ATWOOD — Although there was a high school football game on the Atwood-Hammond High School field Friday night, the evening felt more like an all-school reunion, as hundreds of alumni from the 1940s to the present showed up to see gridiron action on the Rajah home field for the last time.
With the district annexing into Arthur-Lovington next fall, the Friday night lights at A-H will now go dark. The two high schools started co-oping their football programs in 2012, and for the last two years played just one home contest per season at Atwood-Hammond — the one on homecoming weekend.
"It's a little hard on all of us," said former Rajah football coach John Lyons, who guided the team to its only state title in 1980. At the same time, he understands the reasons for the annexation.
"It's better for the kids, and that's what you have to think about," Lyons said. "But a lot of good people played on that field, and I'm sure it's bittersweet for them as well."
Fans began arriving for Friday's game in Atwood two hours before kickoff and were still flowing in at the end of the first quarter. Estimates were that 1,000 people showed up, some from as far as Georgia and Texas — probably triple the number at last year's homecoming game.
Alumni hugged and caught up in six tents decorated for different decades. They also shared some favorite stories of their high school years.
Paul Quick was in Atwood Township High School's Class of 1944, five years before it consolidated with Hammond. His high school years coincided with wartime gas rations, so he drove fellow basketball players to road games in his Model T.
"I've still got it (the Model T). It's the same age as I am," said the 87-year-old man who still resides in Atwood.
So what was his favorite part of this particular Friday night?
"All of it. All of the love. Seeing a lot of people. And I know I'll enjoy the game," Quick said shortly before kickoff.
School spirit spilled out all over as former band members joined the current marching band to play the national anthem and school song, and cheerleaders of days gone by took the field to sing and dance to the school song one last time. Right up front was Bernice (Spencer) Romine, a 1949 A-HHS graduate who looked like she hadn't lost a step since her high school cheerleading days.
"They made me do it," chuckled Romine, 81, as she pointed to daughters Joy Simpson and Pat Galloway. "It's great to see everyone again. We sure got a good turnout."
That turnout surprised athletic director Amanda Romine, who helped plan the event and then had to jump in and help take tickets just so the crowd could get through the line and into the stadium by halftime.
"I had high expectations, and it has gone way above that. I knew we were going to have an awesome crowd because of the circumstances. I knew a lot of alumni were coming in, but this is much more than we've ever had at a home game," said Amanda Romine, who is in her seventh year at Atwood-Hammond.
The high school building was open to visitors from 5 to 7 p.m., and the evening was also senior night for fall sports athletes. But most of all, it was about former graduates returning for a last look as high schoolers prepare for the trek to Arthur.
"It hasn't changed a bit," said Marlene (Sieh) Corman as she walked the hallways of the school where she graduated in 1958. "It's home."