LEWISTON, Maine — Bob Blanchette gazed through a window in the press box overlooking the football field. It was kickoff time at the annual “Battle of the Bridge” between cross-river rivals Lewiston High School and Edward Little in Auburn. Lewiston’s Blue Devils were facing off against Edward Little’s Red Eddies on their home turf. Lewiston’s record was better, but it was anyone’s game.
In his 35 years as an announcer for Lewiston football games, Blanchette, 75, a retired teacher here, had never seen anything quite like this before. The “Battle of the Bridge” is always well-attended, but Wednesday night — exactly one week after a gunman stormed a bowling alley and billiards bar, killing 18 people and wounding 13 others — was something else.
Players and coaches on both teams lined up as a cavalcade of first responders, hospital workers, and others passed by them. A police honor guard led the line of first responders, some of whom walked with their family members. One officer walked with a police dog.
The bleachers were packed with fans dressed in the school’s blue and white colors — stomping their feet, clanging their cowbells, whistling, cheering, and clapping as Blanchette introduced the first responders who made their way to the 20-yard line.
James Taylor sang the national anthem while strumming an acoustic guitar. “He’s a proud New Englander,” Blanchette said, introducing Taylor.
Will Ferrell had even recorded a video of himself, wishing both teams’ players “a great game.”
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft sent a message of support.
“Tonight two communities come together to celebrate a century-old tradition, the Battle of the Bridge,” Kraft said in a video statement. “Despite heavy hearts, football has always brought communities together, and never had that been more important than right now.”
“The amount of support. The outpouring of devotion,” Blanchette said. “It’s just amazing.”
Lewiston and Auburn are the “Twin Cities,” two former mill towns separated only by the Androscoggin River. But the Oct. 25 massacre had shocked and horrified both communities. Last week, law enforcement staged a command center at Lewiston High during the frantic search for the gunman.
Wednesday’s night game felt like a first step toward “whatever a new normal is,” as Lewiston Public Schools Superintendent Jake Langlais told the crowd before kickoff.
“We might be two separate cities, but we’re really one,” said 54-year-old Tyrone Fulgham, who grew up in Lewiston, graduated from high school here, and now lives in Auburn.
Lewiston and Auburn, known to locals as the “L-A,” are the kind of places where “everybody knows everybody,” he said.
“It’s like six degrees of Kevin Bacon,” Fulgham’s former Lewiston High classmate, 52-year-old Mark Carpenter, added.
Both men had gone to school with a cousin of one of the victims. They had neighbors who had dined that day at Schemengees Bar and Grill. They knew folks who worked at the bowling alley where the shooter opened fire.
As they waited for the game to begin, they marveled at the size of the crowd that gathered, despite the November chill, to honor the first responders and those who died.
“I was coming no matter what,” Fulgham said. “But I knew it was going to be special. You just had to be there.
“You can’t live in fear,” he added. “This is how you rebuild it.”
Lewiston Police Chief David St. Pierre put it this way in his remarks before the start of the game: “It is important to realize that this is more than just a game. It is a symbolic return to unity.”
After the police chief spoke, Blanchette slowly read the names of the 18 victims over his microphone. It took him nearly two minutes to get through them all:
“Tricia C. Asselin. Peyton Brewer-Ross. William Frank Brackett. Thomas Ryan Conrad. Michael R. Deslauriers II. Maxx A. Hathaway. Bryan M. MacFarlane. Keith D. Macneir. Ronald G. Morin. Joshua A. Seal. Arthur Fred Strout. Stephen M. Vozzella. Lucille M. Violette. Robert E. Violette. Joseph Lawrence Walker. Jason Adam Walker.”
“I tried to block it out,” he said afterward, of all the emotion that threatened to overwhelm him as he read each name one by one. But later tonight, when the game is over, Blanchette said, “I’ll probably cry.”
At halftime, the Blue Devils were trailing the Red Eddies, 6-12. But Lewiston turned the tide, said junior Joseph Dube, 17, who plays tight end, receiver, and running back for the Blue Devils, after a sideline pep talk with the team. “We just looked at each other and said, ‘We need to step up. We’re not playing how we play,’” he said.
Lewiston won, 34-18.
For the second year in a row, the team will head to the playoffs. “This game was more than just football. It was special,” Dube said. “It really made my week.”
Kathy McCabe of the Globe staff contributed to this report.