As someone who was born and raised in Long Beach, I’ve heard more times than I can count that our quaint town of nearly 500,000 residents is “the biggest small town in America.” It’s a sentiment that’s existed since the city’s population began to take off more than 100 years ago with an influx of Iowans and other midwesterners and has persisted over the decades.
Long Beach, of course, is not actually a small town–it’s a big city with small town tendencies. Small towns don’t get waist deep into negotiations to bring a Major League Baseball team to town and they don’t build $533 million civic centers.
There is a place where the Iowa charm of Long Beach still exists, though: Clark Field on Friday nights when St. Anthony is playing. The Saints hosted Valley Christian last Friday in their season opener, and if you squinted your eyes, you could have imagined yourself in a world with drive-in movies and no internet.
The field is grass, the track is dirt, and the teams are small. As head coach Mario Morales said before the season, “We don’t have four or five star guys, we just have good kids that want to play football.”
On the way into the football field there was an official tailgate party in the parking lot, hosted by the school. There was a mom complaining in a very quaint and old-fashioned way about how the lyrics in the warm up songs were too profane, even though it was a radio edit.
There’s a small set of stands on one side of the field only, which were filled to the brim with proud parents and grandparents, students, and friends of the players. The cheerleaders were nervous about their routines for the first game. The football players were anxious to make sure their pregame run-out looked cool.
Most of those elements exist at every high school hosting a game anywhere in the country, including the big-city, big-school games going on around the rest of town at Millikan and Lakewood. But Clark Field has eucalyptus trees to the north, houses across a storm channel to the east, a church to the south, and an unobstructed view of the sun setting to the west in beautiful gold and purple.
The Saints had a lot of big plays in the game, which they went on to win 47-6. After each one, the same thing would happen–the player would celebrate, run to the sideline to get high fives from their teammates and coaches, then run back on the field, because they were either on special teams or starting on both sides of the ball.
After the game, the players and coaches from the two teams spent a little extra time greeting each other in the handshake line, despite how lopsided the game is. Because St. Anthony and Valley Christian are both small, private high schools only separated by a few miles, a lot of the kids and coaches knew each other. Many of the coaches had been on the same staffs together, and Morales pointed out that they’d all run into each other at Target from time to time.
Long Beach might be a big city, but it doesn’t get much more small town than that.