Where I come from, there are a few things that really matter: God, family, friends and sports-especially football. And not just college or professional football. High school football. I grew up in a small town in east Tennessee. In a small town everybody pretty much knows everybody, goes to the same churches and cares about those high school teams. And if you’re a kid going into high school in a small town, the only thing more important than following the team is making the team.
I know. I played for my school. Wide receiver. The Gibbs Eagles.
I only played two years. But those two years hold some of the best memories of my life. The fun, the rush, the agony, the practices, wearing your jersey to school on game days and the feeling when you hit the field on a Friday night.
I remember the night I played my last game, and I knew it was over. I sat in front of my locker for, I swear, close to an hour, not wanting to take my shoulder pads off. That’s how powerful it is when you’re playing. But what’s amazing is that the intensity of how it feels stays with you.
What I didn’t realize at the time was the impact the experience would have on me later in life. I honestly believe that if I’d not played high school football, I wouldn’t be where I am today. The lessons you learn, the values you absorb, the power of teamwork: When you’re playing ball, it’s what you do; when you get into the world, it’s the way you apply yourself to life.
The first time I heard “Boys of Fall,” I knew it was a great song. But it was more than that too. It was everything getting dressed and being on that field felt like. And it’s a feeling you never want to let go of. It stopped me right where I was, because who could capture something that intense and that specific in a song? Somehow, when Casey Beathard and David Turnbull sat down to write this song, they just got it right.
In the beginning of the video for “Boys of Fall,” my friend Sean Payton, who coaches the New Orleans Saints, goes back to his high school in Naperville, Ill., and gives the speech before the team hits the field. One of the things he tells them is “You won’t feel this every Friday night…. It comes fewer and farther between…so live every moment…right now.”
He and I talked about it: the fundamentals you learn playing high school football can carry you a long way. Hard work. Hard, hard work. More work. Sweat. Aches. Get knocked down, get back up. Show up. Suit up. Give it everything you’ve got. Players stand out, but it’s teams that win games.
We did the song, and it led to the video. The video drew us into interviewing some of the greatest coaches-in the NFL, college and high school-who’ve ever lived, as well as some of the most famous players in the world: Joe Namath, Peyton Manning, Brett Favre. All these men who accomplished impossible things. All because of the fundamentals about life, sports and work they learned playing football in high school. The lessons about how achievement happens over time, that the team is what wins, and that all those practices mean something. But what was really interesting was the one thing they all came back to, the thing that defined all of them and every accomplishment anyone made that mattered. They all said, “Dream.”
It doesn’t matter if you don’t go on to play college ball or get drafted by the NFL. It’s not about actually playing; it’s about the way football gets inside you and makes you who you are. Maybe you sell insurance or teach school, maybe you are an emergency medical technician or write songs; if you can take what you learned playing football, you can make a difference.
And those memories that you’re making-the plays, the wins, the laughs-those will mark your history and set the bar for how good life can be as you grow up. When you watch SportsCenter, the games on TV or at the local high school, you will always know what it means to play, to work, to be part of a team and to achieve, and that is a pretty incredible thing to feel.
Making the video for his single “Boys of Fall” inspired Chesney to create a documentary about the effect high school football has on the men who play it. Featuring appearances by several NFL players and coaches it will air on ESPN later this year.