The Battle of the Bridge is the biggest football game of the year in Lewiston and Auburn, cities separated by a river in Maine.
The high schools — Lewiston High and Edward Little — are bitter rivals. On the eve of the game, the last of the year, seniors burn a pair of cleats in a moving-on ceremony. Players wear ties to class. There’s a parade. It’s like homecoming, squared.
But Wednesday night was different. Kickoff, at 6 pm, came almost exactly a week after a gunman began a shooting spree that killed 18 people and wounded 13 others. And in the two-day lockdown that followed, Lewiston High became a command center. Helicopters landed on the grass fields, and police officers met in the school buildings to plan their search for the gunman.
The game, originally scheduled for last week, was a return to routine for the cities after the state’s deadliest mass shooting. It was a chance to celebrate in the open after days of sheltering in place during a terrifying manhunt.
“Long after this game is over, no one is going to remember the score,” said Jason Versey, the Lewiston football coach. “People are going to remember that we came together.”
As players on both teams stretched and dabbed eye black on their cheeks, they were thinking about more than just football. They would play hard, as always. But they weren’t playing only to win.
“It’s definitely more than a game,” said Jeffrey Randall, 16, Lewiston’s starting quarterback. “I see it as the community coming together.”
As the sun set behind the Lewiston bleachers and the field glowed orange, team parents grilled hot dogs as groups of girls teased each other about their crushes. There were pompoms and pep talks as fans yelled themselves hoarse from the stands. From a distance, a normal football game, on a normal Maine autumn night.
But players on both teams knew people who had been shot, or had family who had spent the week on a ventilator. Parents of players lost friends. Everyone knew someone — or knew someone who knew someone. It’s that kind of place.
“I don’t know what normal is going to look like moving forward,” said Jason Fuller, Lewiston’s athletic director, choking back tears. “But this is a step.”
Usually, the players are the stars and take the field first. But this time, they lined up along a walkway — Lewiston on one side, Edward Little on the other — as first responders walked through. Police department after police department walked with firefighters and medical personnel, as players and their fans clapped and clapped, cheering for friends.
After a ceremony honoring the first responders and acknowledging the people who were killed, James Taylor, the Boston-born, Grammy-winning singer-songwriter, walked to midfield with his guitar. He sang the national anthem as players from both teams stood shoulder to shoulder.
An American flag flew at half-staff. Fans removed their Patriot caps, their eyes wet, their hands over their hearts, their community around them.
Posters with the names of the people who were killed hung from a fence behind the end zone.
“We don’t have anything to rally against, so much as we have to rally together,” said Brian DuBois, 53, watching his 16-year-old son, Ben DuBois, make catch after catch for Edward Little.
Beneath the weight of the past week, both teams wanted to win the game. A victory would send Lewiston to the playoffs, and Edward Little hadn’t won a game all year.
At halftime, Edward Little was up 12 to 6. The teams regrouped, strategized and warmed up. Within minutes, Lewiston scored in the third quarter. Then, Lewiston scored again. The cheerleaders picked up the pep as the student section, completely outfitted in blue, got on the bleachers to scream.
“Bringing everyone together gave everyone a little bit of a push to start healing,” said Allie Pineau, 16, to a Lewiston cheerleader, gripping hand warmers beneath her pompoms.
Her father, the deputy fire chief in nearby Topsham, spent that first tense night helping colleagues respond to the shootings. She’s still finding her footing again — confetti poppers set her off.
“This is not something that is just going to pass,” Ms. Pineau said. But going back to school, going back to work, it’s important, she said. “Getting into a routine again will really help people heal.”
Torey Weldon, the cheer coach, knows that fear firsthand. Her husband is a firefighter. Last Wednesday, I texted her to tell her that there was an active shooter. “Please lock the doors. “Love you.” Seven days later she was watching her team on the sidelines.
“This is their way of saying like, ‘You don’t break us,’” said Ms. Weldon, 28, adding, “It’s somehow the universe knew our cities needed this.”
For the last few minutes of the game, Lewiston was 16 points ahead, too far for Edward Little to catch up. In the last few seconds, Mr. Randall, the quarterback, took a knee. He wanted to let the clock run down without trying to run up the score.
He dropped down on the 18-yard line, for the 18 victims, as Lewiston fans cheered around him.