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MIDDLETOWN — From opposite ends of the dirt track that surrounded the football field, Gracie Pachie and Rosie Emerson hit the gas Friday night. Facing each other, about 120 yards apart, the Middletown sophomores kicked their quarter horses in the flank. With the reins in one hand and a pole with the American and California flags in the other, they charged. Leaning forward in the saddle, the wind pinning back their ears and hats, they passed within a few feet of the other.

The bet here is, as they passed both the girls and the quarter horses probably winked at each other.

Over the stadium loud speaker a recording of Lee Greenwood singing "God Bless The USA" was playing.

The girls and their horses went to midfield. At attention along with a color guard from a Navy unit at the U.S. Coast Guard station in Petaluma, they listened motionless as the national anthem was sung. Absent was chatter and giggles in the stands, all too common these days at the singing of that song.

The only thing missing was Mom standing there holding her apple pie.

Nobody around here does homecoming like Middletown High School. That was the first thought.

The second thought: Middletown is bigger than any clerical error.

The people at NCS and the CIF need to remember that. As they listen to Middletown's appeal to overturn the forfeiture of the Mustangs' first two football game, an appeal most likely to be presented Tuesday, they need to remember where the mistake was made and how the mistake was made.

First, this is Middletown, pop. 1,323, Small Town America in every sense, where people wear honesty like an everyday shirt. This is a town where everyone knows everyone's business because, well, everyone likes everyone's business. Middletown is no place to hide, no place to deceive, no place to be nasty to thy neighbor. Old-fashioned values — Lee Greenwood would say if he ever visited here — run like a hot electrical current through every home and business, hill and dale.

"This is something no one would have ever known, it was that small," said Bill Roderick, Middletown High School's principal. "But we self-reported it to NCS because it was the right thing to do. We tell our kids all the time to be responsible for your actions, to own it, that character matters, that integrity matters. How you handle adversity will define greatly who you are.

"So we had to report it because all of us (school staff) had to look at ourselves in the mirror at night. We have to be able to sleep at night."

How was it made?

"Have you attended Middletown High School in the last 12 months?" That was the question on the student-athlete eligibility form. The student, a placekicker, had spent the past nine months at a boarding school in Lake Tahoe. The three months before that he was in Middletown. His family, by the way, never left. So he answered the question truthfully. He had attended Middletown in the last 12 months.

Clearing out his desk early last week, having thrown out every piece of paper, Middletown Athletic Director and Dean of Students Airic Guerrero found one piece at the bottom of the pile. It listed the student as having attended the boarding school. No problem, Guerrero thought. Head coach Bill Foltmer felt the same way. We'll just report it to NCS.

Oops. They found out because transfer papers hadn't been filed on the student, Middletown would have to forfeit its first two games of the season, both victories. Incredulous, they were.

"I don't think the punishment fit the crime," Foltmer said.

It was a clerical mistake. There was no intent to deceive. After all, Middletown is not a football factory. It is something else and it is pretty open about what that is. A pig pen sits 50 feet from the northeast corner of the end zone. A six-acre farm buttresses the eastern edge of the football field.

"You should look at the faces of the city kids who play here during pig breeding season," Roderick said. "They get down to that corner of the end zone and they hear the snorting and..."

This is Middletown Friday night, every Friday night, a gathering place, where people are invested, obsessed not in winning but in the being there.

"I don't understand anything about football," said Allisun Moore, a fourth-grade teacher. "But when the national anthem is sung, and I see the full moon out over the field, and the boys remove their helmets and hold them about their heads, I get complete chills. This is the place to come Friday night."

Friday night football here is the time for the neighbors to catch up, for more rumors to circulate. To the people who live amidst traffic jams and police sirens echoing through the night, Middletown doesn't seem possible. That's understandable.

"And they'll never know unless they come to visit," said Harry Krall, 78, who opened a bar here back in '75.

Unless you call a small town home, what Krall said next will never make sense: "When I moved here, I got to know everyone in two weeks. Now it takes a little bit longer."

Would a big city school allow Jack Barker to be on their sidelines? Barker, 70, had a pacemaker installed in July. Would that be a sign for Barker to end his days as being Middletown's ball boy running hither and yon? Heck no!

"I've been doing this for 33 years," Barker said. "The boys treat me like their brother."

Sentiment runs deep here, deeper than any football season, any record. Small town people grow roots that entwine, experience and compassion locking people together. Middletown doesn't disrespect nor diminish urban areas. There's a place for everyone. But a small town doesn't solicit or require outside approval to feel good about themselves.

"We know we won those first two games," said running back-linebacker Brad Beckworth. "Everyone in this town knows we won those first two games. We were upset at first but we got over it. We wanted to come out (Friday night) and hit El Molino hard. We wanted to make a statement."

It was Middletown, 34-0, at halftime, 48-0 at game's end, with the running clock at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Yes, it was a statement. Middletown is not feeling sorry for itself. People in small towns don't have time for that. They work hard because they have to work hard: The median household income in 2011 was $38,389.

Middletown was founded in 1871 and it hasn't lasted 142 years with a silver spoon in its mouth. Sweat equity has kept the place alive. The people at CIF and NCS should know that. They should know a place before casting judgment.

"I hope common sense prevails," Foltmer said of upcoming appeal to overturn the forfeits.

Rules are necessary, a proper place to start. But rules aren't always the best place to finish.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.