It’s been 364 days since the Long Beach Unified School District closed its campuses on March 13, 2020. Nearly a year later, a sign of hope for a more normal future will appear in the form of Friday Night Lights this evening, with three high school football games taking place across the city.

Long Beach Poly will host Serra at Cabrillo High at 7 p.m. in a game streamed on Fox Sports’ Prep Zone; Millikan will visit Los Alamitos at 6 p.m.; and St. Anthony will host Lakewood at Clark Field at 7 p.m.

Those three football games represent months of struggle and frustration on the part of the city’s players and coaches. The LBUSD was ahead of many other districts in allowing offseason conditioning workouts, and Poly coach Stephen Barbee noted several times that his team had held more authorized practices than many of the major private school powerhouses in Southern California.

But it wasn’t until a surprise change of heart in the California Department of Public Health that actual practices with helmets and pads could take place and games could be scheduled. Since the CDPH changed its guidelines last month to allow outdoor high school sports, preparations have taken place with shocking speed.

Consider that the city’s high school athletic directors had to get every athlete on these teams medically and academically cleared in the last three weeks, had to set up a COVID-19 testing regime for weekly tests for all the players, had to negotiate new venues and protocols around fan attendance and buses, which are operating at a reduced capacity.

The city went from having had zero high school sporting events for 11 months to having more than 30 this week between the football, water polo, and cross country events happening on local campuses. At all the practices and games we’ve attended, there have been smiling faces, and kids talking about how grateful they are for the chance to compete and be out in the open with their friends at their schools, as opposed to attending Zoom school in their homes alone.

“It feels normal,” said Poly cross country runner Camille Lindsay after a meet on Wednesday. “That’s the best thing you could hope for right now, is just normal.”

There’s nothing normal about high school football games in March, but it’s significant that the games are happening. For one, history is on the line. The 1918 pandemic didn’t cancel football season in Long Beach, nor did either World War. Playing in March is odd, but it does mean that the 2020-21 school year will have a football season, albeit an abbreviated one on the wrong side of New Year’s.

After so many months of inactivity, we honestly couldn’t believe it was really happening. It wasn’t until Thursday brought the all-clear on the week’s COVID-19 testing that we really started making plans to do our favorite thing: stand on a football field watching the city’s kids do something special.

There’s never been a spectacle like the one we’ll see tonight, and there’s never been a year like this, and we salute all the kids, coaches, and administrators who held the line and kept the faith that this could happen. We were skeptical, but as always the optimism of youth is more valuable than the cynicism of experience.

To learn more about this year’s high school football teams and to see a complete schedule, you can read‘s full football preview.