The sun rose over Tommy Oliver Stadium on Saturday morning, and by the afternoon, a high school football game was underway.
That familiar scene of everyday life in the midst of so much chaos was a much-needed respite for an area recovering from Hurricane Michael’s assault 10 days ago, when the monster storm battered the eastern Florida Panhandle, flattening homes, leaving thousands without power and claiming lives that are still being tallied.
Those who attended Saturday’s game welcomed the free food and free admission, but mostly they relished an oasis from the devastation, watching and cheering as Lynn Haven’s Mosley High School battled Pensacola High in a Class 5A-District 1 game originally scheduled to be played Friday night.
For once, who won and lost didn’t really seem to matter.
Steven Kyle, an eight-year resident of Lynn Haven with two daughters who attend Mosley High, stood close to the fence surrounding the football field, anxiously awaiting kickoff.
“To me, it’s just an example of Bay County and how we are a community,” he said. “We need this, to support our community. For these players, cheerleaders and band to do what they love is amazing. This is a great community effort, and I think it’s going to go a lot further than just today.”
On Saturday, more than 3,500 fans arrived for the game. Countless hugs were shared and it didn’t matter if those embracing were wearing apparel from Mosley, Bay, Arnold, Bozeman or any other school.
Fans were treated to hot dogs, hamburgers, snow cones, water, sports drinks and sodas, provided by BSN Sports and state Sen. George Gainer, whose district encompasses Bay County. After the game, players and families from the Niceville and Choctaw football programs provided meals for the players and coaches from Mosley and Pensacola High.
“I was talking with (Mosley) Principal Brian Bullock and we were thinking we need to try to do something for the community,” Mosley Athletic Director Josh Vandergrift said. “Bay County Superintendent Bill Husfelt grabbed me Monday morning and asked if I wanted to play football. That was all I needed to hear.”
Tommy Oliver Stadium’s $12 million facelift earlier this year seemed like a godsend, since the stadium, which opened in 1955, sustained little structural damage in the storm, though it still needed a lot of work to be ready for the game — including straightening out goalposts that Michael bent.
“When we got out here Wednesday, it was in disarray,” Vandergrift said. “The superintendent got the contractor that built this place, and his guys got the goalposts straightened, scoreboards ready and we were good to go.”
For at least a few hours Saturday, the game provided an escape from the frustration and worry that comes with waiting — waiting for power to return, for schools to reopen, for homes to be rebuilt, for life to go back to being ordinary.