OPELOUSAS — The first thing I noticed were the cars — it was impossible not to, there were so many.
To get the full effect of the story behind my first trip to Opelousas, it has to be told chronologically. I was running late, and I got lost on my way to the stadium. I called someone for directions and they came in typical small-town fashion: Go all the way to the end of main street, wait for it to veer left and then go right, look for the Sonic drive-in.
I’d given enough directions like that to appreciate and understand them. But I didn’t really need them. I just had to follow the trail of cars parked alongside the road. They were like bread crumbs to the stadium. Cars covered every square inch of real estate for a half-mile stretch of Union Road. They packed the parking lots of Walgreens and Kelly’s Country Meat Block and Diner. They were parked bumper to bumper. They filled grass lots that looked an awful lot like front yards. They all carried people to see the undefeated Opelousas Catholic Vikings host the undefeated Catholic-New Iberia Panthers.
The next thing I noticed was the noise. I was a 10-minute walk from the stadium, but as soon as I opened my door I was hit by the noise. It buzzed until it exploded, then it slid back into a buzz. I was drawn to it like a mosquito to a light. As I got closer, I was able to make out individual words like, “Was that a touchdown?” It was. Seven-to-nothing, Vikings. I missed the first score. It didn’t matter. I felt it in my chest from the roar coming from the crowd.
I noticed the scoreboard. Did it really read 7-0 Vikings at the end of the first quarter? Yes, it did. Didn’t the Panthers score 60-plus in their last two weeks, and weren’t they averaging better than 50 points per game coming in? Yes, they did, and yes, they were.
I noticed Acadiana’s littlest cheerleader. She couldn’t have been more than 3 or 4 years old, leading the capacity crowd in cheers. She wore the same white Vikings cheerleader uniform with purple and gold accents as her high school mates. She had yellow bows in her hair and pom-poms that were bigger than her head. I noticed a weird sound coming from the stands. I turned to see a grown man leaning over the railing, trying to yell despite the fact that his voice was shot from an hour of yelling. Everybody in Opelousas was doing their part.
I noticed the ferocity. Catholic-New Iberia tried using its team speed to get the edge, but Opelousas Catholic matched it, then topped it with violence. On one sweep attempt, a Vikings defender closed the gap so quick and hit the ball carrier so hard that his helmet popped off his head and careened down the field the opposite direction.
I noticed so much that I almost didn’t notice the game. I yanked my head out of my notebook just in time to see a wide-open Vikings receiver haul in a pass for a big score that extended the Vikings lead to 16-7 in the first half.
I noticed hope. A cameraman on the sidelines approached and said, “Helluva game huh? We were heavy underdogs. They were smokin’ people.”
I noticed a Vikings defense that looked, to a man, about half a head shorter and 20 pounds lighter than the Panthers in front of them. I noticed that for a while, that didn’t matter, like when Jason Pellerin, the Panthers 6-foot-4, 215-pound quarterback, was dragged down in the open field by a player seemingly half his size. The Vikings, the undefeated underdogs, came to play.
I noticed that I was waiting for Catholic-New Iberia to take control. I noticed the inevitability that is the Panthers offense. Even when a gap-sound and speedy Vikings defense was doing everything it could to contain it, the Panthers ate up 3 or 4 yards every play. The usually big-play reliant Panthers turned into a methodical machine that ground the Vikings’ will to a pulp on a 16-play, 73-yard drive that ate up more than seven minutes and gave the Panthers a 21-19 lead.
I noticed a gassed Vikings defense get gashed for a big play on the ensuing drive. There’s that inevitability again. André Bellefontaine, 55 yards, touchdown.
I noticed a 6-foot-4, 215-pound human wearing a Panthers No. 7 jersey flying — literally flying, like Superman — into the end zone from about 4 yards out to put a cherry on top. I thought physics said stuff like that isn’t supposed to happen. If he stays true to his commitment, Ole Miss will have a very good player in Pellerin.
The last thing I noticed was that despite the fact that everything was against it — the hostile crowd, the early punch on the road against a talented 7-0 district rival — Catholic-New Iberia persevered and responded. If there was ever a time for the Panthers to lose, this was it.
Oh, and I noticed how special Friday nights can be out here.