At the last Storm Lake football game, I spent as much time looking into the stands as I did watching the game.
There were people up there!
Fans, in Storm Lake? And on the coldest night of the season? But yeah, there they were, nearly filling the place, under their parkas, blankets and snuggies.
Now, unless you live here, you might wonder why this is at all noteworthy. Aren't there always crowds at all games?
I covered a very good high school soccer game here not so long ago where there were ten people - ten - in the stands. Storm Lake boys' basketball made the postseason last year, and albeit on a night with not the best weather, I think I was the only one sitting in my section of the stands.
As for football, you know you don't have much support when even your own parents and girlfriend have something better to do on a Friday night. When the band kids go home at the half. When the opposing teams brought a better crowd than the home side had.
Something, though, is changing.
A while back I was sitting in a Storm Lake School Board meeting when it came time for the high school principal to give his report. He mentioned that Storm Lake spirit was really increasing - dare he say pride - that you could feel it in the hallways of the school.
Oh right. Rah rah. What else is a principal going to tell his bosses, that spirit is in the crapper? I rolled over on the meeting room chairs and went back to sleep.
But then came football. Pretty good crowd for the first game. I wrote it off to curiosity from fair weather fans. But then they came back, and back again. Winning or losing. And then it got colder, and they were still there. And they were yelling, they were on their feet, they were cheering the great band at halftime, they were doing the jumping jacks with the cheerleaders. Some of them show up in costumes, school gear, or warpaint. What? In Storm Lake?
We've got a student section! And it's on its feet. When we get hosed by a bad call, they let the football fates hear it. When our kids score, you can hear them from outside our office about six blocks away, I'm told.
Again, it might not sound like a big honking deal to places where perennial support is taken for granted, but it's big here.
Last week, we had a drum line out there during a break in the game, and it was awesome. The cheerleaders were sitting on their boxes with dropped jaws, and even the players were turning around to check it out.
All this has been a while coming, but it's good to see. It is a good sign to see that students and the public is taking some pride in the school and its activities.
But this week, I've been spending some time wondering, "Why?"
Why are things changing all the sudden?
There's been no one great sea change in the school or the community all of a sudden this year that would explain it. Not even a massive sudden turnaround in sports to account for the enthusiasm, through we have had some nice successes there.
My working hypothesis is that we've finally had enough of letting ourselves be defined by outsiders who don't have a clue what they are talking about.
You know what I mean. All those haters who have talked down Storm Lake for years now - we're a place that's only full of minorities, gangs, crime. Nothing going but packing plants. You've heard it.
We let it get to us for too long, but I think we've finally decided to take Storm Lake back. We know how beautiful it is, how its diversity has made it a more aware and growing place, how amazing its schools and colleges are, how many great events we have, how our tourism has come on, the ambitious projects like a new performance auditorium we have in the works, how people get involved here and give and care.
How about some of the places those critics live in - losing population and jobs, schools in trouble, limited prospects, let's call it like it is - not much happening whitebread Iowa.
As usual, young people lead the way.
When they start to feel good about where they live, where they go to school, the things they can get involved with, and yes, even their sports teams, things can start to turn in a hurry.
Pessimism is infectious, but so is optimism. It spreads to classmates, then to parents, younger brothers and sisters, and before you know it, you've got a school humming that can do just about anything.
I like what I see. On their last day before Christmas vacation, instead of complaining about being in school, kids working as an assemby line to make up CARE packages for the military. They formed a team for the Relay for Life. They made up meals for the needy. Helped clean up the local environment. Projects now not just coming from the administrators and teachers - but from students themselves.
And this is how things get started. Today, it's twice the crowd of last year at a football game, young and old, all nationalities, doing something together and feeling good about their school and community on a cold night in October. Tomorrow, who knows?
We can learn from the kids in that student section. To not be shy or fearful of cheering on our community and all the good things its people are doing, even as we work together to improve on our challenges.
If the spirit is back; better get yourself some.