Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
Juan Diego's Bruce Nix is carried by teammate Hingano Latu as the team celebrates his game- winning interception in the end zone to beat Hurricane for last year's title.

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah high school football, an annual rite of autumn where boys become men and men fondly remember being boys, begins anew tonight.

The games reveal a running narrative of prep football composed mainly of head coaches, quarterbacks and high-profile college football recruits.

But outside the spotlight, countless stories of "normal" people quietly come into focus at high school games.

Last year, more than 8,000 Utah high-schoolers strapped on football pads. In honor of those who will strap on their cleats in this newest season of prep pigskin in the Beehive State, consider two compelling storylines at the heart of what makes football special.

For love of the game

From his perch up in the press box at Pleasant Grove High, Timpview offensive coordinator Chad Van Orden plans to get paid tonight — win, lose or draw — as the No. 4 T-Birds look to avenge last year's season-opening loss to the No. 8 Vikings.

"One thing we emphasize with our kids and coaches is (every) Friday's a payday," Van Orden said Thursday. "We're having fun regardless of what's happening.

"I don't know if it's a nervousness as much as a euphoric adrenaline rush. 'Are we prepared? Is our plan that we have in place the right plan? Can we make adjustments?' That part is always fun."

In 1991, Van Orden took the helm as Timpview's head coach. Across 14 seasons, he guided the T-Birds to three state titles and a 138-34 record. After the 2004 campaign, though, Van Orden stepped aside to pursue the possibility of coaching college football. His good friend and longtime assistant Louis Wong succeeded Van Orden as head coach at Timpview.

Despite offers to coach in varying capacities at Alta High, Dixie State and the University of Utah, Van Orden never found a job that felt like the right fit. He continued teaching math at Timpview (Van Orden maintains his coaching demeanor even in the classroom, addressing his math students by their last names) and, with Wong's blessing, comfortably transitioned into a new role as offensive coordinator.

"I never got tired of the football part of coaching," he said. "The tiresome part of being the head football coach is the nonfootball part, and that's the part that I don't miss today, honestly."

With nothing left to prove at Timpview, and having turned down offers to go elsewhere, Van Orden can credibly say he continues coaching the T-Birds because he simply loves doing it.

"Football's special because of the interaction you get with the kids and seeing the kids grow up right in front of your eyes," he said. "They come in as sophomores, and you see how they turn into men in terms of their level of commitment to a team concept and how they become unselfish."

And the band played on

For one week every summer, the American Fork High School Marching Band increases the population of tiny Delta, in Millard County, by about 6 percent when the group of 200-plus students attends band camp there.

This year was different, though. When American Fork's five buses descended on Delta, the caravan stopped at a gravesite before proceeding to camp. Scores of students disembarked and surrounded the final resting place of Heather Christensen, the assistant band director of woodwinds, who died last October in a bus crash on the way home from a band competition at Idaho State University.

"Some of the staff, we toasted her with Dr Pepper, because that was her favorite drink," band director John Miller recalled. "I said a few words, and the kids just had a few moments to lay some things at her gravesite they wanted to, then we hopped in the bus and went to work at band camp.

"There's still some residual emotional effects from some of the kids, but I think they're recovering remarkably well."

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In a way, the scene in Delta symbolizes why 238 American Fork students will spend hundreds of hours this school year rehearsing marching formations and musical arrangements to perform in a handful of competitions and at home-region football games. The band is like a large family, and being part of the band is about much more than just the music — it's about belonging.

"They want to do it because they want to be part of an excellent program that instills discipline and has a tradition of excellence," Miller said. "I think even their parents push them into being involved in the band.

"But I think another reason is the social aspect. These kids immediately, before school even starts, have 230-some-odd friends — and it's a real tight social group. They enjoy the music, they enjoy traveling together, they enjoy working hard together."

Utah high school football by the numbers

8,104: High school football players in Utah during the 2009 season

1993: The year the Utah High School Activities Association moved to its current five-division format that crowns a quintet of state football champions annually

1898: The year the first state championship in football is awarded to Salt Lake High

405: UHSAA-approved football officials (approximately)

100: Utah schools fielding varsity football teams in 2010

$79.99: Retail price of Spalding J5V Advance football, the UHSAA official state championship football

19: Schools that play their home games on an artificial surface

12: Minutes in each quarter of a high school football game

$6: Cost of an adult ticket to a 2009 Utah state championship game

2: Number of times since 1898 that no high school football playoffs took place in Utah (1918: Spanish flu; 1942: World War II)

Source: Kevin Dustin, UHSAA