At precisely 8:20 p.m. Monday, the lights at McNamara Stadium along the main drag in Hastings flickered on. The stadium was empty and quiet, yet somehow perfect in the moment.
The timing was symbolic. Eight weeks of school left, 20 to honor the graduating class of 2020.
A few cars stopped outside Hastings High’s football stadium for a look. A group of kids ran over to take pictures from behind the fence.
At 8:40, the stadium went dark again.
Similar scenes took place across Minnesota on Monday night as high school stadiums illuminated in a show of support for spring athletes, all senior students and entire communities shut down by the pandemic.
Sitting in a high school football stadium aglow in emptiness mandated by self-isolation felt striking.
The “Be The Light” movement originated in Texas and quickly went viral to other states. Centennial High caught on and then former Star Tribune sportswriter John Millea, who now works as a media specialist for the Minnesota State High School League, sent a tweet wondering if other schools would join the cause. By Monday, 220 schools (and climbing) had jumped on board.
“I’m astonished,” Millea said. “In a good way.”
This crisis has affected everybody in some capacity. Days are gripped with so much sadness as the death toll climbs and surging unemployment brings stress to families.
Sports often provide distraction in times of hardship, but that’s been stripped away too. For high school athletes, especially seniors, that loss of competition and sense of togetherness with friends is a hard reality to accept.
High school sports connect communities in a way that few other activities can. Neighbors gather for Friday night football games under the lights. Kids who have grown up together in schools and on traveling teams reach the pinnacle when they earn a varsity uniform or, if they’re fortunate enough, win a state title together.
Nothing tops senior year. The last go-around in sports for most kids. Senior spring break. Prom. Graduation. Hanging out with friends at grad parties before scattering for college. This should be the time of their lives.
This pandemic is unfair to everyone. Monday night, in an empty stadium, we were thinking about those seniors.
“Sports is such a part of the fabric of our communities,” Hastings athletic director Trent Hanson said. “And especially at a time when you can’t be together, people are missing that element for so many different reasons.”
Turning on lights at a football stadium won’t fix it. Nor will it remove disappointment and frustration. But maybe it will give kids reason to smile and feel comforted, knowing their community is thinking about them.
This kind gesture by schools is not meant for people to gather like it’s a pep rally or house party. A procession of cars rolling past the stadium feels like a perfect response.
Honk. Wave to friends. Flash your high beams. Or just drive by slowly with a positive thought.
“It’s really hard having the school building closed because we’re such a community center,” said Minneapolis Washburn principal Emily Palmer, who planned to videotape a message to her students as the stadium lights fire up. “This is a moment where we can say, ‘Hey, we’re here, we see you, we love you.’ ”
Most schools are turning on their stadium lights once a week, typically on Monday, though some are doing it more. There are other symbolic gestures. Many schools are keeping the lights on for 20 minutes, 20 seconds as a nod to the graduating class.
Hastings has a lighting system that allows Hanson to turn on the stadium’s lights from his phone or computer. He could have flipped them on from his couch in the ultimate show of social distancing. He wanted to be there in person Monday.
Lakeville North AD Mike Zweber initially planned to turn on his stadium lights on Friday to capture the sentiment of “Friday Night Lights.” Instead, he decided to join many of his colleagues Monday.
Lakeville North livestreamed those 20 minutes with recorded interviews from spring coaches sharing messages to their players. Zweber’s hope is that residents take a minute when they see the lights to reflect on kids who are missing out on some really cool experiences right now.
“I’m glad people are doing this to let the seniors know that we feel for them,” Zweber said. “It’s not fair but we’ll all get through it. We’ll do it together … together apart.”