The anticipation for The Bell Game each year is tangible. The schools, students and their families spend weeks focusing on the night of the game — preparing, playing and then finally painting the bell if things work out in your favor.
This year’s game was different. It was more than just a football game, for many people this night represented a return to normalcy that so many have been craving after the past year and a half.
Well before kickoff, it was clear the community was eager to get things started, eager for a semblance of the life that was abruptly interrupted in March of 2020.
“It feels to me just like a miracle in progress. I am so happy to be back out here and happy to be back in the crowd,” said Jo Hansen, a Centennial High School graduate and Board Member of the CHS Foundation. “It’s very exciting because last year was just so hard, especially for our seniors (having) to play the Bell Game with hardly anybody in the audience.”
During last year’s game, which was restricted because of the pandemic, each team was only allowed 175 fans in the stands, mostly players’ parents, instead of the usual crowd of thousands.
This year, as if to make up for a missed opportunity, 12,000 people descended onto Dutch Clark Stadium to rightfully resume a tradition that has now survived two global pandemics in its storied 121-year history.
Everyone is determined to get back to the way it’s always been.
Making up for lost time
The parking lot outside the stadium reached capacity more than a half-hour before the game was set to begin.
An early kickoff highlighted just how determined the players on the field were to begin a game that some of them have been waiting their whole lives to play.
Jennifer Grove’s family used to watch her during the Bell Game when she was a cheerleader for Centennial and have since watched three of her sons don red and white and take the field for the Bulldogs.
After a season where watching her son play often meant that only a few, if any, family members were allowed in the stadium. Friday represented a long-overdue reunion.
“We were so excited that we could come together as a family again,” Grove said. “Unfortunately, my brother’s paralyzed but he was able to come to the game. I mean this was huge for us.”
In their section of the stands, three generations came to support Centennial’s Alexander Wilson, a senior playing in his last Bell Game.
On the other side of the stadium, Analiese Trujillo and Tyler Romero are both experiencing their first Bell Game as members of the Central marching band. Beyond the music, they were excited to be a part of something so big again.
“It feels so much better, it feels like things are finally back to normal,” Romero said. “It’s really fun to get out and just be around people.
While for many people this night symbolized the coveted return to normal everyone has been craving since the pandemic began, the reality of the still ongoing public health crisis loomed.
A vaccination bus parked on the southern edge of the stadium had a steady stream of people receiving a COVID shot throughout the night. Masks were few and far between in the crowd, but hand sanitizer stations placed around the stadium were a stark reminder of the world we are all still living in.
Still, the crowd seemed steadfast in their determination to not let anything damper the excitement and possibilities of the night.
“It’s more than pride, it’s more than tradition,” said Leslie Nazario, President of Central High School’s Booster Club. “It’s like freedom. Everybody’s free again, free to celebrate, free to be together, free to cheer on your school.”
Contact Chieftain reporter Lacey Latch at email@example.com or on social media @laceylatch.