Our football fortunes ebbed and flowed, but we always had the Orb.
Rick Bragg at Football Stadium
Credit: John Cuneo

I heard that Orbie Cook had passed away. Friday nights will be quieter now. Orbie was a fan of high school football and was famous for it, at least within the city limits of my hometown. In four decades under the lights, Orbie climbed into the stands to cheer on the home team. He was a big man to begin with, and when the kickoff tumbled through the night, he got bigger, louder, and somehow more precious to our people.

Funny that I knew so little about him outside the stadium, even in a town so small. But when I think of Friday nights, which are a little like church down here, I always think of the Orb.

It was the seventies, the first time I heard him. Then, a Friday began in the yard with a game of touch football inside the circle drive, until some knucklehead kicked the ball into the rosebushes. We were more than 2 miles from town, but I could hear the marching band tuning up, faint but clear. It was something by Chicago, maybe "Saturday in the Park," but I was pretty hopped-up on grape Kool-Aid back then and could be wrong.

Out on State 21, the marauders came, caravans of cars and big yellow school buses, cruising past the Rocket Drive-In and Roma's Pizza and Steak House. The soap on the car windows identified them as Yellow Jackets, Bearcats, and Valley Cubs, and they bore down on my alma mater with ill intent.

We had winning seasons...and losing seasons, but the Jacksonville Golden Eagles had the Orb. And the Orb was constant and—we thought—forever.

He was just a teenager then. He sat surrounded by his congregation, and I guess you could say he led cheers, though that does not come close to it. When the team, and the people, needed picking up, you'd hear that voice, echoed by the crowd:




"We don't!"


"We don't mess!"





He was still there after I graduated, and when I came back years later, a spectator again. By then, I'd figured out what Orbie was really about. It wasn't that he lifted the Eagles to victory. It was that he gave a booming voice to the joy of it, of being there, of belonging. The school gave him its lifetime achievement award, for spirit, before he died.

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High school games are broadcast now on ESPN. I doubt if the bands play much Chicago anymore; I couldn't hear a tuba if it were in the laundry room.

Still, another season is on us. I think I will mix up some Kool-Aid. The doctor says I should avoid the sugar, but you can't toast a legend with Splenda—and, hey, I don't mess around.