-0 defeat against Saltville still haunts him. It involved a run-pass option play late in the game.

"I probably could have scored a touchdown if I'd have cut to my left after I went about 5 or 6 yards down the field. I cut to my right," he said. "I've played that one play over in my mind a thousand times trying to figure out why I made the wrong decision."

The skinny Irish kid who started at wide receiver in 1971 for Alexandria's Bishop Ireton High School recalls his shining moment in a 28-8 loss to the undefeated T.C. Williams High School state championship team immortalized in the film "Remember the Titans." Bob McDonnell covered a fumble, intercepted a pass and caught seven passes that night, including his team's only touchdown.

"On the next play, I caught the 2-point conversion pass, too, and I got drilled by one of their linebackers," said McDonnell, now 59 and Virginia's governor. His final season of football ended that night with a 5-5 record.

"We were the underdogs, always. There was that sense that this was something greater than the individual — greater than all of us as individuals. You worked hard, you practiced hard, and if you didn't, you didn't play," he said. "I'm still close to the guys who were on that team."

No public person was more thoroughly immersed in football than George Allen, the namesake eldest son of the Pro Football Hall of Fame coach of the Washington Redskins and Los Angeles Rams.

"I did grow up in it, but the interesting thing is my father wanted me to play baseball, not football," said the 61-year-old former governor and U.S. senator. Baseball, the elder Allen told his son, affords longer careers, fewer injuries and better pay. It was advice the younger Allen never took.

Allen's fields of dreams were the 120 yards between goal posts. He later played at the University of Virginia, yet memories of his quarterbacking days in the late 1960s at Palos Verdes High School near Los Angeles remain indelible.

"The whole school calendar revolved around it in the fall, whether you play or not," he said. "It's not just the team, it's the band, it's whoever is singing the national anthem, it's the high school homecoming dance."

In Virginia's Alleghany Highlands, Malfourd W. Trumbo was a meaty kid known simply as "Bo" who played tackle and guard for Covington High teams of the early 1970s under its legendary coach Francis "Bootie" Albert. There, boys grew up dreaming of the day they'd wear Cougars blue and gold onto the football field.

"Every Friday, if you were a football player on varsity, you came in with your blue blazer on that had the Covington emblem on the pocket. You wore your white shirt and your blue tie. You wore that every game day at school. You were somebody," said Trumbo, now 58 and a Botetourt County circuit court judge. "Nobody was going to shame that emblem."

Football involves more high school students now than any other sport. The National Federation of State High School Associations says 1,086,627 players participated on 14,048 U.S. high school teams during the last academic year. The Virginia High School League says 306 of its affiliated schools played football during the 2011-12 school year and involved 25,497 players, including 21 girls.

Who knows what they will one day become.

Bob Lewis played high school and college football and has covered Virginia government and politics for The Associated Press since 2000.

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