Early Friday morning, a sprawling group of State High alumni took a knee in the center of Memorial Field.
It was more remarkable than it sounds.
For starters there was the uniformity of the motion, disparate groups of conversating men reacting simultaneously to a single voice, migrating from different corners of the artificial turf to a single, shared spot at the prompting of some ingrained response that probably should have rusted from lack of use long ago.
Whatever the mechanics at play were, several generations of State High football players were once again gathered in a circle at the football stadium in downtown State College. Huddled on one knee, it almost looked like a prayer was about to commence and that they would break bread right there in the center of the field - because that’s what a family does during the holidays
Chris Ganter stood at the center of the enclosure. His was the voice that tamed a cavalcade of former football players — a handy skill if you’re one of the founders and organizers of the Sweet Potato Classic a round-robin type tournament that pits different classes of State High football against one another in post-Thanksgiving blaze of gridiron glory.
“It’s a very cool event and very competitive as well,” Ganter said.
Ganter is member of the State High graduating class of 2001. The “Sweet Potato Classic” started as a friendly neighborhood game he fostered alongside his brothers and other alum, but every year it continued to grow in scope and size as word spread across social media.
In 2015, the game has evolved into a reunion by way of battle royale, sometimes brokering matches between groups of former students that never even shared their alma mater’s hallowed halls.
It would have been tough to tell looking out at Friday’s motley assembly of football talent. The pregame interactions on the turf were congenial and familiar, the kind that you might have with the nephew you never see anymore, the great-aunt that lives on the other side of the country, or the second-cousin twice removed who stops by the house for a piece of pie on her way to another party.
That’s part of the joy for Ganter, the thrill of standing in the center of a circle of people intertwined by a common lineage.
“People come into town, have families... It’s harder for people to get a chance to see everyone,” Ganter said.
The Sweet Potato Classic has been held many different locations, but in recent years has settled at Memorial Field.
“It makes it more authentic in a way — it’s State High,” Daniel Avedesian, a member of the class of 2009, said.
Avedesian is in the process of pursuing his master’s degree at Penn State and on Friday morning, he joined another group of green-shirted representatives from the class of 2009 running passing plays on the side of Memorial Field.
Each year, the team’s returning pool of talent becomes smaller and smaller, derailed by burgeoning families, career commitments or even simple distance.
“The older you get, the more guys you lose. It’s harder to get back,” Avedesian said
Classes without enough participants to field a full team are combined, as was the case with the squad boasting one Justin Callahan, who graduated from State High in 1998.
He spent some time in Colorado before returning to State College three years ago with his wife and young daughter, who is attending the same elementary school in Ferguson that he did as a boy.
Over the years, Callahan has watched his ragtag team of football players dwindle, plagued by the usual problems that effect athletes of a certain age.
“We’ve had two ACL’s and a blown ankle in the last seven years,” Callahan said.
After the game, the guys go to lunch and reminisce — and if the restaurant happens to have some extra ice on hand, that’s nice too.
“The running around is fun, but we’ll be sore for a couple of weeks now after this,” Callahan said.